New Grant Funds Wilcox Study of Marital Generosity

September 30, 2010

Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on this story by Brevy Cannon:

September 30, 2010 — If you are generous to your spouse, with a record of costly sacrifices for him or her, are you more likely to be similarly generous outside your marriage? Or is there only so much giving to go around?

These are among the questions that University of Virginia sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox will investigate, backed by a $150,000 grant from the University of Notre Dame's Science of Generosity Initiative.

He will examine how the generosity of spouses toward one another and others is influenced by beliefs and behaviors related to religious faith, gender and "familism" – a strong normative commitment to lifelong marriage and fulfilling family obligations.

Breaking new ground, Wilcox said, the study will systematically explore how generosity affects the quality of married life. No existing scholarship, he added, has considered how the family, secular and gender revolutions of the last half-century have affected generosity (inside and outside of marriage) in the United States.

The grant will fund a detailed Internet survey of 1,500 married couples, aged 18 to 45, from across the U.S.

Wilcox's research proposal was selected as one of 13 grant winners from among almost 700 proposals vying for $2.8 million in funding.

"These 13 projects gradually emerged as the most scientifically rigorous and promising we have seen. They are led by top-notch researchers and address a variety of important questions from diverse perspectives," said Christian Smith, William R. Kenan Professor of Sociology at Notre Dame and director of the generosity initiative. "I'm certain that we will learn a great deal about generosity from their work."

For the "Foundations of Marital Generosity" project, Wilcox, a sociology professor in U.Va.'s College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, and director of the National Marriage Project at U.Va., will collaborate with Jeffrey Dew, a professor of family studies at Utah State University and formerly a postdoctoral research associate at U.Va.

The "Foundations of Marital Generosity" project was partly inspired, Wilcox said, by a theory put forward by colleagues Young Kim, a recent Ph.D. graduate, and Krishan Kumar, a professor and chairman of U.Va.'s sociology department. Their theory suggests that spouses who embrace familism may focus on being generous in their marriages to the exclusion of being generous to others outside of their family circle.

"There may be a zero-sum relationship between generosity in marriage and generosity outside marriage, with marriage-minded couples less likely to volunteer in their local communities," Wilcox said.

A competing "virtuous circle" theory holds that generosity within a marriage begets generosity outside the marriage, and vice versa. The planned survey will provide new evidence with which to weigh those theories.

The project defines generosity in marriage as going beyond the common obligations of marriage such as fidelity, clear communication, ordinary affection and housework. Rather, generosity towards one's spouse involves regularly attending to the practical and emotional details of family life, routine forgiveness and making costly sacrifices.

Generosity outside of marriage includes volunteering for civic organizations, financial giving and other forms of helping others.

Established in 2009 with a $5 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation, Notre Dame's Science of Generosity Initiative brings together the often disconnected and diverse approaches to generosity studies in order to study generosity in all its forms.

— By Brevy Cannon