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'Tis the season to be single

December 20, 2018

Uncoupled adults find happiness during the holidays too, says ASU professor

The electric atmosphere of the holiday season often shines a bright light on feelings of togetherness, intimacy and the state of coupledom in festive surroundings. But that light can sometimes bear a refractive quality, casting a glaring spotlight on "lonely" single celebrants in the midst of “cuffing season” — that time of year when people who would normally rather be single find themselves longing to be coupled up like everybody else.

Or do they?

In 2014, one study suggested that there are officially more single adults living in the United States than married adults. And at least one Arizona State University professor says there are actually a great many adults who are happy to be living single.

“Far from being alone, many singles are surrounded by loving friends — their intentional family — during the holidays,” said Elizabeth Brake, who teaches philosophy in ASU’s School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies. “As I share in my book 'Minimizing Marriage,' single people’s friendships can be just as valuable and profound as romantic relationships or marriages.”

Brake even coined a word — "amatonormativity" ­— to bring the conversation to the fore about the unbalanced assumption that everybody wants to be in a romantic relationship. She spoke about this and more in a recent interview with ASU Now.

Question: The holiday season is often seen as a lonely time for singles. Are singles really lonely? Or does the social construct of coupledom pressure feelings of loneliness and isolation among otherwise content singles during the holidays?

Answer: There is no reason for single people to be isolated on the holidays. The stereotype of singles as lonely also overlooks the fact that people can experience great loneliness within marriages and families. One challenge the holidays does bring for singles is running a gauntlet of questions from well-intended family members who assume that singles are yearning for marriage. Another is that some families of origin treat singles differently from married family members — for example, including spouses but not close friends in the festivities.  

Elizabeth Brake

According to researcher Bella DePaulo in her book “Singled Out,” lifelong single women are the least lonely people. It makes sense that lifelong singles experience less loneliness because they find ways to cope and many actually prefer solitude. In fact, DePaulo makes a case that many of the studies that claim to show that singles fare worse than married people actually rely on data that conflates divorced and widowed people with lifelong singles, who are not significantly worse off than married people.

Q: We have seen the studies — more and more Americans are staying single by choice and trends indicate that about 1 in 4 young adults today will have been single all of their lives by the time they reach the age of 50. What do you think is influencing the growing contentment in singleness? 

A: Historically, the trend to more women opting to live outside of marriage was shaped by three changes in the 20th century: the availability of effective birth control, increased opportunities for women to work outside the home and changes to divorce law, making divorces easier to obtain. Greater social acceptability, including more positive media portrayals of single women, and a trend towards living in urban areas likely also contribute.

Q: Younger people, millennials in particular, have been researched as being more likely to stay single longer and also having fewer romantic partners than previous generations. What are some of the dynamics that might be influencing this social change?

A: It’s tempting to speculate about the reasons younger people today are more likely to stay single, but the hard economic facts suggest one clear reason: millennials are worse-off economically than previous generations. To quote this recent study published by the Federal Reserve Board, “Millennials are less well-off than members of earlier generations when they were young, with lower earnings, fewer assets and less wealth.” Researchers have long reported a “marriage equality gap” — people with less money have lower rates of marriage. Not only do people sometimes associate marriage with financial stability — waiting to marry until they are financially secure — the material conditions needed to nurture marriage-like relationships take money: especially, private and stable living arrangements.

Q: When the conversation about singles comes up, the focus seems to be primarily on women. Is being single more of a problem or a burden for women than it is for men?

A: This is a very interesting question. I think the perception that women “suffer” singleness while men enjoy it is based on sexist perceptions about women’s value being tied to their marital status. There is also gender stereotyping associated with sex outside marriage; single men can be “studs” or “players,” but sexually active single women don’t tend to get similar cultural approbation. Because these stereotypical perceptions and expectations shape social interaction, they can create more of a burden for women — e.g. women often report feeling more awkward dining alone in a restaurant.

But contrary to the perception that women benefit more from marriage than men do, the bulk of research showing that marriage benefits spouses shows that its benefits are more significant for men than for women, as Susan Maushart discusses in her book “Wifework.”

Q: You introduced a new idea in the conversation about singlehood several years ago — amatonormativity. What does this mean?

A: Amatonormativity is the value judgment that romantic, sexual couple relationships are more valuable than nonromantic, nonsexual friendships — and that everyone has such a couple relationship as a goal. These assumptions are false, but they shape so many of our social structures and interactions such as the well-meaning barrage of questions like, “When are you going to get married?” from close relatives. Close friendships can involve just as much closeness, care, and responsibility as marriages — and even more than some marriages. People opt to be single for many different reasons, including identifying as asexual and/or aromantic. There are also some people who just have no interest in romantic, sexual relationships.

Q: Your research also explores the culture of polyamoryThe philosophy or practice of being in consensual, intimate relationships with more than one partner at the same time. and the idea of abolishing marriage. What are we seeing more or less of in these two realms than we have seen in the past?

A: In the last decade or so, polyamory has become a much more familiar term. It has a lot more visibility, although social acceptance continues to be mixed. The asexual movement appears to be heading in the same direction, toward more widespread understanding of the fact that not everyone experiences sexual attraction. I think what we’re seeing is other marginalized sexual identities — polyamorists, asexuals, aromantics — calling for equality and recognition as gays and lesbians have.

I don’t myself argue for abolishing marriage, but rather for extending it. But one argument for marriage abolition is that marriage law privileges certain types of relationships — excluding polyamorous groups or networks and close-friend or extended-family relationships from the significant legal protections of marriage law.

Elizabeth Brake is the author of the book "Minimizing Marriage: Marriage, Morality and the Law," published in 2012. She is also the editfor the Journal of Applied Philosophy and has faculty affiliations with the Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics and Barrett, The Honors College at Arizona State University.  

Top photo courtesy Pixabay

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ASU rises in national research rankings

ASU is holding its rank at No. 44 for total research expenditures in the U.S.
Among institutions without a medical school, ASU moved up one spot to No. 8.
December 20, 2018

U.S. National Science Foundation report ranks ASU No. 1 in anthropology expenditures, No. 2 in geological and earth sciences, No. 3 for transdisciplinary research

Continuing on its path as a rapidly growing research enterprise, Arizona State University reported $545 million in research expenditures for fiscal year 2017, up from $518 million in FY16, according to a recent report by the U.S. National Science Foundation. ASU is holding its rank at No. 44 for total research expenditures in the U.S., remaining ahead of the California Institute of Technology and the University of Chicago. Among institutions without a medical school, ASU moved up one spot to No. 8, ahead of Princeton University and Carnegie Mellon University.

In addition, ASU announced that its research expenditures for FY18 now total more than $600 million — a first for the university.

The NSF’s FY17 Higher Education Research and Development (HERD) rankings, its most recent report based on FY17 expenditures, has ASU holding a strong lead among all reporting institutions, including a No. 1 ranking in anthropology expenditures, ahead of Harvard and Stanford universities.

ASU ranks No. 2 in geological and earth sciences, ahead of Stanford University, MIT and Penn State; and ranks No. 3 for transdisciplinary research expenditures, ahead of Ohio State, MIT and Michigan State University. ASU also made significant gains in rankings for expenditures in metallurgical and materials engineering, physics, and visual and performing arts, according to the HERD report.

“For the past 16 years, ASU’s research expenditures have grown exponentially, often exceeding goals and defying expectations,” said Sethuraman Panchanathan, executive vice president of Knowledge Enterprise Development and chief research and innovation officer at ASU. “Surpassing $600 million represents the latest benchmark in our journey to advance knowledge worldwide and translate high-quality research into tangible, actionable solutions.”

2017 research expenditures rankings

Funding research initiatives

ASU receives research funding through several avenues, including businesses and nonprofits, as well as federal, state and local grants.

Since 2002, ASU’s research enterprise has seen enormous growth. The university secured a number of prestigious grant awards from federal institutions, including the U.S. Department of Energy, NASA and the Department of Defense. To support this growth, ASU launched several interdisciplinary initiatives, providing a framework for researchers to build teams that can solve complex global challenges.

For example, ASU’s Biodesign Institute, which launched in 2004, focuses on interdisciplinary research approaches to global health, security and sustainability. Since its inception, Biodesign Institute has attracted more than $740 million in funding.

ASU’s Global Security Initiative, launched in 2015, addresses global security challenges through interdisciplinary research. The team recently received a $20 million award from the Department of Homeland Security to develop tools to improve operations in the department’s component organizations, including the Transportation Security Administration, U.S. Coast Guard, Federal Emergency Management Agency and Customs and Border Protection.

In 2004, ASU established the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability. The institute is the hub of ASU’s sustainability initiatives and research. Experts from a range of disciplines in the natural and social sciences, medicine, engineering, mathematics, humanities and the arts work to solve global sustainability problems. In FY17, sustainability scientists and scholars across ASU accounted for $93 million in research expenditures.

Access and education

ASU’s growing research enterprise provides students with invaluable, real-world experience. For Alexandra Hawes, a sophomore studying aerospace engineering, this means a job as a research aide supporting the $760 million ASU-led NASA Psyche Mission.

Psyche is an asteroid orbiting the sun between Mars and Jupiter. ASU is leading the Psyche Mission, which will launch in 2022, travel to the asteroid and, upon arrival in 2026, give scientists the first up-close view of an all-metal world.

“I will be able to take my experience with developing the remote-sensing controls for the unmanned Psyche spacecraft and apply that to developing remote sensing and navigational control systems for manned space flights in the future,” Hawes said. “Working on the project has helped me understand that NASA leads, partners with, contracts with and cooperates with private- and public-sector organizations, and other nations, to explore space and ultimately expand humankind’s understanding of our role in the universe. For me, working on a NASA mission fulfills my goals to gain technical, interpersonal and leadership skills for my career.”

For Michael Steptoe, a doctoral student studying visualization and predictive analytics in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, ASU’s transdisciplinary structure has been vital to his education.

“When I was an undergraduate, I had no idea what visualization even was, or that it was this hot research field,” Steptoe said. “It was huge for me to learn about it and go into this field. My work allows me to look at data sources and build out decision systems so that decision makers can make informed choices and policy.”

Steptoe is currently working with ASU’s Global Security Initiative on its Department of Homeland Security project.


In 2002, ASU’s expenditures totaled $123 million. Since then, ASU’s research enterprise remains as one of the fastest growing among universities.

Overall, the university has seen extensive growth in sociology, political science, biological sciences, engineering, earth sciences, economics and psychology research.

“Through the application of a comprehensive, strategic approach, we expanded our research footprint while continuing to advance interdisciplinary collaboration that enables our researchers to secure funding and solve global grand challenges,” Panchanathan said. “Our faculty, students and staff are integral to this growth, tirelessly seeking new opportunities for research and discovery.”

The future

ASU is well on its way to its goal of expanding the university’s research enterprise to $815 million in expenditures by 2025. 

A key element to research growth is building advanced and appropriate lab space. ASU has built several advanced research buildings. The latest is the five-story, 191,000 square-foot Biodesign C building, which opened in the fall of 2018. Biodesign C will be home to 80 lead researchers and 400 support staff. Scientists there will tackle major health care and environmental societal issues through its multidisciplinary research centers, including the ASU-Banner Neurodegenerative Disease Research Center, the Biodesign Center for Applied Structural Discovery, the Biodesign Center for Mechanisms of Evolution and several labs from ASU’s School of Molecular Sciences. A new research tool will be completed in the year ahead — the world’s first compact X-ray free-electron laser — a key instrument that can unlock the interaction of molecules and be used in drug discovery and energy research.

Along with expanded research space, ASU also is adding star researchers to its faculty.

ASU’s Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science will launch in 2019. Greg Asner, who will join ASU in January from the Carnegie Institution for Science, Washington D.C., will lead the center.

Asner has been a leader in airborne mapping techniques that help reveal functional diversity and vulnerabilities of various ecosystems and identify targets for conservation. Asner was elected to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (2013) and is a fellow of the American Geophysical Union (2015) and of the Ecological Society of America (2016).

Kathleen Merrigan, former U.S. Deputy Secretary of Agriculture and a leader of sustainable food systems, was named the first executive director of ASU’s Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems in fall 2018. Merrigan brings decades of experience in agriculture, sustainability and food systems to ASU, which will strengthen ASU’s global impact on research, policy and education.

“I joined ASU because of its commitment to inclusivity and collaboration,” Merrigan said. “Soaring rankings and research prowess stem from our dedication to public values. Together with our students, we are designing solutions to society’s most pressing challenges. The work is important and energizing. We are solving problems.”

Top photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now