Graduating PhD Student Spotlight: Shelly Volsche

Nov. 13, 2017

PhD graduate student Shelly Volsche recently defended her dissertation as the final part of her doctoral education! Her project focused on using long term participant observation to study how people choosing a child free life practice and negotiate their identities in their lives. Details of her project are below and we would like to congratulate (soon to be) Dr. Volsche!


If you would like to discuss this topic or other research, please email at




Setting the Childless Free: An Ethnographic Study of the Practice of the Childfree Identity




Heeding Sherry Ortner’s call to turn anthropological analysis inward, toward one’s own culture, Volsche’s dissertation sought to understand the identity and practice of the voluntarily childless (hereafter “childfree”) movement in the United States. How do these individuals practice their identity, and how does the identity of “childfree” interact with other roles in their lives? How do they build meaning in a society that emphasizes children as a hallmark of adulthood? What other outlets do childfree individuals have for the “nurturing” tendencies of our species?


Nearly two years of participant observations in social media communities, regular analysis of online essays and media sources, and 30 semi-structured interviews provided deeper insight into the daily lives of these individuals. Despite media claims that the childfree choice is unique to white, heterosexual, middle-class women, Volsche found the population included men and women of various ethnicities, sexual orientations, nationalities, and socioeconomic groups. Likewise, it appears this is a population that is cross-culturally significant.


Situated in the postmodern era with the rapid idea sharing of social media the transition from childfree lifestyle to childfree identity is a symptom of the broader identity politics common in a world connected at the speed of thought. The resulting dissertation provides a description of the conversation between the childfree and the dominant voice of parents, highlighting the rise of a new, parallel norm of choice. Accordingly, the struggle over identity definitions appear to be causing a schismatic fracturing of the community as the population increases.