A Geneseo professor and students research our life experiences to get to the heart of relationships.

By Kris Dreessen


For more than 16 years at Geneseo, Professor of Communication Meredith Harrigan has studied people’s experiences with their families and social circles to gain insight into human behavior and how communication matters.

Her research has examined how parents view and divide household labor (for better or worse), the unique relationships between mothers and daughters, experiences of families formed through adoption or third-party reproduction, and most recently, fears young adults may have that they are missing out on something better (FoMO) in the constant feed of social media.

Communication is key in all these situations. It’s a tool, Harrigan says, and so much more.

“How we communicate and how we interpret others’ messages plays a powerful role in the construction and reconstruction of our personal, relational, and social reailties,” says Harrigan. “So much of our identity is grounded in our communication experience. We convey who we want to be, how we see others, how we think others see us, how we see ourselves, and how we want to be seen by others.”

Harrigan regularly partners with student researchers to gather data from study participants. They conduct interviews in person, asking participants to openly share. Participants aren’t only reflecting on their past as the parent of an adopted child or a partner negotiating who takes out the trash — they are presently living it.

“My research method acknowledges that participants are self-identifying and self-reflecting. They are choosing how to communicate their story. My goal is to be able to get an in-depth and rich understanding of their lived and living experiences,” says Harrigan. “I enjoy thinking carefully and deeply about communication and how my work can support connection and belonging.”

Q: How many individuals have you and your students interviewed over the years?
A: “In my theory and research class, we typically interview 25 to 30 people, and I have taught the course many times.”

Q: Is it difficult to find participants for your studies, and do you ever adapt your methods based on who’s participating?
A: “I have found it is meaningful for people to share. They want to talk. So often we have these experiences but have nobody to talk to. We try to collect data through interviews, but for the most recent study about divvying up household responsibilities, many individuals didn’t have time to do it. So we adapted to their availability and used a survey.”

Q: How have students contributed to your work?
A: “I have collaborated with students in two ways. Many have taken my Theory and Research in Relational Communication course, in which all members study the same topic and contribute to a shared data set. I also work with students on directed studies, some of which have continued the course research, which was the case with the FoMO study. Five undergraduates and I recently published an article about our study of college students’ fear of missing out in the Journal of Applied Communication Research.”

Q: Can you explain your FoMO project?
A: “The idea for the research topic emerged from students in one of my communication classes, and it is one of my favorite studies of all time! They generated the topic in class, and I mentored them as we collected and analyzed data. FoMO — the fear of missing out — is the worry, fueled by social media posts and statuses, that someone you are close to is doing something better. We interviewed 35 peers. While scholars have linked FoMO to adverse effects, including stress, anxiety, and sleep issues, our results suggest it might also support relationship-building and memory-making, which they believe will be important to future happiness.”

Q: What has your FoMO research uncovered?
A: “What the young adults told us indicates that they don’t define FoMO differently, but they make sense of it differently. Emerging adults are challenging traditional ideas of where and how to invest their time. In our larger cultural system, attending college to prepare for your future and a good career has meant dedicating your time to academics and skipping the party to finish a paper. This group of students agrees they are here to prepare themselves for the future — but what it looks like, feels like and sounds like is different. Spending time with friends is preparing them for the future because they believe their friendships will influence their emotional well-being in the future. They don’t want to look back and regret how they spent their earlier days. FoMO is a reminder to seize the day.”

Q: What can your results mean for the future of higher-education culture?
A: “Maybe we need to meet students where they are at and think differently about how we can bring a social element into the classroom. It would require a lot of creativity, but it could be done. If we really want students to learn well, we need to find a way to integrate what we believe is important from our experiences and expertise with how they are making sense of their education, their goals and what is important to them.”

Q: Can people use your process of self-reflection and self-identification in their own lives?
A: “Hearing our own story is a great way to learn about ourselves. For example, share your story about something you are experiencing or need help deciding. Literally record yourself and listen to yourself with headphones. Examine how you portray yourself in the story and ask yourself important questions about how you want the story to go. We need to listen to ourselves more often.”