When we hear of someone being called a "hero"—as is common these days—that person has committed an act of courage, most likely saving a life or lives. In real-life examples, heroes have protected children from the Nazis, volunteered to monitor the Fukushima nuclear power plant during and after its meltdown, or attacked potential hijackers. Heroes have also participated in civil rights protests, donated a kidney, or even just stood up to a bully.
Amir Marvasti, associate professor of sociology at Penn State Altoona, is studying the meaning of courage, calling it "a noble quality we all aspire to." While everyone understands the word "courage," however, he says, "there is a lot of diversity in the way people define 'courage.'" The response "varies by age and life experience." he says. His own definition: "To me just the act of putting on a police uniform or a firefighter's uniform is a heroic act. Even if they never actually do something that might make the news, the fact that they're putting themselves in that position is heroic."
For his research on the meaning of courage, Marvasti chose an initial subject sample of 100 students, who were asked, "What's the most courageous thing you've done in your life?" One of the most powerful answers he received was from a nontraditional student whose teenage son was battling leukemia, who wrote: "We just try to keep life normal. But I walk in his room every night, and sometimes I just catch myself looking to see if he's still breathing. You always want your children to bury you. You never want to ever, ever wonder if you'll have to bury your children. That's courageous. To be that type of person, to be that type of parent, to raise these types of children. People ask me all the time: 'How do you do it?' I don't know. I don't know how not to. How do you not? You can't just throw him away and start all over again. You suck it up and you just go through life, and deal with what life hands you. Courage comes in many different packages. It manifests itself in different ways."
Variations in the meaning of courage are particularly apparent when respondents are divided by gender. Marvasti notes. "For females [courage] is more likely to be a chronic state of mind, embedded in relationships," such as "raising children, committing to a family. That's admirable." But such acts are not usually acknowledged as, say, a rescue from drowning. Marvasti admits: "Not to take anything away from male students who typically spoke of things like running into a burning building to save someone, but both should be recognized. We have a lot of ways of recognizing masculine courage but not feminine courage." He is aware, however, that society is changing. "My daughter, a third-grader, shared a certificate of courage she received for being a good citizen, good listener, good friend. Taking those kinds of measures at her school was very 'encouraging.'"
Sociologists study human relationships from many angles, so it is no surprise that Marvasti's research areas are diverse and yet connected. "My broad research agenda overall is about deviant identities outside the mainstream, how those selves are presented to other people in public, and how those selves are maintained and even normalized, how people who are different get along with others." Among his numerous articles and books is Being Homeless: Textual and Narrative Constructions, which explains how homeless peoples are different from the general population "on a number of dimensions, [such as] social class, poverty, mental health issues, and substance abuse."
Another book, Middle Eastern Lives in America (coauthored with Penn State Altoona professor Karyn McKinney), "looked at Middle Eastern people after 9/11. We acquired the book contract just before 9/11 and of course it became all the more relevant." He says much of the research for that book "came through snowball sampling, from our existing contacts to others who were referred to us." He has also written an article on the meaning of diversity and "does diversity mean assimilation?"
How does one get from studying the homeless and diversity to finding a definition for "courage"? Marvasti says, "A turning point in my research was moving away from difference to how these differences could coexist in the context of a larger community. That's how I turned my attention to the meaning of courage as a potentially universal experience." The results from his initial research have made him want to delve further. "What I'd like to do is collect a larger sample, to reveal a pattern of some sort." Whether it is courage, cultural diversity, ethnic identity, or homelessness, Marvasti says that his teaching and research are about "how different people get along with each other in a larger social context; it's about what makes society possible and how we can make it a better place for everyone."
This story appeared originally in Penn State Altoona's Research & Teaching magazine.