Interview , News of 25 April 2016

SOEP People: Five questions to Katharina Mahne

Katharina Mahne is a Sociologist and Director of the German Aging Survey (DEAS) at the German Centre of Gerontology (DZA) in Berlin. She began her research career as a student assistant in the SOEP 10 years ago. Since then, she has been doing research on social relationships within families. Her current focus is on the relationship between grandparents and grandchildren. She is one of the few researchers in Germany to investigate this relationship on the basis of representative panel data.

What is it about studying old age that’s interesting to you as a young researcher?

There is a widespread preconception that nothing happens anymore when you reach old age. What makes gerontological research so interesting to me is that that’s not the case at all. There are numerous factors ranging from personal living conditions to social environments that affect how people develop over the course of their lives. You can only understand old age by looking at the entire course of life leading up to it. To a certain extent, old age is the outcome of the life lived prior to it.

Since working at the SOEP, you’ve been using panel data sets like the SOEP and the German Aging Survey. What makes panel data special?

What’s special about panel data is that they allow you to trace developments. You can follow individuals over time and gain a picture of society over a historic period, which you can’t do with cross-sectional data. I like to fiddle around with data, so I can get enjoyment out of writing an elegant syntax. Actually, I’m interested in everything about survey research, from interacting with the survey institute to developing the questionnaire.
During your time in the SOEP you worked on developing the mother-child questionnaires …

I had a young child of my own at the time, and when the questionnaires were being developed Jürgen Schupp asked me to take a look at them. He said, “Do they work for you? Do you see your living situation reflected in this questionnaire?” I thought it was interesting that you can’t develop something like that in an office at a desk, but that you have to engage in discussions with others to capture reality with a questionnaire.

You’ve used the SOEP data to look at how the birth of a first child affects mothers’ life satisfaction. What did you find out?

On average, women are more satisfied the year after birth than before, but after that, they end up below their original level of life satisfaction. But that’s just half the story. In my analysis, I found that the number of women who react extremely negatively is much higher than the number of women who react extremely positively. Women who experience the birth of a first child as difficult also take much longer to recover and to have their satisfaction return to its original level. I thought that was intriguing since motherhood is a very normatively framed subject and women are expected to be happy when they have children. But that’s just not the case for everyone.

Since coming to the DZA, your research has dealt with relationships between grandparents and their grandchildren. What influence do grandchildren have on their grandparents’ life satisfaction?

There’s a connection between grandparents’ subjective well-being and the kind of relationships they have to their grandchildren. When grandparents have frequent contact and close relationships with their grandchildren, they are more satisfied, they have positive feelings more often and negative feelings less often, and they are also less often lonely. One could also say that being a grandparent is good for subjective well-being.

When you think back to the start of your research career: Is there any advice you would like to pass on to young researchers today?

What’s important is to think while you’re still a student about whether you want to go into research and to look into research operations and then maybe get a job as a student assistant. That will give you a realistic idea of how research works. And you learn a lot of practical things that are useful when it comes time to apply for your first job.

See our interview in a video in the DIW Mediathek (in German).