The importance of looking at definitions used by the authors

Many of the studies I presented in this blog aim at nothing else than at reporting on the reality. They do not explain, for example, why people live in special family forms, why the fertility rate went down or why the majority in a country share an opinion. Nor do they suggest that the mother should stay at home during the first year of her baby’s life. These studies simply wish to describe the reality as it is. Therefore, we can label them as empirical descriptive approaches. Read more

Family practices

Nowadays it is not easy to define ‘family’ and what it stands for. Let us take the following example: Two persons meet and talk about the family weekend. Although this seems quite straightforward, that what they call family may be quite different indeed. One may be talking about a weekend with her new boyfriend and his son visiting her parents, and the other may have spent the weekend with his wife and children at home.

Even though they both use the word family, these are essentially two different kinds of family. Furthermore, despite pretending, they may not necessarily know what the other one is talking about.

Let us take as an example a patchwork family: How does the child from our example above that is living with his mother and stepfather belong to the new family of the father? What about the relatives, for example the aunt that cares for the children of her brother?

What makes a family? And can we speak of ’the family’ at all?

The concept of family practices introduced by David Morgan, sees family as a quality rather than a thing. There is no such thing as the family, says Morgan, but there are practices which form the family.

The focus is laid not on abstract concepts such as roles, norms, visions, images and values, but rather on everyday practices which could be integrated into the term ”family“: cooking, taking children to school, gardening, even rituals such as repeating the same story about how Aunt Augusta holds the tea pot, how Uncle Paul is a good football player, how grandfather had a car accident are all examples of such practices.

This concept allows diversity to come into the picture. There are a whole lot of tiny habits and practices, exchange of words and looks, which an outsider might not understand, but which ‘belong’ to the family. The question raised is not what a family is composed of and whether family members adequately perform their roles as if on stage showing that they are a family, but rather which practices people use and understand as an essential part of their family.

What follows from this concept of family practices?

First of all and most essentially, there is not one ideal model of family but instead many ways to live the family life. Thus, it would be inappropriate to call one the best model or the only one that everybody should cling on to. We learn that family is not naturally given; it is dependent on the historical situation and on the specific cultural background. Within this frame people define a specific family form. For instance, certain family forms are nowadays more acceptable than others.

Secondly, the concept allows us to show what actions are taken to define the family. These actions need not be practices which are directly connected to the family: commuting from family home to work can also be seen as a practice of ‘work’ and a practice of ‘family’.

Thirdly, this has consequences for dealing with family issues: these issues are not only those which we directly connect with family but are everything people use to give it a meaning for their family. Commuting, as already mentioned, the conversation with work colleagues about the last family holiday, the payment of nursery school fees and discussing what might impact on the quality of care offered are all examples of such family issues and encompass even those minute details such as the type of pavement on the street along which the buggy is pushed or considering how products are placed on supermarket shelves. Family policy therefore needs to deal not only with the so-called family issues; it is rather much more cross-sectional.

To look at family practices opens our mind to different forms of living, showing at the same time the restrictions made by values and norms and by our cultural heritage as some of us find certain forms of family more appropriate than others. We understand our opinion not as naturally given but as historically made. We therefore need to learn to observe rather than to judge prematurely.


Why “doing family” is at stake

Today we experience a shift from the family as a group with well-defined roles to a more or less close network of individuals: mother, father and child, grandparents, stepfathers and stepmothers, siblings and even very close friends all form the network. They are all part of the network that is continually established and re-established in such a way that it best symbolizes their specific family. Read more

Perspectives of looking at families

Like photographers, who may use a wide angle or close up and may take the same object from different standpoints and the individual photographer might be known for his style, social scientists usually are committed to specific paradigms. Paradigms are very specific perspectives to look on societies, they can consist of numerous theories.

We can distinguish three principal paradigms within social sciences: the paradigm of social order, of social action and of distributions.

Read more

Effects of employment breaks on women’s career

A study carried out in the ‘90s compared data on the impact of discontinuous work histories of young women (up to the age of 36) in Germany, Sweden and the US asking the following question: Does a disruption in work history, be it for family reasons (parental leave or homemaking), reasons of unemployment or any other reason except education lead to a downward mobility in the labor market? Read more

Why employers should fight for parental leave

In Europe, most of the countries offer well over twelve months of parental leave, often fully or partly paid. As this sounds attractive for the parent, it has consequences for the life course. For mothers it leads to a “motherhood penalty”: the life-long income drops significantly. Men are less affected, mainly because they take parental leave for a few weeks or not at all.

Negative consequences in the economic field for the parents need not be necessarily so. Parental leave can be seen as training for the job and therefor an advantage for the working place. I am thinking of the managerial skills that are trained. Parents have suddenly to be able to re-organize their lives.

They have to learn to be flexible, orient their needs to the needs of the newborn. Being a parent means permanent changing situations as children grow up, consequently a permanent adoption to change. As mothers are –it seems to me: worldwide – the main providers of care, they are especially trained.

It starts from the very beginning: parents will be occupied by identifying and fulfilling the needs of the newborn. They also have to set limits. Toddlers have to be looked at when starting to crawl and walk. Later on, parents will take their children to the kindergarten and to school, accompany them to a football match or to gymnastics and music classes. When their children feel nearly grown up—but are not— parents might receive a phone call in the early hours of the morning to fetch them from a disco.

The distance between the family home and the school or the playground, between work and the post office or supermarket and their opening hours, drop off and pick up times, all of these, structure the day, requiring parents to develop strategies for overcoming such space and time constraints.

To balance school requirements with leisure activities and family life asks for coordinating fathers, mothers, and siblings, not to speak of relatives and friends, considering their personal interests. Going out for dinner, attending a performance in the theater, just meeting friends and sit together – all of this needs management.

Parental leave should be considered by the employer as an investment in further education. The return can hardly be overestimated. Parental leave trains management skills. Parents increase their social competence. They also contribute to stability within the job, as parents might be less inclined to change the firm.

Just calculate: what would the costs for the employer to train employees in those skills be, parents gain quite naturally through caring for the family and the children? What would one-year leave for further education in social competencies and management tasks cost if it has to be paid by the firm?

There cannot be a rationale to oppose parental leave, for mothers and fathers,  from the economic side.


Which income models are preferred in European countries?

Who should earn money and who should take care of the housework? Mother, father or both? And in which way?

Researchers followed the opinion on the desirable division of housework in five European countries: Denmark, Finland, Germany, Poland and Sweden, drawing on data from the International Social Survey Programme 2012 testing the opinion on parental leave and work division. Read more