Focus: The State of Families and Relationships

Focus: The State of Families and Relationships

Mary Holmes, Lynn Jamieson and Alison Koslowski

Jane Austen’s most famous novel begins with the sentence: ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife’. Since the eighteenth century many ‘truths’ about families and relationships have been questioned. Some single men may be in want of husbands and wives can marry wives in an increasing number of countries. Marriage is no longer the only accepted form of couple relationship and cohabitation is widely practiced with little comment. Friendship and kin relationships may be more alike than in the past, more children are born outside of marriage, and overall the ways in which people form relationships and do family has diversified.

Practices of courting, loving, parenting, arguing and more are currently very different from the depictions in Jane Austen. This may seem obvious, given that her depictions were based on the limited context of white, upper class families of England two centuries ago. However, the continued popularity of Austen’s novels worldwide, suggests that many people still recognise her portraits of family life. The task of social scientists has been to theoretically account for these continuities and similarities, as well as changes and differences. They seek to provide empirical evidence of shifts, along with critical evaluation of policies and of practitioner interventions into family and intimate life. Here we undertake a brief review of the current state of the field based on our experience of editing the journal Families, Relationships and Societies over the last year. We outline key concerns and trends, we examine the methodological range as well as gaps in substantive areas and we discuss how thinking about families and relationships could be more broadly conceived, showing its relevance to many other areas of sociology and allied disciplines.

Current trends in Families, Relationships and Societies
Editing Families, Relationships and Societies over the past year confirms that scholarship in the field draws together appreciation of the diversity of forms of family and personal relationships with a more global approach. We see this in the two special issues published during this time. The issue on families, relationships and the environment, for instance, gives insight into how diverse ways of relating can both produce or inhibit the possibilities of a more sustainable and equitable planet. Researchers examining intimate relationships in connection with environmental challenges attend to the global realities of dependence on nature and on others. For example, environmental degradation in the context of colonial violence can mean fewer opportunities for traditional food gathering and this can disrupt family ties and the passing on of cultural knowledge, including about care for the environment.

Whether studying families and relationships within or across national contexts, mapping intersections with consumption, conservation, awareness of biodiversity or orientation to environmental activism is valuable for policy, practice and activist discussions of how to collectively move towards greater sustainability. Looking across different nations can also provide new insights into possibilities for enhancing social equality around intimacy. This is evident in the special issue on violence against women in South Africa, Iran, the UK, and Thailand. Traversing these varied contexts foregrounds the continued impact of gender and other inequalities on intimate lives. The issue also brings direct attention to the way in which migration, and globalisation processes are felt and fuelled through personal relationships.

The journal reflects greater scholarly emphasis on the increasing diversity of family forms. There has been, for instance, a proliferation of work about same-sex relationships, as well as about families formed through assisted conception. This includes evaluation of how radically these ‘new’ forms challenge more established family models. Meanwhile, social policy debates redefine key concepts and reconsider interventions in light of this diversification. Factors such as slowly shifting gendered divisions of household labour are weighed alongside other structural barriers that limit people’s ability to do things differently, such as be an involved father. Diversity also includes class inequalities, which continue to play a part in contributing to poverty and child neglect. The recurrent work of social science explanations is to refute common tendencies to blame individuals and instead focus on social factors and social processes.

The impact of processes of globalization on intimate relationships is a prominent theme in contemporary debates in the field. These impacts include challenges facing transnational families that span cultural and geographical borders and the myriad consequences of migration for intimate lives. The need for further analysis is acute give current mass movements of human beings in the face of intransigent conflicts like that in Syria. Also important, if less visible, is work on interethnic relationships and debates around to what extent they signal assimilation or demonstrate cultural preservation through intimacy. In addition, there are local shifts in subjectivity and intimate practices as more nations, including previously more distinct ones such as China, are arguably, drawn into global society. This brings new challenges for researching intimacy.

Contributors to Families, Relationships and Societies meet the methodological challenges by adopting a wide range of approaches. There are qualitative and quantitative explorations using a range of techniques including questionnaires, longitudinal and multimethod approaches, case studies, ethnography, analysis of memorable life events (MLEs), narrative analysis, systematic analysis of existing research; as well as a variety of kinds of qualitative interviews. Thus the journal provides discussions and exemplars of common thorny methodological and ethical issues of interest to those researching families and relationships.

In terms of broad approaches we suggest that there is much to be gained by more emphasis on social questions relating to families, relationships and societies. Social problems, as the name suggests, refer to aspects of social life seen as having a negative impact on some or all quarters of society. A focus on social problems can serve to pathologise certain family forms or family practices. This was formerly the case with treatment of the ‘problem’ of single parent families, same-sex relationships, female-headed households, and so on. A focus on social problems is not inherently pessimistic, and can be crucial in bringing change by revealing the limitations of what is considered ‘normal’. Nevertheless, in our editorial role, we have pondered the potential of more critically optimistic thinking about different ways of doing family and relationships. Our sense of the field and the journal’s contents suggests that knowledge of intimate life is enriched by efforts to balance accounts of its darker sides with exploration of how it nourishes human life.

In that task, one of the strengths of the journal is its open space section, through which contributions rather different from scholarly academic pieces can be included. This has allowed us to be more responsive to current events, with more immediate accounts of things such as contributor Amir Reza Garmroudi’s visit to ‘the jungle’ refugee settlement in Calais (see also his ‘On the frontline’ piece in this issue). The open space section allows for inclusion of a range of voices and stories less prominent in standard journal content and thus helps broaden our knowledge.

How might our thinking about families and relationships be more broadly conceived?
Many excellent articles have been written focusing on the experience of minorities. Indeed, this is a common point of departure for researchers in the field. In part, this is because many of those interested in families and relationships might be said to be most interested in change and differences more than in continuities and similarities as they look to challenge discrimination and make hardship more difficult to ignore. Within this focus on a minority group, we often also see families and relationships celebrated. A recently accepted paper looking into narratives of disabled mothers in Finland is a good example of this.

An alternative starting point to investigation can also be to explore similarities between individuals, such as a desire for happiness. Such a focus might entail looking for those aspects of intimate life that we wish to maintain rather than change. Theories of change and theories of stability are always difficult to encompass within the same analytical framework, and study into families and relationships is no different. Investigations tend to focus on one of these at the cost of ignoring the other. Challenging existing structures that formalise our relations, as per the debates about the family as an institution, can be extremely fruitful with regard to moving towards a kinder world. For example, moves toward a less gender binary society start to be reflected in how people present themselves. The ‘Transport for London’ announcements have recently been changed from ‘Ladies and Gentlemen’ to the less binary address: ‘Good Morning everyone’. However, just because certain institutions have been oppressive and restrictive, does not mean that the notion of an institution might not still be useful, indeed essential. It is still nice to be addressed politely in the morning.  The challenge is to explore what these new institutions might look like and how they can best serve us. Having achieved a desirable change, how do we make it and keep it as the new status quo?

Lack of exploration into similarities between a wider range of individuals is also linked to the research methods preferred by many of those in the field. Qualitative research methods are often well suited to investigate minority experiences, and these are the methods most favoured by our authors. Quantitative methods, and in particular inferential statistics used to analyse survey data, often aim to explore the prevalence of phenomena within a given population, which can uncover commonalities as well as differences within and between societies. One of the most exciting aspects of this for a social scientist is the possibility to look for trends, and to refute other normatively derived assumptions. The aim is to capture aspects of social life well beyond our own personal communities and to better understand the proportions of people within a population experiencing life in a certain way.

There is a lot of underused, freely available survey data which could tell us more about our families and relationships. It is brilliantly curated by the UK Data Service. In part, underuse of such data is due to researchers lacking certain skill sets, which is being addressed by programmes like Q-Step. Sometimes, it is also due to a reasonable scepticism around the suitability of the data for the research questions posed.  Yet, it would be valuable to see sociological imaginations harvest these data to a fuller extent.

One group who are charged with understanding phenomena at the population level, and thus tend to work quantitatively, are the demographers. At the core of their business lie families and relationships: fertility and how we pair up (or not); our changing life spans and life course; and in association with all these aspects, how we organise caring. The recent European Union funded collaborative grant and network ‘Families and Societies’, was, whilst an interdisciplinary group of researchers, predominantly a demographers’ network. Dialogue and cross-over between qualitative researchers and Demographers remains rare. One way to broaden our horizons in the field could be to try and connect with Demographers and encourage their contribution to our debates.

We would also welcome submissions to the journal that seek to better understand the impact of very recent technologies on our relationships. The arrival of the smartphone has changed how many individuals interact with the world. We occasionally see scenes previously confined to Charlie Chaplin films, people so disconnected from their surroundings, so distracted, that they are bumping into each other with full on tummy and chest bumps! This happens because both are walking along, phone in hand, eyes on phone. While research tells us that people glued to a technological device may also be immersed in off-line relationships, there is more to learn about the impact of technology on power and intimacy and about how virtual life modifies relationships with the ‘real’ present environment, both with regard to the other people around, and indeed other non-human life. We also need to know more about the disconnected connections we are making online, including in the dating world.

There is also potential to do more to extend enquiry into families and relationships beyond friendship and kin and towards the important support we receive from other groups: swimming buddies; people you volunteer with at a hospital cafe; the people in your yoga class or health walk, people you see regularly at the bus stop. These are not exactly friends, but important relationships nonetheless with regard to everyday wellbeing. Then, there are the relationships that we have with work colleagues. Similar to our hobby groups, we may spend much more time with colleagues than we do with family and friends. Colleagues can certainly become very pertinent to our sense of identity as well as important sources of emotional support (and indeed strife) without becoming friends. Building on developing conceptual vocabulary of care, intimacy, kindness or expanding the terms used in relation to ‘love’ would support this expansion of enquiry into a wider range of relationships. Ancient Greek has long been understood (even by the Romans!) as a concept rich language, and indeed we find at least six or seven words (eros, philia, ludus, agape, prayma, philautia, storge) to express different aspects or kinds of love, as well an understanding that you might be unlikely to find all kinds of love in the context of one relationship.  Discussion of relationships can suffer from the relative paucity of the English language in this regard, and directly addressing this might usefully expand our conceptual frameworks for investigating families and relationships. This would enhance what such investigations can offer social science inquiry.

How thinking around families, relationships and societies is relevant to the wider social sciences
It is hard to overstate the wider relevance of families and all kinds of personal relationships to mainstream social science issues. This relevance reaches beyond the territory of overlapping substantive issues, although that is considerable, since families and personal relationships intersect with almost all other domains of the social world: for example, work and employment, social stratification and inequalities, gender, class, race, ethnicity, religion, care, the body, disability, sexuality, time, leisure, home, food, and much more.  However, it is the theoretical relevance of personal relationships, their consequential relationality, that places the topic area at the core of social science inquiry for many social scientists.  The concept of ‘socialisation’ is no longer fashionable as it suggested a naïve view of children as tabula rasa rather than agentic actors but, nevertheless, sense of self, agency, views of the world and trajectories of action are shaped by emotionally charged personal relationships. Whether theoretical approaches emphasise the self as an ongoing accomplishment or an accumulative legacy of embodied emotional dispositions, personal relationships remain significant for capacities and propensities for action, ‘keeping going’ and making our way through the world.

An understanding of families and personal relationships is fundamental to unpacking the dynamic of social change and continuity. Personal relationships are directly and indirectly a key site of potential innovation as well as a site of reproduction of the status quo through the passing on of taken for granted ways of doing consequential things. For example, environmentally consequential ways of shopping or travelling and politically consequential ways of thinking are often shaped in families and personal relationships. This is so even in a world of 24/7 connectivity that exposes people to multiple discourses and often repeated mass media messages.  Face to face and virtual exchanges with our ‘nearest and dearest’ help to filter and modify our take up of the disembodied media messages because they are emotionally charged relationships of trust. The heavy silences, cryptic or casual remarks and animated conversations of personal relationships are therefore potentially informative of possibilities and resistance to change.  Studies of inequality, racism, sexism, as well as studies of radical social movements, environmentalism and activism on behalf of equality are enriched by attending to personal relationships. Indeed, important evidence for these debates should be provided by studies that explicitly address how social divisions such as class, gender, race, religion and sexuality are dealt with in particular families or friendship relationships.

Although, understandings of the dynamic between the global and the local are enhanced by studies of transnational migrant families, separated parent-child and couple relationships remain much more studied than transnational friendships and other personal relationships. Yet, there is much to learn from all relationships across distance and borders.  Studies and research on ‘mixed’ relationships contribute to ongoing debates about the radical possibilities of deliberate blurring of boundaries, categories and subjectivities. Such studies have also strengthened the possibilities of avoiding an ethnocentric analysis that does not recognise its own blinkers. The impending catastrophe of climate change and its differential impact in rich and poor regions of the world means that as social scientists we must understand the possibilities and threats to stretching practical care, emotional attachments and responsibilities over distance and time.

The current Trump and Brexit induced climate of new racisms and sexisms provides good reasons for directly investigating relationships between personal life, public incivility and approaches to strangers.  Some theorists have assumed a zero-sum opposition between deep intimacy in personal life and investment in ‘community’ or friendliness towards strangers. To counter assumptions that close relationships always create boundaries and encourage denigration or ‘othering’ of outsiders, there is much evidence against such implied universal social laws. We need more research on how the interplay between cultural discourse, ‘objective’ conditions and every day relationships shape how people live through, and act in, epiphanies of national politics, like the Scottish referendum, Brexit, the election of Donald Trump or more bloody and terrible historical moments, like the partitioning of India. ‘Act’ here means more than vote but act out or up, ways of participating or lying low, speaking or being silent. It is important to give more attention to everyday living through and acting with friends, families, work colleagues and other acquaintances against the backdrop barrage of ramped up political discourse. This can only add to understandings of social change.  Personal relationships continue to play their part in environments of social exclusion and inclusions, but the trick is to see how and when social context supports cool indifference, malevolent wishing of harm, or encourages small acts of kindness to strangers.


Mary Holmes, Lynn Jamieson and Alison Koslowski co-edit the journal Families, Relationships and Societies.  They all work in the School of Social and Political Science at the University of Edinburgh.