Personal Life

Personal Life

New directions in sociological thinking



Copyright © Carol Smart 2007

The right of Carol Smart to be identified as Author of this Work has been asserted in accordance with the UK Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

First published in 2007 by Polity Press

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List of Illustrations




A Sociology of Personal Life


The Cultural Turn in the Sociology of Family Life


Emotions, Love and the Problem of Commitment


Connections, Threads and Cultures of Tradition


Secrets and Lies


Families we Live with


Possessions, Things and Relationality




Index of Names

Index of Subjects

List of Illustrations

Plate 1.1

My paternal grandparents

Figure 2.1

Overlapping core concepts

Plate 5.1

Gertrude in her prime

Plate 5.2

My maternal grandfather

Plate 5.3

My aunt at a cabaret rehearsal, Paris 1932

Plate 5.4

Society wedding


I am indebted to my colleagues in the Morgan Centre for the Study of Relationships and Personal Life at the University of Manchester for providing the immensely supportive and intellectually exciting context within which I was able to write this book. In particular I wish to thank Jennifer Mason, Brian Heaphy, Vanessa May, Wendy Bottero and Dale Southerton who have all contributed substantially to my understanding of personal life. Other forms of intellectual support have come from colleagues whose work has been inspirational, including David Morgan, Janet Finch and John Gillis. Those with whom I have worked on previous research projects must also be acknowledged for their intellectual generosity and hard graft. These include Bren Neale, Amanda Wade, Beccy Shipman and Jennifer Flowerdew. And, in addition, I want to give thanks to the ESRC, the Nuffield Foundation and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, all of whom have funded the various projects drawn upon in this book, and to the University of Manchester for allowing me time to write. Finally my most personal thanks go to John Adams.


Some years ago I became the keeper of my family’s photographs. I ‘inherited’ them from my mother, whose main reason for keeping them seemed solely that she hated throwing anything away. They were not cherished but thrown together in no order at all in a large carrier bag. My mother was not the sort to spend time putting photos in albums with helpful captions and dates. Having inherited them I then found I could not throw them away either and so they lived for about two decades in the same plastic bag until I was left another batch from a maternal aunt – this time kept with slightly more reverence in an old sewing box. I was prompted to start sorting them, a task as yet unfinished. In the processes I found myself going through a journey of the imagination, of memory, of emotion and of history. I found photographs of relatives I had never met and of whom I had only the dimmest knowledge. Take the couple overleaf whom I know to be my paternal grandparents. They died when my father was twelve years old and all I know about them is that my grandfather was a butcher with a stall on Harrow Road in West London sometime after the First World War.

I found myself trying to imagine their lives and to read into the photograph whether they were happy or not, whether their lives were very hard or reasonably comfortable, whether they were respected members of their community or not. On the third point I have to confess that the photograph conveys an ambivalent relationship with respectability. I suppose one can say that at least they are standing outside the (more respectable) ‘Saloon Bar’ of the public house rather than the (rougher) ‘Public Bar’. My grandfather is wearing a suit and my grandmother sports a hat – it must be a Sunday afternoon. But he looks distinctly shifty, possibly even a bit menacing, perhaps because of his fedora (hat), the creases in the suit and the manner of cupping his cigarette to his lips. Her coat has seen better days, while her hat and shabby fox stole suggest a certain working-class flamboyance not exactly associated with (refined) feminine respectability. Moreover, they are pictured together outside a pub (not a church or more salubrious venue) and my grandfather’s slightly louche pose against the door frame suggests that he was a regular, definitely familiar with the place.

Plate 1.1 My paternal grandparents

I love this photograph. Whenever I look at it I wish I could step into it and back in time to ask them questions or merely to observe them. I do not, of course, feel like this about any old photograph, so this is not a generalized desire. The only reason I want to step back to be near these people is because I believe them to be related to me and this sense of connectedness across the generations means I want to know more about them, their daily lives, their feelings, their views, their aspirations and so on. These people are so (apparently) different from me and yet also connected. I can envisage this as a link that comes through my father to me in the form of small physical resemblances, or in terms of shared genes, knowing that some (almost) invisible, intangible part of them is somewhere alive in me. Alternatively my connection with them can be construed through place, because they lived and died in the same area of London in which I was brought up. Or I can understand the connection in terms of my own upbringing, since they raised my father (at least until their early deaths) and I therefore enjoyed (or endured) the kind of parenting that their practices had induced in my own father.

Although I feel all these things and these emotions are real to me, I also know that these connections and impressions are largely works of personal/cultural fiction. What I have expressed here in personal terms, I know to be a cultural phenomenon and that these (and similar) experiences are being felt at the same time by many people who have become interested in genealogy and family history in late modern societies. Sociologically speaking, I am part of a minor social movement; both interest in and sentimental feelings about the past of one’s family is heavily encouraged by the family heritage industry as well as by new technologies such as the world wide web and online census and historical data banks. At a more subtle level I also understand that memories, for example of my own childhood and those ‘implanted’ by my parents of things that occurred before I was born, are part of a sense of self. Dealing with family photos is not simply a hobby, but part of an active and culturally specific production of the self. It is therefore possible not only to know that feelings are constructed and plastic, but to work with them and find meaning in them. It is this relationship between knowing (or thinking we know) how cultural and social practices are brought into being and sustained, and being part of the culture and the historical moment, that provided one of the main intellectual motivations for me to write this book. In other words I wanted to write sociologically about relationships and connectedness while remaining grounded in, and even working with, the kinds of real feelings generated by relating to others. I wanted to move out of the flat world of most sociological accounts of relationships and families to incorporate the kinds of emotional and relational dimensions that are meaningful in everyday life. I felt it was no longer appropriate to reflect upon ‘other’ people as if being a sociologist entitled one to be apart from these cultural shifts, emotional tides and personal feelings. It is true that the sociologist should not assume that what s/he feels and experiences is common to all, but I am suggesting a more reflexive engagement than this would imply. I also wanted to capture the importance of the past and of imagination to the living of family life and relationships. Although, following David Morgan (1996), I acknowledge that family is what families do, I also think we need to explore those families and relationships which exist in our imaginings and memories, since these are just as real. In the past this realm of imagination was construed sociologically as the work of dominant ideologies; attachment to ideals of family and kin connectedness were understood in terms of false-consciousness or class interest. This prompted a focus on the material and on social action rather than mentalities. Understanding the realms of yearning, desires and inner emotions in different ways has opened up a whole new domain for thoughtful exploration.

My relationship with this book is therefore distinct from those I have had with previous volumes that I have authored or coauthored. My motivation to incorporate dimensions that I think have been overlooked or understated comes, as I suggest above, partly from my own reflexive engagement with kith and kin. This does not mean that I have written only about what matters to me. On the contrary I have tried to stretch the reach of the sociology of family life beyond established boundaries. So this is not a book about my feelings or experiences. It is motivated by of my experience that a lot of sociology, and most particularly recent theories of individualization, do not capture sufficiently the richness of the life world. An equally important reason for writing slightly differently this time has come from experiences arising from engagement in a significant number of qualitative research projects over the last ten years. I came to feel that the lives of ordinary people were being flattened out and that I was in part complicit in this. Although in these various projects we sought to do justice to the lives we described and analysed, I am not sure that I then had sufficient analytical tools available. Too much was left on the cutting-room floor, so to speak. And so in this book I have revisited a number of these projects, re-examining some of the interviews we carried out in search of further ideas and dimensions. I do this with a ‘light touch’, by which I mean that I do not report fully on these projects as that would deflect from my main purpose. In returning to these stories, I aim to allow expression to some of the less tangible elements of the relational lives of those to whom we spoke. I have felt it necessary to change the names and some of the details in these accounts for the sake of anonymity, but I have tried not to alter the cultural meanings and signifiers. Through this I strive to do something new in providing a conceptual framework for the ways in which we can develop different analytical approaches for understanding and capturing personal life sociologically. I map out overlapping core concepts with which it should be possible to frame more subtle research questions in order that feelings, emotions, memories, biographies and connections do not remain afterthoughts but can be built into original research questions.

Finally I have a small confession to make. As with many long writing projects, especially those of an exploratory nature, sometimes the scope, reach and meaning of the text become apparent to the author only towards the end. This has been my experience with this book. Although I had certain clear goals (namely the critique of theories of individualization, the construction of alternative conceptual frameworks, the introduction of different fields of enquiry and so on), for me the act of writing is a form of engagement in which ideas change even as they appear on the page. What is more these ideas do not appear on the page without struggle: they slip about and move out of sight; they refuse to take shape and then, when they do, the shape often turns out to be quite wrong. So the idea of defining a conceptual field known as personal life was not my original intention; this emerged partway through the writing. This inevitably means that the project is unfinished. Having completed the groundwork, I now feel there is so much more work to do. I hope to continue with this theme in the near future; perhaps this book will be followed by Personal Life, volume 2. But in the meantime I have yet more photographs to sort out.


A Sociology of Personal Life

In this chapter I formulate an argument for developing a sociology of personal life which can embrace what has traditionally been known as the sociology of the family and the sociology of kinship but also more recent fields such as friendship, same-sex intimacies, acquaintanceship, relationships across households, and cross-cultural relationships. I suggest that this field is not simply a convenient ‘holdall’ for old and new empirical areas of study, but also a way of bringing together conceptual and theoretical developments which now seem too uncomfortable when squeezed into the existing terminologies of families or partnering or parenting. Sociology has periodically tried to rid itself of the conceptual and political straitjacket that the concept of ‘the family’ imposes, either by talking instead of ‘households’, or by introducing ‘families of choice’, by preferring the term ‘kinship’, or by conceptualizing relationships more in terms of practices than institutions or structures. These shifts in terminology and the conceptualizations that accompany them have loosened the constraints and have allowed the old terminology of family to become less rigidly identified with the idealized white, nuclear heterosexual families of Western cultures in the 1950s. However, it seems clear that in spite of these advances, the terminology of family (whether plural or not, chosen or not), and the other specifications of kinship or household, still prioritize biological connectedness and/or physical place. The term ‘family’ generally conjures up an image of degrees of biological relatedness combined with degrees of co-residence. Yet we know that people relate meaningfully and significantly to one another across distances, in different places and also when there is no pre-given genetic or even legal bond. These relationships may be described as ‘networks’ because this term is not evocative of a particular place and it also allows for fluidity in membership. But that term robs the concept of relationships of much of its emotional content and certainly does not invoke the special importance of connectedness, biography and memory in how people relate to one another. So it seems to me important to start to conceptualize a different field of vision in which families appear, but where ‘the family’ is not automatically the centrepiece against which other forms of relationship must be measured, or in whose long shadow all research is carried out. In sketching out this field of vision I neither fill in every contour, nor make every conceivable connection. Rather I aim to illuminate spheres and issues which make up the most significant elements of a newly conceived field of personal life. As I say in my introduction, this is not a finished project but a starting point. However, before arriving at my discussion of the ideas that constitute this field, I feel it is necessary to sketch the intellectual terrain covered thus far and, in particular, to explore the theoretical stresses and strains that have been part of long-term academic (and political) discussions of family life, and most especially since Anthony Giddens published his Transformation of Intimacy in 1992 and Ulrich Beck and Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim their Normal Chaos of Love in 1995.

Residues, traces and heritage: the sociological battle over the family

‘Family research is only gradually waking up from its drowsy fixation on the nucleus of the family’ (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim, 1995: 147). This polemical remark is somewhat inaccurate but for our pur-poses here it captures the issues which have formed a long-standing tension in the area of the sociology of family life; namely the tension between broad, generalized theoretical statements and small-scale, detailed empirical research. The battle between these approaches, which has reintensified since the mid-1990s, has taken a number of forms, occasionally almost finding a resolution and then breaking out into a form of academic warfare again. At the risk of oversimplifying the picture, it might be possible to say that broad theories of family life have been developed in relation to the trends in mainstream sociological theorizing, hence there have been functionalist theories (Parsons and Bales, 1955), Marxist theories (from Engels to some feminist work), feminist theories, and risk and individualization theories (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim, 1995). These approaches have developed as explanations of social change and social relationships rather than specifically in relation to family life, but have then been applied to explanations of the kinds of family change often ‘revealed’ in large-scale surveys and social statistics. As Brannen and Nilsen (2005) argue, these are not grounded theories because, although they may use some empirical research to supplement or support the core arguments, the driving intellectual force is deductive rather than inductive. On the other hand, empirical work on family life, especially the qualitative variety, has usually been small-scale, local, interpretive and averse to generalizations. Because such work has focused on particular groups of families in, for instance, the East End of London (Young and Willmott, 1987, orig. 1957), or Swansea (Rosser and Harris, 1983), or has selected special or minority groups such as Pakistani families (Shaw, 2000), same-sex couples (Weeks et al., 2001) or step-families (Ribbens McCarthy et al., 2003) it has rarely had an impact on sociological Thought (with a capital T). Taken together such studies have undoubtedly influenced sociological thinking and also methodology, but individually none of these appears to have set the sociological agenda or to have become the focus of intense debate.1 Instead it is possible to see a kind of pattern developing since the 1950s in which there have been phases of grand theorizing in which understandings of family life are linked to wider social forces (industrialization, capitalism, post-war social order/functionalism, patriarchy and latterly globalization). Then, in the wake of these theories, empirical research sets about testing whether these explanations apply in specific circumstances or to particular groups. None of these studies can ever hope to ‘prove’or ‘disprove’the grand explanation, but they can either bolster or chip away at their credibility. In the main their efforts go unnoticed by the grander theoreticians. This is because general theories (and their authors) do not claim to explain ‘detail’. So to complain that they misrepresent specific families, or that they oversimplify family life and relationships, is really only to state the obvious. Yet such theorizations do have to be challenged because they are not simply free-floating ideas, they have an influence on the kinds of sociological understanding which come to predominate and on the wider political and policy processes which take such depictions and explanations as truths around which policy decisions should be framed (Brannen and Nilsen, 2005; Smart, 2005b; Lewis, 2001). It is also possible to argue that certain sociological theories enter into everyday understandings of family life and family change such that they start to frame the context in which people in general experience their families – or at least how they perceive other people’s families. As Brannen and Nilsen argue:

When theoretical concepts are not grounded in local contexts they more easily lend themselves to rhetorical purposes and can take on an ideological aspect. [. . .] When such theories chime with dominant political discourse, they feed back into that society and gain even greater ideological and rhetorical power. (2005: 426)

Of course not all sociological theories and concepts necessarily become popular and Brannen and Nilsen suggest that for this to happen there needs to be a fit between the emergent concepts and a dominant political philosophy at a given time. The focus of their criticism is individualization theory’s emphasis on the individual and on choice, which they see as chiming with neo-liberal ideologies of Western governments such as New Labour in the UK. However, before looking more closely at arguments over individualization, I endeavour to trace a longer history to the debate between broad theoretical work and smaller-scale empirical work in the area of family life. I consider early ideas and concepts and the tensions that arose as they became persuasive or dominant, as well as the ways in which concepts and ideas came to influence empirical work and also how empirical studies themselves – through the development of grounded theories – came to influence sociological thinking.

The great debates

Perhaps the most significant of these debates around family life have been those between (1) ideas of the demise of the extended family and the rise of the ‘modern’ nuclear family; (2) the decline of marriage as an economic contract and the rise of companionate relationships between spouses; (3) the changing status of childhood and the growth of child-centredness; (4) and latterly the decline of the nuclear family and the rise of fluid family practices.

The first of these, based in social history as much as sociology,2 concerned the argument between two groups: those who felt that industrialization had changed the family, turning it from an economic unit of production with many children, strong kinship ties and embracing several generations into the small nuclear family of two parents and two children, cut off from kin and operating more as a unit of consumption; and those who point both to the continuation of extended kin networks in certain regions and in certain minority groups and to the lack of co-resident kinship groups before industrialization (Laslett, 2005, orig. 1965;3 Macfarlane, 1979). Both sides of this debate have deployed empirical evidence, so it is not entirely accurate to depict the conflict simply in terms of grand theorizing versus empirical research, but nonetheless the former did generalize from certain trends and ultimately did see one type of family as being inevitable under con-ditions of industrialization and capitalism. The most tenacious in this approach were Talcott Parsons and Robert Bales (1955) who, through the framework of structural functionalism, explained changes to ‘the family’ in terms of the needs of modern capitalist societies. Thus they argued that the economic order came to require small families, with a high investment in fewer children, a clear division of labour between husbands and wives giving rise to efficiency in the labour market, and with the family as a unit of consumption rather than production which in turn suited the capitalist economy. Parsons and Bales saw the decline of the influence of the extended family as a ‘good thing’ because it allowed for the rise of meritocracy in place of nepotism; in their schema the small, nuclear family was morally superior as well as more efficient than the traditional extended family. Some fifty years or so later the ‘new’ nuclear family in Parsons and Bales of course became – in contemporary collective imaginings – the traditional family. Thus when critics of contemporary family forms warn of dire consequences stemming from the demise of the traditional family, they now often mean the nuclear married family; when Parsons and Bales were referring to the traditional family, however, they meant the pre-industrial extended family. Thus the concept of the ‘traditional family’ moves and reconfigures itself depending upon which discourse is being deployed at a given time. And, as I argue below, this blurred notion of the traditional family has cropped up again in later theories of individualization.

The second debate, about the rise of the companionate marriage, is also one that moves across decades and seems to have no very precise historical location. Thus Edward Shorter (1976) sees a long history to the development away from marriage as an alliance of families and domestic economies towards marriage as a form of partnership and companionship. As Leonore Davidoff et al. suggest: ‘The popular perception is that the first to embrace the ideals of companionate marriage, separate spheres, innocent childhood and small families were the middle classes as they emerged from industrialization’ (1999: 18). Yet later they argue:

The growing belief in equality between partners, with husband and wife playing different but complementary roles, was an important element in the development of the ‘companionate marriage’ [. . .]. Promoted in the 1920s, as an argument for legalized birth control and divorce by mutual consent for childless couples, and reinforced even more strongly in the 1950s, this model was based upon the ideas of an exclusive emotionally and sexually intimate relationship between a man and a woman, satisfying to both partners. (1999: 190)

Companionate marriage (always a classed concept) therefore seems to have its genesis in the early nineteenth century, but with flashes of intensity in the 1920s and 1950s (Finch and Summerfield, 1991). A revival of a very similar idea comes with Giddens (1992) and his concept of confluent love and the pure relationship. The idea that this is something both new and caused by recent social changes and the growth of individualization is also adopted by Beck: ‘The need for a shared inner life, as expressed in the ideal of marriage and bonding, is not a primeval need. It grows with the losses that individualisation brings as the obverse of its opportunities’ (1992: 105; emphasis in original). So although social historians of the family have been dating the rise of the companionate marriage from at least the period of industrialization in England,4 it recurs as something fresh and rather new at regular intervals throughout the twentieth century. Of course it is also possible to see this as a trend or as something that is simply intensifying and/or expanding over time, yet it is hard to avoid the inference that it is being regularly rediscovered with new waves of theoretical enthusiasm or new empirical research.

The third debate, about the changing status of children in families and the growth (or apparent growth) of child-centredness, follows similar lines of argument. Thus Linda Pollock (1983) takes issue with Philippe Ariès (1962, French orig. 1960) and his thesis that childhood as a distinct phase in the life course did not exist in the Middle Ages; she also refutes the claim made by Shorter (1976) that mothers did not really start to love and nurture their children until modern times. Ariès in particular is seen as basing his general theorization too heavily on noble and propertied families. Pollock argues, in a vein very similar to contemporary critics of theories of individualization:

The sources upon which the received view is founded are obviously suspect and are certainly not a sound enough base to warrant the grand theories which have been derived from them. Aspects of the thesis, especially the assertion that there was no concept of childhood, have been shown by later research to be completely unjustified. (1988: 52)

Pollock also makes the point that most of the grand theorists she criticizes have tried to explain the history of childhood in relation to other trends in society, for example the growth of education, social welfare, democracy and even individualism. Thus she perceives a top-down approach in which developments in childhood are interpreted as fitting with other larger and over-determining trends. In this way family relationships are ‘read off’from other events and their course is seen to be inevitably in tune with other social forces. Such a reading is possible only if the interiority of these relationships is given cursory attention, while signs of congruence with broad theoretical explanations are treated as sufficient supporting evidence.

The longest-running debate over the family so far, the fourth and last under consideration here, is the contention that the family is in decline, a contention often supported by social statistics on divorce, lone motherhood and births out of wedlock (Wright and Jagger, 1999). The counter-position or rejection of this thesis is based on different readings of social trends and/or by arguments based on intensive empirical research, acknowledging that some families are changing in structure but suggesting that they still provide love and support for family members and kin (Lewis, 2001; Williams, 2004). It is clear that the decline argument has its roots in the earlier debate about the shift from extended families to nuclear families. This foundational argument sets the tone for understanding modern families, which are seen as inadequately connected with kin and thus unable or unwilling to take on the proper role of caring for kin and creating the right multi-generational context in which children can be raised. In this sense, for the pessimists at least, the modern family is always already lacking desirable qualities. But this baseline argument has been strengthened by specific interpretations of the rise in divorce rates, patterns of serial monogamy, illegitimacy rates and so on. Thus, for example, trends towards more heterosexual cohabitation are understood to signify a rejection not just of marriage but also of moral values, which involves avoiding the responsibilities that should attend creating a new family unit. High divorce rates are also interpreted as a flight from responsibility, a refusal to work sufficiently hard at relationships and a prizing of individual happiness over collective – or more specifically – children’s well-being. Such arguments have been particularly strong in the US (e.g. Popenoe, 1993; Blankenhorn et al., eds, 1990; Etzioni, 1993) but have also had a voice in the UK (e.g. Dennis and Erdos, 1993; Dench, 1997; Morgan, 1995). From time to time the feminist movement has been identified as the cause of family decline (Berger and Berger, 1983; Dench, 1997), at other times it has been men’s fecklessness (Ehrenreich, 1983; Dennis and Erdos, 1993). But the overall reason, from this viewpoint, appears to be seen as the growth of individualism and the prioritizing of the selfish self over the needs of others.

As Jane Lewis has pointed out, the interpretation in favour of decline has rested much weight on social statistics while also being politically compelling:

Much of the debate about the family in the late twentieth century has in fact been a struggle over the meaning of the statistics, with little attempt to refer to the admittedly limited research on the changes that have actually taken place inside family relationships, or to investigate them further. However, simple assertions as to the power of selfish individualism have had a significant effect on policy making on both sides of the Atlantic. (2001: 11)

Lewis’s reference to the ‘admittedly limited research’ on changes going on inside family relationships is not entirely accurate. The minimal influence of small-scale research seems to have less to do with how much of this research is available than the fact that it is perceived to be less ‘useful’ than survey-based research. Small-scale empirical projects are inevitably local and specific– indeed that is their strength, both epistemologically and analytically – but this approach is rarely seen as relevant to national policy making.

Attempts to refute the decline thesis have been around almost as long as the thesis itself. Ronald Fletcher (1966, orig. 1962), in a generally optimistic appraisal of social change in Britain after the Second World War, saw the family as becoming more democratic and felt it was increasingly founded upon good-quality intimate relationships between spouses:

In the modern marriage, both partners choose each other freely as persons. Both are of equal status and expect to have an equal share in taking decisions and in pursuing their sometimes mutual, sometimes separate and diverse, tastes and interests. They live together permanently and intimately in their own home and in relative independence of wider groups of kindred. (1966: 130)

Indeed, he argued that the rising divorce rate was indicative of people’s high expectations of marriage and their refusal to put up with the kinds of situations families had been forced to tolerate in the past. Throughout his book he strove to compare the modern family and its benefits with the deprivations and hardships of families in former times. His book is therefore on a completely different trajectory to those that focus on decline. Michael Young and Peter Willmott (1987, orig. 1957) took an equally benign view of family life and also managed to identify through empirical research how extended family networks continued to work notwithstanding social change. They too focused on growing equality and democracy in heterosexual relationships in marriage, ultimately proposing that the family was becoming symmetrical (Willmott and Young, 1973). Later arguments against the decline of the family have appeared in the US (Bengtson et al., 2002; Stacey, 1996) and in the UK (Williams, 2004; Silva and Smart, eds, 1999; Lewis, 2001; Brannen et al., 2004) and these studies have tended to emphasize – or at least recognize – continuity and connectedness across family members. In the main these studies have been based on in-depth interviews that examine not only living arrangements but also a range of family practices and the meanings attached to forms of exchange and connectedness which tend not to be visible at the national survey level. The incorporation of the meanings people themselves give to their relationships has been a particularly important element in these alternative studies because, as suggested by Lewis (quoted above), with survey data the researcher often has to impute or guess the reasons for visible trends, while the qualitative researcher is more able to include the complex, contradictory and changing reasons that people have for behaving as they do.

Alongside the development of a stronger body of research derived from qualitative interview methods, there has also grown up a reappraisal of family life as lived and experienced during what is often perceived as the ‘Golden Age’ (whether located in the 1950s or sometimes in the Victorian and Edwardian eras). The essay by Joanne Klein (2005) on unorthodox working-class domestic life between 1900 and 1939 shows detailed understanding of how even respectable working classes, in this case policemen in Liverpool, Birmingham and Manchester, could have very irregular marriages. Although divorce was rare, she found evidence of men simply moving in with other women and some-times even refusing to maintain their first wives and children. She argues that:

Police records indicate that flexible notions of marriage persisted with the working class much longer than previously assumed, not disappearing by the later nineteenth century but lasting into the interwar era. The legal limitations of marriage did not hamper the pursuit of domestic happiness. While only a small minority of policemen lived in unusual situations, their more conventional colleagues had few problems with their choices. Even senior officers showed remarkable tolerance for domestic irregularities. (2005: 211)

Equally the detailed work of family historians (for example Davidoff et al., 1999 and Bailey, 2003) puts a different complexion on the rather rosy contemporary vision of the supposedly contented and dutiful families of the past. The more empirical research there is, especially of the historical variety, the more it seems that the Golden Age of the family is a cultural myth which is used discursively to criticize various aspects of contemporary life. As Peter Laslett (2005, orig. 1965) stated, in his insistence upon a ‘proper understanding of ourselves’: ‘The wish to believe in the large, extended kin-enfolding, multi-generational, welfare- and support-providing household in the world we have lost seems to be exceedingly difficult to expose to critical evaluation’ (2005: 92). In other words, there seem to be strong reasons for keeping myths about family life in times passed alive, regardless of empirical evidence. This should alert us to the extent to which, in dealing with families, we are dealing with aspirations, yearnings, falsehoods and nostalgia, and this is emotive territory.

Engagement with the individualization thesis

Having outlined some of the core areas of debate in the field of family life, I now turn to the most recent site of contention, which is the debate over individualization (sometimes known as detraditionalization) and what it means for family life and relationships. The individualization thesis has become the ‘big idea’ in this area, both building on and superseding previous great debates. Such ideas, as Clifford Geertz (2000, orig. 1985) has pointed out, can become hugely popular and are seized upon as if they can suddenly explain everything and throw an illuminating light all around. But, he continues:

After we have become familiar with the new idea [. . .], after it has become part of our general stock of theoretical concepts, our expectations are brought more into balance with its actual uses, and its excessive popularity is ended. A few zealots persist in the old key-to-the-universe view of it; but less driven thinkers settle down after a while to the problems the idea has really generated. They try to apply it and extend it where it applies and where it is capable of extension; and they desist where it does not apply or cannot be extended. (2000: 3–4)

This seems to be where we have arrived with the individualization thesis and there have been many challenges to its claims over the last decade ( Jamieson, 1998, 1999; Ribbens McCarthy, 2003; Smart and Shipman, 2004; Brannen and Nilsen, 2005; Gross, 2005; Duncan and Smith, 2006; Crow, 2002; Lewis, 2001). This is in the main because there is such a lack of congruence between the depiction of contemporary family life in the work of individualization theorists and the kinds of lives being represented in local and more closely specified studies of families, kinship and friendship networks. It is important to enter a caveat, however, because not all of those who might be fitted into the individualization group offer the same explanations and neither do all the critics reject everything that the individualization theorists argue.

Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim defines the individualization thesis as having two components:

On the one hand, the traditional social relationships, bonds and belief systems that used to determine people’s lives in the narrowest detail have been losing more and more of their meaning. [. . .] New space and new options have thereby opened up for individuals. Now men and women can and should, may and must, decide for themselves how to shape their lives – within certain limits, at least.

On the other hand, individualization means that people are linked into [social] institutions [. . .]. These institutions produce various regulations [. . .] that are typically addressed to individuals rather than the family as a whole. And the crucial feature of these new regulations is that they enjoin the individual to lead a life of his or her own beyond any ties to the family or other groups – or sometimes even to shake off such ties and to act without referring to them. (2002: ix)

What seems surprising about this definition is that it proceeds as if all the previous debates on family change had never happened. While the idea of tradition is evoked, no specificity is provided so the reader cannot be sure if this passage refers to the pre-industrial era, the Victorian era or the early twentieth century. The idea that during this vague period people slavishly followed the prevalent rules and dominant beliefs is accepted without hesitation. A special moment in history having been created, that moment can then be compared with the present which, by dint of such a contrast, looks challengingly different. But the past in this representation is little more than a straw man devised for the sake of argument.

The second element in Beck-Gernsheim’s definition relies upon the standard way in which sociology has understood family change to happen only in reaction to (larger, more important) changes elsewhere. Thus there is the premise that because social institutions change (employment, welfare, education, law), there will be inescapable pressure on families to change in line with their needs. She predicts that individuals will necessarily respond to the new calls being made of them, and that the family will be transformed as a result.

Although Beck-Gernsheim is uncertain of exactly what the future will bring, the whole tenor of this work and her work with Ulrich Beck (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim 1995, 2002) is extremely pessimistic. The reader is left in no doubt that the future for the family is bleak and that modern social conditions will succeed in pulling families apart. In The Normal Chaos of Love Beck and Beck-Gernsheim focus on the push-pull features of the process of individualization. In other words, they point to the changes which are pushing families apart (mainly divorce, women’s paid employment, equality, demands for flexibility and mobility in labour markets); they also suggest that this atomization of individuals in their various life trajectories produces a reaction in the form of a yearning for love and stable relationships. While this might explain why the desire to get married and have children remains strong, they go on to point out that there is no structural basis to sustain such relationships. On the contrary all the social forces seem designed to ensure they fail. They state:

This finding is both paradoxical and mysterious: the family is simultaneously disintegrating and being put on a pedestal. If one can draw conclusions about beliefs from how people behave, seventh heaven and mental torment seem to be very close neighbours in our ideal image of a loving couple. Perhaps they just live in different storeys – tower room and torture chamber – in the same castle. [. . .] What induces the sexes to tear at each other’s throats and still keep their high hopes of finding true love and personal fulfilment with this partner, or the next, setting standards which are so high that disappointment is almost inevitable? (1995: 173)

In Individualization (2002), Beck and Beck-Gernsheim elaborate on the ways in which the process of individualization requires a ‘staging of everyday life’ because so much co-ordination is required to keep individual biographies and life projects from pulling apart. Thus decisions (large and small) are constantly being made because people can no longer rely on following old rules and models. And it is ultimately in the requirement constantly to negotiate and bargain that instability (apparently) lurks: relationships become ‘thinner and more fragile’ (2002: 97) because they depend on personal co-operation. For Beck the family is a ‘zombie category’ (2002: 204), by which he appears to mean that the family is dead even if people live their lives as if it were still alive. This kind of provocative statement is typical of Beck and Beck-Gernsheim’s work, which often produces an enigmatic quality. While the use of dramatic style, polemical crescendos and rhetorical questions makes their writing distinctive, it can also make the meaning opaque. To some extent it is possible to superimpose one’s own meaning on their work and this may be why their contribution has been so apparently influential. They deal with issues of contemporary importance, their themes are topical and relevant, but ultimately it is hard to grasp the substance and direction of their argument although its pessimistic tenor remains unmistakable.

In much the same vein, and definitely on the pessimistic end of the continuum, is the work of Zygmunt Bauman, who appears almost to have an apocalyptic vision of contemporary families and relationships. There is no ambiguity in his work that the perceived shift away from ‘given’ and fixed kinship systems, towards (elective) kinship of affinity, is a bad thing:

The falling out of fashion and out of practice of orthodox affinity cannot but rebound on the plight of kinship. Lacking stable bridges for inflowing traffic, kinship networks feel frail and threatened. The boundaries are blurred and disputed, they dissolve in a terrain with no clear-cut property titles and hereditary tenures – a frontier-land; sometimes a battlefield, other times an object of court battles that are no less bitter. Kinship networks cannot be sure of their chances of survival, let alone calculate their life expectations. (2003: 31)

Bauman’s ideas run directly counter to most empirical sociological studies of family and kinship in Britain and he offers no evidence in support of his assertions. Yet his work, along with that of Beck and Beck-Gernsheim, seems to have captured a cultural Zeitgeist in which increasing despair about families is on the verge of becoming conventional wisdom.5 I return to the issue of the power of this kind of theorizing below because, if it is largely devoid of empirical support, I do not think it can simply be dismissed. So at this point I turn to the more positive versions of the individualization theses.