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Changing Britain: Families and Households in the 1990s

Susan McRae
Oxford University Press: Oxford
1999
0198296371 (pb); 0198296363 (hb)
19.99 (pb); $40.00 (hb)

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The Ties that Bind: Perspectives on Marriage and Cohabitation

Linda J and Christine Bachrach Waite, Michelle Hindin, Elizabeth Thomson and Arland Thornton (Coeditors) (editors)
Aldine de Gruyter: New York
2000
0202306364 (pb); 0202306356 (hb)
$24.95 (pb); $51.95 (hb)
ix + 404

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Front Cover
These two volumes may, to some extent, be taken as representing the state of the art in family studies on both sides of the Atlantic. As such, these collections highlight some interesting differences and overlaps between family scholarship in the two countries. Of course, they are not strict equivalents. On the one hand, Susan McRae's volume deals with a wide range of issues to do with families and households in the 1990s and beyond. Linda Waite's volume, on the other hand, focuses largely on marriage and cohabitation within the United States, apart from one article providing a European perspective. Yet they both draw together scholars from different disciplines, and both begin with identifying features of modern family life that are widely considered to be problematic or matters of public concern.

The American volume brings together a variety of perspectives on marriage and cohabitation deriving from a conference held in 1998. The introduction, by three of the co-editors, outlines some of the core concerns that brought the contributors together: the fact that pre-marital cohabitation was now the norm in the United States, the tendency to later marriage, and the increasing separation of childbirth and marriage. Behind this lies an awareness that the pace of change in family and intimate life is such that theories and approaches can become rapidly outdated. In one early chapter, an overview of recent trends, Raley acknowledges that:

"Even as we struggle to incorporate cohabitation into our analyses of marriage and our understanding of family life, the reasons for cohabitation and its meaning change" (P36)
Raley's contribution is the first paper in the first section describing trends in marriage and cohabitation. A constructive discussion by Kiernan on European perspectives, focussing broadly on the well-documented (although often complex) differences between North and South, is also included here. A useful historical chapter by Fitch and Ruggles follows, which maps trends between 1850 and 1990. This latter discussion clearly underlines the need for taking a long-term perspective, and highlights the somewhat exceptional nature of the period around the 1960s.

The second section deals with theoretical perspectives, although its range is somewhat limited. Daly and Wilson's outline of the evolutionary psychology perspective seems somewhat isolated, since few if any of the other contributors seem to be willing to deploy these arguments within their own research. Pollak's chapter on "theorizing marriage" in fact considers economic perspectives around themes of equilibrium and efficiency. The next chapter, probably of most interest to sociologists, begins with the "home economics" approach identified with Gary Becker. Here, Cherlin argues for the need to combine rational choice models with the social structural and cultural approaches associated with sociology. A major factor necessitating this move, he argues, was the increasing impact of women's employment and the development of co-habitation. Missing in this second section are perspectives derived from psychoanalysis or more phenomenologically inclined sociological approaches, as well as more critical perspectives. Feminism is hinted at, but a more detailed consideration has to wait for one of the chapters in the final section.

Broadly speaking, the perspective that dominates most of the subsequent papers is some version of home economics and/or rational choice. The papers tend to conform to the "scientific paper" model, which will be familiar to readers of The Journal of Marriage and the Family. This involves the careful outline and testing of hypotheses using, for the most part, quantitative data from large surveys or data sets.

The third section, which focuses on values, attitudes and norms, deals with a range of topics including changes in the meaning of marriage, ethnicity and beliefs about marriage, the influence of religion on cohabitation, and marriage and commitment to marriage. The economics perspective is much more predominant in the final section, which deals with a variety of themes to do with marriage, domestic labour, involvement in paid employment, and the interactions between them. Here one can see the value of a perspective that is informed, but not dominated, by models from economics and rational choice, but which also takes seriously the contributions made by feminist scholars. Papers by England and Shelton, for example, fully recognise the continuing inequalities within marriage, and ask important questions about whether marriage disadvantages women, and why inequalities in the performance of domestic tasks persist. These are carefully argued and stimulating papers, and this whole section has a unity that is not apparent to the same extent in the volume as a whole.

I have already indicated some gaps in theoretical perspectives, and there are also other important omissions. We need more than the four pages that deal with violence between partners (in Waite's concluding essay on women's and men's well-being in marriage). There are only passing references to single-sex partnerships, and emotions and feelings receive little, if any, systematic treatment. It would also have been useful to have had a more systematic and focussed comparison between marriages and cohabitations, one which takes into account the perspectives of the participants themselves. I found that there were a half dozen or so papers in this collection to which I would happily return; which is, I suppose, not too bad for collections of this kind.

The volume edited by McRae begins with a very similar list of concerns to that of Waite et al.:

"Over the past twenty five years, major changes have occurred across the Western developed world in areas which lie at the intersection of demography and prevailing forms of living arrangements. Marriage rates have fallen; divorce and cohabitation rates have risen. Women are having fewer children, later in life, and there has been a marked rise in childbearing outside marriage at almost all ages" (McRae, P.v)
As with the Waite volume, the opening section places the contemporary British experience in a comparative and historical context. Again, there is a concern to highlight the exceptionality of the 1950s and 1960s, the period of 'the ideal family'. On the second page, there is an illuminating comparison of a selection of demographic variables from the mid-1960s, the mid-1990s, and the mid-1930s. With respect to mean age of first marriage, first birth, fertility rate and childlessness, the mid 1990s are close to the mid 1930s. It is only when you begin to consider divorces, births outside marriage, and cohabitation, that the differences between these two periods emerge. Scott's paper in this section focuses on some of the complexities in tracing changing attitudes, and Murphy and Wang consider forecasting trends into the twenty-first century.

Subsequent sections deal, inevitably, with a much wider range of topics than we found in the Waite volume, which concentrated on marriage and co-habitation. Three essays in section two, for example, deal with different aspects of kinship in the 1990s. These are followed by a section that addresses the lives of older people. Section IV has two articles dealing with "New Ways of Living", one on living alone (one of the most important demographic trends), and another dealing with a subject ignored in the other volume, that of "non- heterosexual relationships". The concern with policy issues and matters in public debate is clear in the three essays dealing with "Young Motherhood," and in the final section which focuses on "Divorce and After." This latter section includes two relatively under-explored topics, the first dealing with non- residential fathers (Bradshaw et al), the second dealing with divorce and residential mobility (Flowerdew et al).

While the range of topics is much wider than that of the Waite volume, there are still some omissions. There is only one passing reference, for example, to issues of domestic violence (in the chapter on non-resident fathers). There is clearly a lot more that might be said about ethnic diversity, and, possibly, about regional differences or the distinction between urban and rural. Perhaps the most surprising omission, given the fact that it is flagged as a significant change, is any systematic discussion of patterns of co-habitation in Britain.

If this volume has wide-ranging topic areas, it is similarly diverse in disciplinary approach and methodology. The authors come from Departments of Sociology, Social Policy, Demography, Geography and Gerontology, as well as from a range of research bodies and institutes. While a large proportion of the papers are quantitative or demographic in approach, there are also several papers based upon qualitative interviews, and which present some of the data in the form of case studies. Where several of these essays score is in a concern with meaning and understanding. Mason's essay serves as a good example, where she skilfully explores the processes of moral reasoning in relation to living away from relatives, and does this through the use of three case studies. She argues that we should consider the actors' reasoning processes seriously, and this argument is reflected in, for example, the paper by Goulbourne dealing with Caribbean families (and which also uses case studies), the comparative work of Phillipson and his colleagues, and Weeks et al on non- heterosexual relationships. Such relatively short essays can only provide a flavour of this kind of work and happily several of these studies are now available in book length.

Several papers are very successful in combining different methodological approaches. Anyone who has doubts about the quality of empirical research in Britain, both quantitative and qualitative, might be agreeably surprised by the analytical skill and care shown in the work presented here. It is worth noting that the work represents a cluster of studies carried out under the ESRC Population and Household Change Programme.

This volume contrasts with the American collection most sharply in the area of theory, and it is also here that one might have reservations. This is not simply in terms of the authors cited or the concepts used, although we should note that Beck (and Giddens) feature more frequently than Becker, and one would have to probe very deeply to find even a whisper of rational choice or evolutionary psychology. The difference rather lies in the place of theory within the research process as a whole. In most of the American essays, there is a close linking of theory, methods and research (even if the theory itself is sometimes rather limited in scope), and the aim would often appear as much to advance theory as to increase understanding of a particular topic. In the British volume, theory has a much more diffuse role to play, and the sceptical reader might sometimes wonder quite what role references to the "new individualism" (with the inevitable citation of Beck and Giddens) play within the research enterprise. Despite these reservations, we have in this volume a valuable collection of essays, and a volume that will be a standard reference work for several years to come.

These two collections do seem to stand as representatives of two particular ways of doing family sociology, and it is useful to note the differences, and to ask whether these two approaches might learn something from each other. The somewhat formalistic, some might say formulaic, character of most of the American studies show considerable skill in providing links to wider bodies of theory, and in identifying intriguing puzzles for investigation. Sometimes, however, the conclusions are less interesting than the initial problem, and the studies fail to connect with everyday understandings of family worlds. The looser theoretical frameworks of the British studies sometimes leads to little more than good analytical description; the introduction of theoretical issues seems, to say the least, a little unsystematic. However there does appear to be a greater openness in the British volume to methodological difference and theoretical novelty. Despite these differences however, both sets of articles provide valuable material for specialists in the field and a handful of papers that deserve a wider reading.

David H.J. Morgan
Manchester & NTNU, Trondheim

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