Sociological Research Online

Introduction to the Rapid Response on the British Royal Family and its place in the contemporary world

The British Royal Family is once again under the spotlight. The funeral of the Queen Mother and the Queen's Jubilee marking 50 years as monarch have both prompted extensive media coverage and public debate. Billig (1992) has argued that social scientific discussion of royalty and its place in the contemporary world has wrongly been discouraged by the notion that it is a non-problem, and there is much to support the view that thinking about the British Royal family deserves to be problematised. Is a royal family different from other families, and if so how and why? Is the monarchy an essentially traditional institution, or can and should it be modernised? And is there something particular about the British Royal family, embodying distinctively British values? If so, what are these, and what is the relationship between Britishness and Englishness? What, overall, is the rationale for royalty? Does it meet some social 'need', and if so what is this? Is a constitution in which people are subjects rather than citizens outdated?

Royal families may be taken to represent idealised versions of particular family forms. According to Chambers, the Victorian Royal Family 'provided the ideal and model image of a universal white family for the.... representation of motherhood as a sign of moral rectitude and father as ruler and protector of wife and children' (Chambers 2001: 77), although she goes on to note that in more recent times royal marriages have been just as vulnerable to ending in divorce as those of commoners have been. Against this background of 'familial dysfunctionality' (2001: 131), the Royal Family may be looked to for some other indication that family solidarities endure. The contribution to this rapid response by Finch and Morgan discusses this possibility through its suggestion that the Queen Mother's funeral allowed cross-generational rather than couple relationships to be highlighted. Running parallel to this discussion is Hepworth's argument in his contribution that the Queen Mother offered a positive image of ageing which made an important contribution to buttressing the popularity of the monarchy, just as Queen Victoria had done in the latter part of the 19th century. Sociological debates about which social groups are the first to witness the development of new patterns of family relationships have generally cast less privileged classes in this role, but the treatment of royalty as a bastion of conservative traditionalism overlooks the capacity of the institution to be dynamic and neglects the scope that exists for new traditions to be 'invented', as Hobsbawm and Ranger (1983) put it.

This is not to suggest that the 'modernization' of the Royal Family is easy. Monarchs derive their position through their distinctiveness, through not being 'common', and the threat to their position that is posed by the erosion of the mystique that has traditionally surrounded them has long been recognised. The contribution by Jenkins develops this theme, noting that there is a delicate balance to be struck between the sacred and the profane aspects of royalty. The capacity of royal figures to combine distinctive qualities with ordinariness is also a feature of Bramley's discussion of Princess Diana, who had something of the character of a deity about her and yet she could also position herself as 'the ultimate rebel', appealing to ordinary people against an exclusive elite. The appeal of royalty to broad swathes of public opinion may be explained by the way in which royal figures have the capacity to engage with quite diverse elements of the population in apparently contradictory ways. Davies's remark that 'As a cultural icon Diana, Princess of Wales simultaneously points backwards and forwards' (Davies 2001: 205) makes this point in relation to competing notions of femininity. The more general point is that the rhetoric of the Royal Family as embodiment of the nation, as symbolic of national unity and a means by which the country can be brought together, is dependent on a highly selective account of 'society', and Back's and Law 's contributions demonstrate. Backward-looking appeals to a mythical 'golden age' of national greatness in which the Royal Family stood at the apex of a consensual hierarchy are, to borrow Raymond Williams's phrase, 'a stick to beat the present' (Williams 1975: 21), but they remain surprisingly potent and thus constitute a sociological problem to be addressed.

One way in which this issue may usefully be approached is to think comparatively. Although the number of countries in the modern world that are constitutional monarchies is (to many observers) surprisingly high, such monarchies are by no means the same. Jenkins draws some insightful comparative points from his analysis of the Danish monarchy, which is considerably more informal and 'ordinary' than its British counterpart. This may be taken to reflect a different style of engagement with the forces of secularization, demilitarization, democratization, detraditionalization, informalization and other processes of long-term social change that have been relentlessly at work over the last century. Fifty years ago, things were very different, both in terms of the events surrounding the Queen's accession to the throne and in terms of the sociological explanations proffered. Shils and Young's (1953) account of the coronation now appears remarkably uncritical and surprisingly neglectful of the gender dimensions of royal occasions (Billig 1992). If we go back one hundred years, the contrasts are more dramatic still. Figes's opening account of the celebration in 1913 of 300 years of the Romanov dynasty in Russia appears to come from another historical era entirely, although there is a contemporary lesson that can be drawn from this episode. Figes describes how the Romanovs, with all their emphasis on tradition, 'were retreating to the past, hoping it would save them from the future' (Figes 1997: 6). That it did not is well-known, of course, and this message was not lost on the crowned Heads of Europe watching events as they unfolded in revolutionary Russia. Subsequent reinventions of monarchies have of necessity involved less reactionary strategies than that of the Romanovs. The current re-working of the British Royal Family is the latest phase of a much longer process of adjustment to modern (and, arguably, post-modern) conditions. As the various contributions to this rapid response show, the pattern of this adjustment continues to warrant sociological investigation.

Graham Crow
Co-editor, Sociological Research Online


BILLIG, M. (1992) Talking of the Royal Family. London: Routledge.

CHAMBERS, D. (2001) Representing the Family. London: Sage.

DAVIES, J. (2001) Diana, A Cultural History: Gender, Race, Nation and the People's Princess. Basingstoke: Palgrave.

FIGES, O. (1997) A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924. London: Pimlico.

HOBSBAWM, E. and RANGER, T. (eds) (1983) The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

SHILS, E. and YOUNG, M. (1953) 'The meaning of the Coronation', Sociological Review, 1, 68-81.

WILLIAMS, R. (1975) The Country and the City. Frogmore: Paladin.