Family Change Is Not Over
Population Europe: In February this year, the large EU project "FamiliesAndSocieties – Changing families and sustainable societies: Policy contexts and diversity over the life course and across generations" was launched. What are the dimensions of the project and how is it funded?
Livia Sz. Olàh: To carry out the project, a large consortium of 28 partners has been formed on the basis of scientific excellence covering a wide range of disciplinary expertise in family-related research, located in key regions of Europe, and also based on the active involvement of civil society actors.
The consortium consists of 25 research partners from 14 EU countries, old and new member states alike, and from one Associate Country (Switzerland). The research partners are universities (16 partners), research institutes (8 partners), and an international organisation, the European University Institute (EUI). In addition to the wide European coverage, the selection of consortium members also ensures representation of various welfare state and care regimes: Sweden and Finland (universal Scandinavian welfare regime), the UK and Switzerland (liberal regime), France, Germany, Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands (a rather heterogeneous group of conservative welfare states, especially with respect to care), Italy and Spain (Mediterranean familistic regime), and Estonia, Hungary, Poland, and Romania (another very heterogeneous group with Central-East European post-socialist welfare regimes).
In addition to the research partners, the consortium includes three transnational civil society actors. These are the International Federation for Family Development (IFFD) gathering 92 family associations from 62 countries all over the world; the AGE Platform Europe (AGE), which is a European network of about 165 organisations of and for people aged 50+, directly representing more than 30 million people in that age range in Europe; and the European Large Families Confederation (ELFAC) representing about 50 million people belonging to the nearly 9 million large families in Europe.
The project has secured a grant of €6.5 million from the EU’s Seventh Framework Programme, Social Sciences and Humanities, for a four-year period; this is the EU contribution to the total project costs that amount to €8.36 million. The rest of the costs will be covered by the partners from their own resources.
PE: We know that in European societies, family configurations and life courses are becoming more and more complex. Is it still possible to analyse this complexity with common research methods? Or do we need new approaches?
LO: Addressing this complexity requires a multidisciplinary approach so the various dimensions involved can thoroughly be investigated. Hence, our research strategy aims explicitly at providing enhanced understanding of family challenges and family dynamics in Europe from a comparative and interdisciplinary perspective. The research partners in the consortium represent a wide range of relevant scientific expertise from the social sciences, law and the humanities. Twenty partners have expertise in sociology, seventeen in demography, eleven in social policy, eight in gender studies and also in statistics/mathematics, six in economics and psychology, four in anthropology, and two in political science, law and history. Most partners posses multidisciplinary expertise themselves, which facilitates the project taking advantage of a variety of perspectives on the different disciplines.
Over the course of the project, complex connections and relationships will be analysed: relationships within families and households over the life course, over time; cross-country comparative analysis and multi-layered analysis interconnecting micro and macro level. In each investigation, we will use the methods which are best suited to generate solid scientific evidence of the researched issues.
PE: What are the biggest challenges in the field of family and life course research, and where are the major gaps in knowledge?
LO: This is a comprehensive question, hence in my response, I will have to be selective.
The major trends regarding family patterns and structures over the past decades are well known in terms of delayed partnership formation, postponement of childbearing, low fertility, increasing prevalence of less committed relationships, high separation and divorce rates, increasing family diversity. However, family change is not over.
New, largely unexplored forms of family life are emerging. Also, the implications of family change for children’s wellbeing and the intergenerational reproduction of inequality are of major importance, yet limited research has addressed these issues.
Furthermore, the new demographic circumstances in which members of multiple family generations share several decades together compel us to recognize critical interdependencies between family generations, and between men and women in families which are built and reinforced by social policies. The young and the old in families should be considered jointly in research. It is important to recognize that the family is a dynamic entity, to be seen from the life-course developments of all its members.
Moreover, there is a need for better knowledge about decision-making processes about work and family life, parenthood, use of time in families, and studies from a male perspective with respect to parenting and care for children. The family cannot be described simply as a set of well-defined roles anymore; it is negotiated on a daily basis, constructed by interactions between partners at the micro-level and influenced by macro structures in the political and economic sphere. Work and family lives increasingly influence each other as both women and men engage in earning, as well as in caring activities, not seldom reinforced by employment instability and precariousness. Gender relations and related values and attitudes have become more fluid, changing dynamically over the life course and across generations in the context of blurring boundaries of family and work life.
Also, caring work within families is an underresearched area of contemporary family life, even for children, with respect to the consequences of relying on particular types of care arrangements.
Another research gap is family changes among immigrants and ethnic minorities. During the last two decades, most European countries have witnessed increased immigration streams. Raising social cohesion and the effect of migration on social, cultural and demographic trends have become major issues and hence research topics of importance.
Last, but not least, policies have been and remain of central importance in shaping family life, affecting crucial transitions in life, hence having long-term consequences on wellbeing for both individuals and families. We need a better understanding of the impact of institutional settings and policies on family behaviour and family outcomes, both within and across European countries.
PE: The project FamiliesAndSocieties brings together a large number of researchers from different disciplines and countries. How will the cooperation and knowledge exchange take place?
LO: With respect to the organization of work, the project is organized into 12 work packages, which have been designed to complement and interrelate with each other.
A kick-off meeting in Stockholm on March 8-9, 2013 marked the start of the project. At the annual consortium meetings in Tallinn, Madrid, and Vienna, and at the final conference in Brussels, research results produced in different work packages since the previous annual meeting will be presented and discussed, so the accumulated knowledge generated by the time there is a consortium meeting will benefit further work in other relevant work packages. The final conference will provide important input for the synthesis of project results and report of policy recommendations. In addition to the three transnational civil-society actor partners, we have about fifty stakeholders directly attached to the consortium, who will be invited to the consortium meetings and certain dissemination events. They will help us with comments and suggestions regarding our work and progress.
With respect to the management structure, the general coordination of the project is carried out by Stockholm University. The coordinator benefits from the advice and suggestions of the consortium Advisory Board that consists of distinguished scholars of family research in Europe and the USA, EU-politicians and independent experts. The scientific coordination will also be supported by the Steering Committee, comprised of all work package co-leaders who are leading experts on the main topics of their work package and who carry out the management in the work packages. The third level of management structure is the General Assembly, comprised of a representative from each partner. It will decide about substantial changes in work packages and tasks if necessary.
PE: One aim of the project is to assess the compatibility of existing family policies and to contribute to evidence-based policy-making. What kind of dissemination tools are planned and how do you want to reach political and societal stakeholders?
LO: FamiliesAndSocieties will approach various audiences (researchers, stakeholders, policy makers, and the media) mainly through the following dissemination activities:
i) academic dissemination: The results of the project will be disseminated via scientific publications (research articles, books, book chapters, the FamiliesAndSocieties Working Paper Series), presentations at international and national scientific conferences, and via the annual consortium meetings.
ii) dissemination of databases: The project will produce two databases; one on the legal content of family forms available in European countries, and another on EC/EU initiatives in core family-policy areas since the late 1950s onwards. The databases and the accompanying documentations will be made publicly available.
iii) research-based interaction with stakeholders and policy-makers: We will engage key stakeholders and policy actors directly in our research by asking them to assess the results of our research from their perspective as civil society actors and as policy makers. Their assessment feeds back into the interpretation of the results from a policy perspective and into the delineation of policy recommendation. Beyond their direct engagement in the research, the transnational civil-society partners in the consortium, the five international and about 50 national stakeholders linked to FamiliesAndSocieties will provide input to the research design by indicating key aspects of family issues identified via their own work. They also will collect and provide best-practice examples of family policies and their implementation at the supra-national and national, as well as regional, municipal, and individual (civil-society) level.
iv) knowledge transfer and stakeholder dialogue: We will establish the FamilyAndSocieties Forum to serve as a platform for the communication of research results and a research-driven and evidence-based stakeholder dialogue, relying on the following dissemination tools:
- The project website www.familiesandsocieties.eu (provided by the coordinator Stockholm University) will ensure accessibility and visibility of the project results, also beyond the duration of the project. Anyone interested in family issues can register for regular updates on the website.
- Press releases and the biannual newsletter will make policy audiences and the press aware of recently launched material and up-to-date information related to family issues.
- To make policy-relevant findings of the project easily accessible to non-scientific audiences, Digests, i.e. short summaries of results of the project, will be produced and disseminated.
- FamiliesAndSocieties stakeholder meetings will be organised in Brussels once a year during the project’s lifetime, addressing EU policy-makers, governmental representatives, stakeholders, and civil-society actors to create a dynamic exchange of knowledge between research and policy-makers about the results of the project. A summary of the outcomes of the stakeholder meeting will be published on the project website after each meeting.
- The project participants will undertake efforts to present important results to the public via media and as experts at policy-relevant meetings. Many of the researchers involved in the project are regularly consulted by the media or invited as advisors on issues related to families by institutions involved in policy making at the community, regional, national, and EU-level.
PE: If you had to summarize the objectives and framework of the project in two sentences, what would you say makes this project so unique?
LO: Our project has been designed to generate comparative, in-depth, and scientifically grounded knowledge about family changes in Europe, their causes, and their consequences. It aims to improve the understanding of the complexity, the pace, the range, and the direction of these changes, and to distinguish and explain differences and similarities in family development and life-course transitions across Europe and within European nations. It furthermore seeks to elicit the linkages between policies and family dynamics, family diversity, and family trajectories, nationally and cross-nationally.
Livia Sz. Oláh is Associate Professor of Demography at the Department of Sociology, Stockholm University. She is the Project coordinator of FamiliesAndSocieties (“Changing Families and Sustainable Societies: Policy contexts and diversity over the life course and across generations”), a project in the 7th Framework Programme (Febr. 2013 – Jan. 2017).
Interviewer: Insa Cassens/Population Europe;