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Using contemporary examples to evaluate within the sociology of families and households

A level sociology students should be looking to using contemporary examples and case studies to illustrate points and evaluate theories whenever possible. In the exams, the use of contemporary evidence is something examiners look for and reward.

Below are a few examples of some recent events in the news which are relevant to the sociology of families and households. You’ll need to read the items for more depth on how to apply them.

All of the above took place in either 2019 or 2018! 

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Evaluate the personal life perspective on the family(20)

This is a possible question which could come up in the AQA’s Paper 2, families and households topic. This post is just a few thoughts on how I’d go about answering it.

I thin this would be a fair question given that this is quite a difficult topic for students, and quite limited in what you can say for 20 marks.

Item

The Personal Life Perspective argues that sociologists should study family life from the perspectives of individuals, and focus on what families mean to them. If people believe that pets and dead relatives are part of their family, the sociologists should accept this.

This is very different from traditional sociological perspectives such as Functionalism and Marxism, which tended to study the nuclear family and look at what functions this performed for the individual and society.

Using the item and your own knowledge, Evaluate the personal life perspective on the family 

Decode/ discussion

What you need to do here is firstly show your knowledge of the Personal Life Perspective, and contrast this to Functionalism and Marxism. You can gain evaluation marks by showing how the PLP perspective criticise these older perspectives. Further analysis marks can be picked up by discussing how the former perspectives may have been relevant to a modernist society, but the PLP perspective is probably a better way of analysing the family in a post-modern society.

Finally, to criticise the PLP perspective, you could use Gidden’s Late Modernist theory. Although this would be a stretch for many students, especially as many of the text books don’t even recognise that Giddens is a Late Modernist.

Suggested Points

 

  • The PLP perspective emerged in the 1990s and criticised the Functionalist and Marxist view that the nuclear family should be the primary unit of analysis.
  • PLP argues that people still form meaningful relationships, but their Identity or sense of belonging increasingly comes from other people NOT traditionally regarded as part of a ‘normal family’ – for example pets, friends and dead relatives may all be seen as important to individuals.
  • The PLP perspective makes sense today because the nuclear family has declined in significance as fewer people get married, fewer people have kids, and more and more people spend time living alone, yet people still form meaningful relationships with each other.
  • The PLP perspective suggests we look at the family from the individual’s point of view, taking their definition – which can be useful, because if we do so we find that many people regard ‘non-nuclear’ family members as more important to them than their immediate traditional family.
  • This is is useful because it means we should not over-estimate the stability of the traditional nuclear family, and not be surprised by high rates of family break-down.
  • PLP also seems to fit in with interactionism – looking at the family from the ground up, rather than the top down, a strength of this is that we see that there are still families in the UK, nearly everyone has one, but just not in the standard ‘nuclear family’ sense of the word.
  • The PLP perspective is thus useful in criticising the New Right – people may not be in nuclear families, or married, but they are capable of establishing their own alternative families.
  • PLP is also useful to criticise Functionalism and Marxism – if families are different to the nuclear family, theories which focus on the role of the nuclear family must be wrong.
  • This is also a useful way of exploring family diversity, revealing family diversity if you like, and it’s appropriate when life-courses are diverse and complex.
  • The PLP perspective did, however suggest that people are not entirely free to construct their own families, they are constrained in their ability to do so by society and their immediate culture.
  • Finally, a weakness of PLP is that it ends up being a bit wishy-washy, descriptive rather than analytical, one is kind of left shrugging one’s shoulders wondering what the point of it is!
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How does social policy affect family life – Summary Grid

A summary grid of how five social policies might affect different aspects of family life. Designed to help students revise for A-level sociology – the families and households topic.

Picture below and then text version after!

Policy First Thoughts – How might this policy affect family life in the UK? More specifically will this support or undermine the conventional nuclear family?   Who does this policy benefit?

 

The 1969 and 1984 Divorce Acts  ·      Increases divorce and thus single parent, single person and reconstituted households

 

·      Undermine ·      Women (in abusive relationships)
Maternity and Paternity Acts ·      Should make relationships between men and women more equal

 

 

·      Undermine ·      Women (encourages men to become primary child carers)

·      And men – easier for them to be stay at home dads)

The Civil Partnership and Gay Marriage Acts ·      Reduces stigma against same sex relationships

·      Encourages more same sex families

 

·      Undermine ·      Same sex couples (reduction of stigma)
Universal Child Benefits ·      Encourage (poorer) parents to have more children, larger families

 

·      Support ·      Families with children

·      children

Income Support for Single Parents ·      Reduce the number of single parents

 

 

 

 

·      Support (recent changes make it more difficult for single parents to claim benefits) ·      (losers) single parents
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Globalisation and the Family

One of the more difficult topics on the families and households specification is how globalisation influences family life. Below are some examples. I’ve also tried to take these examples from different areas of the families and households specification (e.g. marriage, childhood etc.)

Whether you regard the points below as positive or negative is open to interpretation!

Some positive/ neutral consequences of globalisation for family life

  • Global optimists argue that economic globalisation has resulted in increasing trade which in turn has resulted in huge economic growth and rising prosperity, correlated with declining birth rates and family size.
  • Immigrant families to the UK have on average higher birth rates than non-immigrant families. A positive effect of this is that it reduces the dependency ratio, however a claimed negative consequence is an increased strain on public services, mainly schools.
  • Increasing migration to the U.K = increasing cultural diversity and diversity of family structures.  After several generations, more ethnic diversity.
  • Increased migration means more families are stretched across national borders and have family members living abroad, which in turn reinforces globalisation as more families maintain contacts through media and physical visits.
  • Cultural globalisation means more people create friendship groups based on shared interests online. Many people regard these friendship networks as ‘family’, if we follow analysis from the Personal life perspective.
  • There seems to be a globalisation of ‘single person households’. There seems to be a global trend of increasing numbers of people choosing to live alone (not necessarily not being in relationships.

Some negative consequences of globalisation for family life

  • Part of globalisation is people displacement following conflict, which sometimes results in the breaking up of families, U.K. policy has focused (to an extent) on taking in orphan refugee children, meaning more ‘global step/ foster families’.
  • Globalisation = increasing inequality in family life and increasing cost of living for the poor. Property price speculation has driven up prices in London meaning the basic costs of maintaining a family household had doubled in the last 30 years relative to inflation, this helps explain why so many young adults today ‘choose’ to live with their parents.
  • Globalisation = more diversity, choice, uncertainty, resulting in decline of people committing to long term relationships and more ‘pure relationships’. (Giddens)
  • Globalisation = more media flows – children more active users of media, more exposed to global media events can have negative effects:
      • More difficult for parents to prevent radicalisation (e.g. Shameena Begum)
      • More exposure to global media events (mass shootings in USA, natural disasters, terrorist attacks, war and conflicts) children are more risk conscious – anxious kids, more mental health issues. (More ‘toxic childhood’)
      • Parents are more paranoid, more restrictive parenting, less outdoor
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Changes to the ONS’ CPI Basket of Goods and Lifestyle Changes in the UK

The Office for National Statistics monitors inflation by using the Consumer Price Index, which uses a representative sample of consumer goods and services purchased by households.

The easiest way to think about this is to imagine a very large shopping basket full of goods and services which the ‘typical household’ buys on a regular basis – researchers from the ONS use already existing survey data to figure out which goods and services best reflect the nation’s consumption habits in 12 ‘expenditure categories’ such as ‘food’, ‘housing’ and ‘communication’ – and track the prices of these items over time to measure inflation, or changes to the cost of living for the ‘typical’ household.

For example, under ‘food’, the ONS monitors the prices of items such as chips, pastry-based snacks and raspberries, among other things, these items representing expenditure on ‘frozen potato products’, ‘savoury snacks’ and ‘soft fruit’.

Somewhat surprisingly, there’s all sorts of links in here to aspects of the Families and Households module!

The ONS updates the items in the ‘shopping basket’ every year to reflect trends in consumer spending – it removes items which have become significantly less popular and adds in new items.

The changes actually provide an entertaining insight into changes in lifestyles in the UK. For example, some of the changes made to the basket in 2019 included:

  • Dinner plate replaced crockery set to reflect the fact that cutlery is more likely to be bought as single items (reflecting the shift to single person households)
  • Non-leather settees replace three piece non-leather suite, reflecting the same trend as above.
  • Portable speaker and smart-speaker replaced Hi-Fi, reflecting changes in technology.
  • Bakeware – a new category – reflecting the fact that people have been watching too much Bake-Off.
  • Popcorn – added – possibly reflecting the rise of stay at home movie watching.
  • Dog Treats – replaced dry dog food – reflecting the increased importance of pets in family life (which kind of reminds me of the Personal Life Perspective!).

You might also like to read the methodology section of the ONS’ CPI, it’s an interesting one for sampling: in terms of how they choose the products, it’s not straightforward!

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Hungary’s tax break for breeders

Hungary’s Right Wing government recently announced a new social policy exempting women who have more than four children from income tax for life.

There are also other financial incentives designed to encourage families to have more children – such as loans of up to £27,000 which will be partially or fully written off if the couple go on to have two or three children.

The stated aim of the policy is to reverse the country’s population decline so that Hungary does not have to rely on migrant workers in the future.

The Prime Minister, Victor Orban stated that women having fewer and fewer children was a problem all over Western Europe, and that the solution tended to be to increasingly rely on immigrants in the future, to replace the ‘missing’ native children. Orban believes that Hungarians would rather have Hungarians working in the future rather than immigrants.

Relevance to A-level sociology

This is an unusual example of a right wing (New Right) policy explicitly designed to encourage marriage and the more babies being born (it seems within nuclear families).

At the same time it is pro-nationalist and and anti-immigration, hence anti-globalisation.

I guess from a narrow minded ‘Hungary first’ Nationalist perspective if makes sense in a ‘defend our boarders’ sort of way.

Unfortunately in itself it’s going to do nothing to actually stem the flow of migrants to Europe from poorer non-European countries, and neither is it going to do anything to curb global population growth – surely from a globalist/ environmentalist perspective what we need is wealthier countries having fewer babies, and more migrants from areas where the birth rate is still high to fill jobs in developing countries in the future?

This is a great example of an unusual family policy, quite extreme in nature, and also a good example of how short-sited Nationalism is.

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Sociological Perspectives on ‘Renting a Womb’  

Kim Kardashian and Kayne West are apparently expecting a fourth child, employing a surrogate mother to carry their fertilised eggs. This will be the second surrogate child, following the birth of their first surrogate child, ‘Chicago’, born in January 2018.

Paying someone to be a surrogate mother, or ‘renting a womb’ is legal in the United States, but in the United Kingdom, surrogacy is legal, but parents are only allowed to pay the surrogate expenses related to the pregnancy, rather than paying them a fee for actually carrying the child.

The reason Kim Kardashian and Kayne West have opted for surrogates recently is because Kim has a medical condition which means that becoming pregnant again carries a higher than usual risk of her dying, so this isn’t just a lifestyle choice, but an interesting ethical/ sociological question is whether or not paid for surrogacy should be legal in the U.K. (NB – there’s a chance that it will be, as the surrogacy law is currently under review.

This topic is clearly relevant to families and households and especially social policy, and it’s quite useful to use it to explore different Feminist perspectives on the family….

Liberal Feminism

From a liberal feminist point of view, renting a womb should be acceptable because it would enable career-women to avoid taking time off work to pregnancy and child birth, and thus prevent the kind of career-breaks which put them at a disadvantage to men.

In fact, as far as the couple hiring the surrogate are concerned, this puts them on an entirely equal footing in relation to the new baby, meaning that it would be practically possible for them to share maternity/ paternity leave equally, rather than it ‘making sense’ for the woman to carry on taking time off after she’s done so in order to give birth.

Paid for surrogacy also provides an economic opportunity for the surrogate mothers, an opportunity only available to women.

Marxist Feminism

From a marxist feminist point of view renting a womb is kind of paying women for their labour in one sense, however it’s a long way off providing women a wage for ‘traditionally women’s work’ within the family, such as child care and domestic labour.

Ultimately renting a womb does little to address economic inequality between men and women because it’s only available to wealthier couples, meanwhile on the supply side of the rent a womb industry the only women likely to enter into a surrogacy contract are those that are financially desperate, i.e. they have no other means to make money.

Radical Feminism

From a radical feminist perspective renting a womb does nothing to combat patriarchy more generally. If paid for surrogacy was made legal in the UK, the only consequence would be to give wealthy couples the freedom to pay poor women to carry their children for 9 months.

This does nothing to combat more serious issues such as violence against women.

In conclusion…

While it’s an interesting phenomenon, renting a womb, rather than just voluntary surrogacy, will probably do very little to further the goal of female empowerment. However, it will obviously be of benefit to potentially millions of couples (in the long term) who are unable to have children.

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The Sex Map of Britain

The Sex Map of Britain is a very interesting recent documentary series which ‘meets people for whom sex, sexuality and having children is far from straightforward.

The series covers the following topics:

  • The reality of being a ‘cheap prostitute’ – selling sex for as little as £4.
  • Why some people choose a career in porn.
  • Asexuality – why some people just don’t want sex.
  • Transgender escorts and parenting urges.
  • The journey of freezing eggs and ‘alternatives’ to IVF.
  • And a trip behind the scenes of a sexual health clinic.

Unfortunately the episode on polyamory has disappeared.

Relevance to A-level sociology

This is a terrific series to get students to explore the wonderful diversity of relationships and sexuality in postmodern society, and taken together, this collection clearly illustrates the postmodern view of modern family life – that there’s no longer such a thing as a ‘normal’ family or relationship!

There are nine available episodes available on iplayer for the next 10 months, and, suitably for a documentary series which explores the diversity of family life in postmodern society, they are all nice and short, so perfect for postmodern students with postmodern attention spans (i.e. short ones).

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Exploring Inequality in Life Expectancy in the United Kingdom

Get rich or Die Young (BBC, Panorama 2018) explores the causes and consequences of low life expectancy in Teeside, in the North East of the United Kingdom. It focuses on the experiences of three people who are living through three of the main causes of low life expectancy: smoking and poor diet, drug addiction and mental ill health.

The documentary is hosted by the ever-reliable Richard Bilton, who seems to be the BBC’s go-to guy for these social injustice documentaries.

Teeside has the largest life expectancy gap in the country. Those in poorest boroughs of the region have a life expectancy of just 67, the same as Ethiopia. Those living just a couple of miles away in the wealthiest boroughs live until 85, 4 years above the national average.

This means that the life expectancy gap between the poorest and richest boroughs in Teeside is 18 years.

The inequalities are literally written on the gravestones, where in some graveyards, 60 years seems like a ‘good innings’

low life expectancy UK.png

Richard Bilton points out early on that most babies in the U.K are born healthy, but a baby’s health is shaped by what comes next, and a crucial variable which influences health and life expectancy is wealth, or lack of it.

He also suggests more than once that leading an unhealthy life is not simply a matter of individuals making poor choices. Rather, being socialised into poverty restricts the kinds of choices people can make, and in extreme cases results in stress which seems to literally take 10 years off an individual’s life.

The first of the three emotionally charged case studies focuses on a 46-year-old male whose life is nearly over. He has fluid on the lungs, sciatica, and type 2 Diabetes, among other things, and is dependent on breathing apparatus.

get rich die young.png

There’s quite a lot of footage of his 4/5 kids musing about how he hasn’t got much time left…. And I guess that’s the ultimate negative consequence of his dying in his late 40s: a partner left to bring up 4 distraught kids on her own

His Illnesses are down to smoking and poor diet: people are four times more likely to smoke than those from wealthy areas.

The second case study focuses on a gran mother who is bringing up her daughters two children because she seems to be a hopeless crack addict. We see an interview with the drug-addict daughter who just appears to have given up the will to look after her kids. (Possibly because she knows her mother will do it?).

Drug deaths in Stockton have doubled in a decade and nationally they are substantially higher in the more deprived areas.

The grandmother attends a support group for grandparents who look after their grandkids because their children are drug addicts…. And we can see clearly how the stress she’s under is reducing her own life expectancy.

Finally, the documentary visits a middle-aged woman suffering from depression and anxiety who has made multiple (unsuccessful) suicide attempts. Suicides are twice as common in the poorest areas.

One of the problems here is that mental health services have been cut. There’s nowhere for her to go. If it were not for a voluntary support group, she’d probably be another early death statistic.

So how do we tackle low life expectancy? 

This is a very short section towards the end of the documentary which visits a school in a deprived area. The headmistress of the Carmel Education Trust thinks she can turn things around. She doesn’t believe the poor-health life path of those in poverty is fixed.

She believes that therapies help kids to better at school, and if they do better at school, they get better jobs, and that seems to be the key to a healthier life…

NB the documentary doesn’t actually go into any depth about what these ‘therapies’ are. This section is very much tagged on the end of the gawp-fest.

Final critical appraisal of the documentary

What I like about the documentary is that it’s rooted in what you might call micro-statistics. It ‘digs down’ into the sub-regional variations in life expectancy in Teeside. It even distinguishes between life expectancy and health life expectancy.

If You rely on the Office for National Statistics own accessible data on life expectancy, you don’t even see these variations!

However, the documentary spends too much time ‘gawping’ at the poor sick poor people rather than analysing the deeper structural causes of poverty related health problems.

There’s no real mention of the longer term historical downturn in the North East of the U.K. which highlights the high levels of unemployment, for example.

I’m also not entirely convinced by the (too brief) look at the solutions on offer. Therapeutic interventions in schools was offered up as the solution. Relying on the education sector yet again to sort out this social mess of extreme in equality in life expectancy just isn’t practical.

Having said that, if the mission of the documentary was to alter us to the extent of the problem and shock us, I think it did a reasonable job overall.

Possibly most shocking of all is that men in the poorest boroughs have a life expectancy of just 64: the average man doesn’t even make it to retirement age. And this isn’t the only region in the UK where this happens. In the very poorest regions, men work hard, pay their National Insurance, and get nothing back for it. There’s something not quite right about that!

Ultimately, I agree with the message the documentary puts out, even if it gets somewhat lost in the emotionalism of the three case studies: the reasons people die young are complex, but the most common reason is poverty – low income limits your choices. There is also no reason why anyone should be getting a chronic illness and dying in their 40s. All of the likely soon-to-be deaths in the documentary are entirely preventable!

Relevance to A-level sociology

This documentary offers some us some qualitative insights into the causes, but mainly the consequences of low life expectancy in the poorest regions of the United Kingdom and so should be relevant to the ‘ life expectancy and death rates‘ aspect of the families and households module.

It’s also quite a useful reminder of how we need qualitative data to give us the human story behind the statistics.

If you want to find out more about variations in life expectancy in the UK, you might like this interactive map as a starting point.

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Explaining the rapid decline in the teen pregnancy rate

There was a 50% decline in the ‘teen pregnancy’ rate in England and Wales between the 6 years 2010 to 2016.

Teenage pregnancy stats England.png

The rate declined from around 40 conceptions per 1000 15-19 year olds to less than 20 per 1000. Similar trends in the 15-19 conception rate occurred in both Northern Ireland and Scotland.

This means that the UK’s teen pregnancy rate has gone from being one of the highest in Western Europe, to much closer to the average. This trend has been heralded as one of the most significant public health success stories of our times.

These statistics were highlighted this week in a report published by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS). The charity commissioned YouGov to collect a combination of qualitative and quantitative data, using the the following mixed-methods approach:

  1. A diary task in which participants documented their day-to-day lives over the course of 4 days (including one weekend.)
  2. Four online focus groups with 16-18 year olds drawing on the diary notes (inNovember 2016)
  3. The results of the focus groups were then used to inform a demographically weighted quantitative survey of 1,004 16-18 year olds which was conducted online in February 2017.

In this this blog post I selectively summarise some of the findings of this research. I focuses on the reasons why the teenage conception rate has fallen so dramatically in the last six years.

Why is the teen pregnancy rate declining?

The conclusion to  the report highlights the importance of three factors:

  1. importance of good quality sex education
  2. The use of contraception
  3. The rise of what the authors call ‘generation sensible’: today’s teenagers are basically more risk averse and responsible than you may think.

To my mind this final analysis is typical of a charity looking to influence social policy. The first two factors are things the government can control, and the link between them and the decline in teen pregnancy is fairly obvious.

Of far more interest is the significance of social factors which the government cannot control: the social factors which lie behind the rise of so-called ‘generation sensible’…

The rise of ‘generation sensible’ and the decline of teen-pregnancy

Just over half of teenagers feel negative about the state of politics in the UK. The report finds that teenagers are worried about their future prospects. They feel that the current older generation in charge isn’t creating the kind of society in which they can prosper. In this context, teens are more likely to knuckle down and study to improve their future prospects.

Teenage views politics.png

Many of today’s teens have a dim view of those who engage in risky drug-related and sexual behaviors, and such behaviours have declined.

Teenagers are not that promiscuous: only a third of teenagers admitted to having had sex, and half of those had only had sex with one person. Some of the responses in the focus groups were that they were too busy for relationships.

Sexting seems to be replacing body-body sex: nearly 80% believe sexting can be a legitimate part of a relationship. Half of teenagers admitted to having received a sext, with a third admitting to having sent one.

Almost half of 16-18 year olds don’t drink at all, or drink only once a month or less. Only 13% drink more than twice a week. Moreover, many teenagers have a negative view of binge drinking and don’t like the risks associated with being ‘out of control’. Today’s teenagers have even more negative attitudes towards drugs.

Teenage drinking.png

Sociological relevance

This study provides a really interesting insight into how risk society and the perception of lack of opportunities in the future have changed the world-views of today’s youth.

It also seems to suggest support for the view that today’s youth have become ‘responsibilised’. They are taking responsibility for their own futures by not engaging in risky behaviour which might reduce their life chances. Foucault would be nodding his head furiously I imagine.

Despite the ‘policy’ feel of the report, I also think it’s an important reminder that social policies are quite limited in their ability to steer human behaviour. It seems that the other social factors are just as important here.

What’s of further interest is just how rapidly this change has occurred.