Nine: Seven years in the lives of British families

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The panel survey provides a moving picture of people and families. It could be thought of as a form of timelapse photography in which we see beards sprouting or hairlines receding, in which partners and children move into the frame and out of it, in which the decoration and furniture become, as we view successive snaps, more lush and expensive or increasingly pinched and shabby.

The book began by thinking about social change in the aggregate over recent decades, comparing ‘cross-sectional’ survey evidence from the 1970s through to the 1990s. However, in subsequent chapters the focus on change over time tended to fall away – despite the fact that longitudinal data from the BHPS has been used throughout. The lives of the same people at successive points in time have been analysed, revealing the changes in conditions of life that they experience. However, these individual experiences of life events do not necessarily add up to social change viewed in the aggregate. On the contrary: the micro-dynamics of life, the processes through which individuals’ and households’ circumstances are maintained or transformed from year to year – what might be thought of as life chances – may simply be the best, the most informative and the most powerful way to describe the current workings of the society. Individual dynamics can sum to social statics.

The contrast between micro-dynamics and macro-statics can be illustrated by thinking about the ‘movement’ of a river. If you stand on the bank, you can see the water flowing downstream. If you come back a year later, the water passing by is a completely different set of molecules to the ones you saw last time.

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Seven years in the lives of British families
Evidence on the dynamics of social change from the British Household Panel Survey