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The album tells us stories. Perhaps the studious child, curled up with a book in the corner of the frame of an old black and white photo at the start of the album, reappears in a graduation photo towards the end. Perhaps the mother-to-be is found again, as we turn the pages, with two toddlers and a less convincing smile. The walk-up flat in the background becomes a three-bedroom semi, and later acquires a roof-light and a downstairs extension, or the semi is exchanged for a studio apartment with a care assistant down the hall. Some faces recur throughout the book, older but still recognisable; we see others for a few pages, and then no more.

Each snap tells us something, but we learn more from the sequence of photographs, and more still from the connections we make between the people shown in them…. The whole album provides a picture that is more than the sum of the individual pictures, more than we would get from, say, a random collection of photos from different families in successive decades of the century. The family album tells about the complex pattern of continuity and change that make up the lives of individuals and households. (Buck and others, 1994, p 10)

‘The family’ is a subject of enormous academic, political and popular interest. It is a central feature of most people’s lives, the framework within which other relationships, activities and events take place. Families have changed hugely during the past generation: not only in the formal demographics of marriage, cohabitation and childbearing, but also in the social and economic relationships between men and women, and between adults and children.

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The BHPS data on family structures, employment, income and housing, on which previous chapters are based, have been the subject of detailed analysis ever since the panel data first came on stream in the mid-1990s. Much of the material covered so far has summarised work that has already been published in a series of more detailed, and sometimes more technically complex, papers. However, the survey also includes a substantial set of questions about respondents’ state of health, and their use of health services. These have not been analysed in anywhere near as much detail, and certainly not in a way that takes full advantage of the longitudinal structure of the data. The purpose of this chapter is to develop the analysis of the dynamics of ill-health. However, because the analysis of this part of the BHPS data is at a much earlier stage, it is necessary to start by considering some more technical issues than needed to be addressed in other chapters. The most commonly used survey-based measures of ill-health and impairment in Britain are derived from cross-sectional surveys. A sample of respondents is interviewed once, and asked questions about their current state of health. This provides an estimate of the number of people ill or impaired at any time, but it provides no direct indication of the rate at which people become ill or recover. This is true of the self-reported health measures obtained by, for example, the General Household Survey (ONS, 2000) and the 1996 Health Survey for England (Prescott-Clarke and Primatesta, 1998); and of the impairment measures obtained by the 1985 Disability Survey (Martin and others, 1988), the 1995 Health Survey for England (Prescott-Clarke and Primatesta, 1997) and the Disability Follow-up to the Family Resources Survey (Grundy and others, 1999).

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Evidence on the dynamics of social change from the British Household Panel Survey

‘The family’ is a subject of enormous academic, political and popular interest. It is a central feature of most people’s lives, the framework within which other relationships, activities and events take place. This unique study provides important new insights into the dynamics of Britain’s social and economic life - in family structures and relationships; in employment and household incomes; in housing, health and political affiliations.

Most previous research has been limited to measuring an individual or family’s position only at the time of the interview. This book presents a clearer picture by following the important events in people’s lives, such as starting work, getting married, or falling into poverty. It reviews existing findings and presents new analyses of data from the British Household Panel Survey. The same 10,000 adults (in 5,000 households) have been interviewed every year between 1991 and 1997.

Seven years in the lives of British families is a collaboration between members of the University of Essex’s Institute for Social and Economic Research. Each of the authors is an expert in the field, but the work has been presented in an easy-to-read style to make these important research findings widely accessible. The book will be read by policy makers and all with an interest in the dynamics of modern society, as well as by academic sociologists, economists and demographers.

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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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