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A life in family sociology
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From the vantage point of forty years in social research and the study of families, Julia Brannen offers an invaluable account of how research is conducted and ‘matters’ at particular times. This fascinating work covers key developments in the field that remain of vital concern to society and demonstrates how social research is an art as well as a science – a process that involves craft and creativity.

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This piece discusses the concept of ‘generation’ and its several meanings. While it argues that generation is an important concept for putting lives in historical context, it needs to take account of social differences within and between generations. Looking at family generations, such differences become evident together with the processes through which they come about, especially when understood in their historical context. Some of the methodological approaches to analysing intergenerational family research are briefly outlined.

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These reflections are based on my role as a family sociologist for over 40 years whose work has consistently included children in its gaze and has embraced families as wider social networks and intergenerational relations. It discusses the rise of childhood studies as a distinctive field and how it engages, and needs to engage, with other social domains and fields of research.

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This introductory chapter provides a brief biography of the author, offering a glimpse of the author's beginnings in the field of social research. This story is not intended to be a tale of individual endeavour but an examination of the times, concerns, and conditions in which the work of one sociologist develops and how a career reliant on research that is externally funded is forged. The research that the author discusses concerns the family and working lives of mothers and fathers, and also the lives of children, both across the life course and over historical time. The book has two main themes that will be interwoven throughout the text. A central theme is how social research matters in relation to historical context. A second theme focuses on the practice of social research; research is a craft that is learned with and from others as well as through reading methodological texts and training. Although the expertise of the researcher is crucial to all phases of the research process, much of the success of funded research is dependent on collaboration and the creation of conditions that are conducive to team-based research.

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This chapter focuses on the author's experiences of the conditions under which externally funded research is done by looking at a particular research workplace, the work practices that predominated, and the significance of research teams and mentors. There appear to be few references in the literature to the significance of the research workplace and its environs, even in texts devoted to the topic of researcher careers. Yet the research workplace — the organisational structures and cultures (which includes formal employment conditions) in which the researcher and the research project are embedded — is critical to the conduct of research, its quality, and its ethical practice. Most externally funded research is team based. Research teams are organised in different ways even within a research unit or department, with some more hierarchical in structure and culture than others. The chapter then explains that team leaders are crucial in determining whether team members are able to make an input into the study's ideas, methodological practices, written outputs, and the oral communication of the research findings.

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This chapter reflects on the shifting public discourses in Britain concerning mothers and the labour market from the end of the Second World War and shows how the framing of research questions reflects these changing public discourses. At the end of the Second World War, women were ejected from many of the jobs in which they had worked in wartime to create work for returning servicemen. This ejection marked a watershed in women's lives and a backward step in female emancipation. The author began research on mothers in the labour market in the late 1970s. At that time, home was still promoted as the ‘best place’ to rear young children and mothers the best people to do so. This narrative shifted in the late 1980s, reflecting not only the rapid growth in the employment of mothers with young children but the increased emphasis placed by government on market forces and the notion of ‘individual choice’. Reflecting these changes, the social research agenda also shifted. In the 1960s and 1970s, motherhood was a small field of inquiry occupied mainly by those concerned with family life or child development. Gradually, much of the territory of ‘family studies’ was taken over by feminist sociologists whose work threw the spotlight on to patriarchy and women's oppression.

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This chapter looks at the household, focusing on women: how they were consigned to the home and how their status and power over household resources have been historically shaped by men. While women had achieved a degree of emancipation and the role of housewife a degree of status and importance previously lacking, the return of male servicemen to their homes and communities following the end of the Second World War raised policy issues on several fronts. A number of needs had to be met: servicemen had to be found work and the demographic decline needed reversing, requiring women to be child bearers and homemakers. Policymakers turned their attention to these, often competing, policy demands. But ultimately the sexual division of labour in the household was not questioned; so men remained the main breadwinners and the principle prevailed that first and foremost women should devote themselves to their families and be dependent on men's earnings. From the 1970s, there was a major conceptual shift in the social sciences as feminist researchers deconstructed the ‘family’ in order to counteract dominant discourses surrounding a single family form as both desirable and the norm. In this process, households in all their variety began to be identified in the context of rising rates of lone motherhood and step-families.

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This chapter assesses the concept of generation, which brings into view the historical period in which a person grows up. The popularity of the concept waxes and wanes, often coming to the fore in lay, policy, and sociological discourse in periods of rapid social change. A generational unit is formed not only when peers are exposed to the same phenomenon but when they also respond in the same way as a collective. A generation is not therefore only a matter of belonging to a particular birth cohort but the cultures, subjectivities, and actions that it forges. Thus, the concept has strong elements of agency and generational identity as a potential basis for political engagement. The chapter then addresses the application of a generational lens to family lives, with reference to the study of fatherhood. Placing an intergenerational lens alerts social researchers to what is transmitted across generations, including a variety of phenomena from material assets and occupations to values, political beliefs, and social status. Also important are the transmission and reproduction of moral and emotional bonds.

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This chapter studies children and young people in families. Throughout most of the twentieth century, psychology and its associated field of child development were lead disciplines in the study of children and childhood, just as psychology led the way in youth studies. In the 1980s and early 1990s, interest in childhood as a field of study was already firmly established among Scandinavian and US social scientists; the UK was a relative latecomer to the field. These social scientists afforded children ‘conceptual autonomy’, identified children as a distinct group in society, and viewed childhood as socially constructed. They considered children as social actors within a diversity of social contexts, not only as family members. The approach of Danish researcher Jens Qvortrup and his colleagues was path breaking. It drew attention to three social processes shaping children's lives: institutionalisation, familialisation, and individualisation. The chapter then considers the use of participatory research methods in childhood research.

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This chapter highlights food as a key lens through which a sociologist may understand family relations in social context. Given that the meaning of food and its material form are subject to variation and change across time and place, the concept of ‘social practice’ has been employed in its study. A practice approach engages with the habitual aspects of human behaviour that are not easily open to reflexive engagement. From this perspective, it becomes possible to understand how practices are established and consolidated, and how they change. A practice approach, moreover, engages with the constitutive elements relating to a social domain, for example, cooking, eating meals and washing up, and the sequencing of, and the linkage between, these and other practices. Thus, a focus on food can suggest the ways in which family experiences and practices are reproduced, are in tension, or in the process of change. The chapter then looks at cases and interview extracts which demonstrate some of the methodological benefits of food as a pretext for entry into the field of family lives.

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