Two families, many stories and the value of autobiography

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  • 1 Honorary Professor, University of Manchester, , UK
  • | 2 1937–2020 Emeritus Professor of Sociology, University of Manchester, , UK
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This article is based on many enjoyable conversations with David Morgan over the years, on the topic of our own lived experiences of ‘family’. In order to consider them more systematically, we each wrote an autobiographical account of our experiences up to the age of eighteen, and began to compare them sociologically. When David died in June 2020 the project was by no means finished but he had left a preliminary paper, largely in note form, which he had presented to the annual meeting of the BSA (British Sociological Association) Auto/Biography study group in 2018. I have taken those notes and developed them into this article. It is not intended to be a polished academic piece. It is an account of an unfinished project, in which I have tried to stay as close as possible to David’s notes whilst making it appropriate for a readership rather than an audience.

Janet Finch

Abstract

This article is based on many enjoyable conversations with David Morgan over the years, on the topic of our own lived experiences of ‘family’. In order to consider them more systematically, we each wrote an autobiographical account of our experiences up to the age of eighteen, and began to compare them sociologically. When David died in June 2020 the project was by no means finished but he had left a preliminary paper, largely in note form, which he had presented to the annual meeting of the BSA (British Sociological Association) Auto/Biography study group in 2018. I have taken those notes and developed them into this article. It is not intended to be a polished academic piece. It is an account of an unfinished project, in which I have tried to stay as close as possible to David’s notes whilst making it appropriate for a readership rather than an audience.

Janet Finch

Introduction

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

When Tolstoy wrote the opening lines of his novel Anna Karenina he could not have imagined that they would become so widely used in public and professional discourse. Although often not the focus of contemporary interest, the first part of this sentence intrigues us. Are all happy families really alike? Put like that it seems absurd to think so but then, if not, what accounts for the differences?

Our approach here is to consider the potential use of comparative autobiographies to explore differences between families. We recognise that many sociologists, using a variety of qualitative and quantitative methods, have produced excellent work which demonstrates differences between families on various dimensions, but we felt that there is still more to be teased out and understood.

Beginning in many casual conversations, we became intrigued by the differences between our personal experiences of what ‘family’ meant to each of us when we were growing up. This article draws on autobiographical accounts that each of us wrote for the purpose. As sociologists who each have researched and written about family relationships in everyday settings, the way in which we tell our own stories is inevitably informed by our own particular sociological interests, as is our commentary and analysis (for example, Morgan, 1975; 1985; 1996; 2011; Finch, 1989; 2007; Finch and Mason, 1993).

Our aim is to map the range of differences evident in the lived experiences of families, and to begin to consider how such differences may be explored sociologically. We hope thereby to suggest how autobiographical analysis can contribute to family studies more generally.

Mapping differences

Superficially, there are many similarities between our families of origin. Although we were born nine years apart, our childhood and teenage years were lived in the shadow of the Second World War and its aftermath. In social class terms, our families would probably be categorised as lower middle class. Adopting Tolstoy’s binary division, both families would count as ‘happy’. Both lived in new, modern, rented houses in suburban settings. The houses were decent but not luxurious. Both households had enough to live on, though sometimes money was tight. Each household consisted of two parents and two children; we each were the elder and had a younger sister almost eight years our junior.

In both cases this would seem close to the stereotypical model of the ‘relatively isolated nuclear family’, the bedrock of Parsonian functionalism and also a model that was promoted actively through UK public policy in the period when we were growing up. The independent household, consisting of a male breadwinner, female homemaker and their children was deemed the most desirable state of affairs in the immediate post-war period.

But if we adopt an understanding of family which is closer to lived experiences, or if we look at different family practices (Morgan, 2011) and different patterns of family display (Finch, 2007), these superficial similarities all but disappear.

David

My family was, in many respects, close to the ‘relatively isolated nuclear family’. In the 1940s and 1950s, No. 1 Felden Close, Hatch End was a new semi-detached house consisting of Maurice and Louisa Morgan and their children, David and Stella. Maurice took the train daily to the centre of London where he worked in the telegraphy department of Cable & Wireless, later to be absorbed into the Post Office. Louisa was a full-time mother and housewife, taking occasional domestic cleaning jobs when the children were older.

If we consider a more extended understanding of family, things became a little more expanded but not much. Maurice’s sister, Auntie Reenie, was single throughout her life and worked as a receptionist in hotels, at first in the Isle of Man and later in Weymouth. Her work and geographical distance made her an infrequent, but much welcomed, visitor. During some of the early war years, Louisa’s sister, Nellie, also lived at the Felden Close house. She was suffering from some incurable illness and died before my sister Stella was born. I have seen pictures of her playing with me in the garden but oddly I have no memory of her. My knowledge of her comes from my mother and from reading a diary written by my father during his period in the Royal Navy.

Louisa’s parents were both dead by the time I was born. She was brought up in Oxfordshire where some distant relatives still live and I can remember being taken to a house in nearby Wealdstone to visit one of her relatives, possibly a cousin. There were other relatives in South Africa who corresponded regularly with my mother, sending, for example, a photographic account of the royal visit to South Africa in the late 1950s. Over time I came to realise how important these ties, and their Jewish Portuguese roots, were to my mother although they always existed at a distance.

My father’s family was even more remote although for different reasons. I always imagined that he had been born in Wales where he was brought up but in fact he was born in London. His birth certificate showed that his father and mother lived at different (but close) addresses in the Euston area and had different names; he was in fact born out of wedlock. His father, an author and faith healer, returned to a small hamlet near Aberystwyth where my father and his sister were brought up. My father moved to London in his early teens where he became a messenger boy for the Marconi company. It was here he met my mother, probably through the Methodist Church, whose family had also moved to the Islington area. My father rarely spoke about his own family, and his parents, like my mother’s, were dead by the time that I was born.

I can recall little in the way of ‘family talk’ in our household. My father’s family experiences were probably not very happy and this may have inhibited my mother in talking about her more extensive ties. Photographs that were displayed were of my parents and myself and my sister. Other pictures were kept in albums and shoe boxes.

So, generally, there were few occasions for ‘family display’. Family holidays were almost non-existent. The one occasion where we all went on holiday to Sidmouth together proved to be a disaster. According to my father, I misbehaved most of the time. Otherwise, my father would take me and Stella on short holidays separately and would occasionally take off by himself while Stella and I went on holiday with our mother.

Thus, not only was my family small, highly nucleated and relatively isolated, there was very little overall sense of family. Gradually, over the years, bits and pieces came out about wider kinship connections but these were infrequent and fragmented. For some time I imagined all families were like this.

Janet

On a superficial view my family looks very similar to David’s: small, nucleated, self-contained. From the age of seven until I left at eighteen to go to university, I lived with my parents and younger sister in Bridgewater Close, in a modest but comfortable council house in a quiet cul-de-sac on a new post-war estate in Litherland, a northern suburb of Liverpool. We moved into this house not long after my sister was born, the second child qualifying us to get closer to the top of the housing list.

Bob, my father, was the breadwinner. He worked full time as a trader in –and basically ran - a small grain import-export company, located near the docks in central Liverpool. My mother Muriel was a full-time mother and housewife for some years after my sister was born, though later she did take paid work.

So far, so similar to David’s family. However my experience of ‘family’ could not be more different, revealed by encompassing wider kin in our vision. My maternal grandmother was a key figure throughout my childhood. Until I was seven we lived with her, in her small, terraced house on a busy main road leading to the nearby Seaforth docks. The area was a target for bombing during the Second World War, and there was a still a large bomb crater right behind the house, where I played with my friends despite being warned to avoid it.

My grandmother was the lynchpin of the household; not only did she do most of the cooking and household organisation, but she was like another parent for me. She cherished, supported and when necessary chastised me, without any sense that she was subordinate in parenting. When I started primary school I went to the one nearest to her house, and when we moved to Bridgewater Close I did not transfer to another school nearer to our new home. My mother explained that staying where I was would make it possible for Gran to help to look after me, now that she had a new baby to care for. And she did. I went to Gran’s house every day at lunchtime, and was provided with a cooked meal, right up to the end of primary school. Seven years later, my sister did just the same. At that stage, had anyone asked me to name the members of my family, I would definitely have included Gran; I would not have seen the relevance of living in a different house.

Beyond this, our family lives were shaped around the wider kin group, and especially Muriel’s extended kin. She was an only child but Gran – who had been widowed at a young age – was the eldest of seven children, the youngest of whom was only a few years older than my mother, and so there was a significant overlap of generational boundaries. In total, my mother had six aunts/uncles, their partners, nine cousins and eventually their children, on her mother’s side. In my childhood this was the core group who formed the contours of what ‘family’ meant for us.

This was not a Liverpudlian Bethnal Green. Members of this wider kin group did not live in the same street, nor did they routinely assist each other on a daily basis. Most of them lived in different parts of north Liverpool, and two households were in Manchester. But they were in sufficient proximity to be in reasonably frequent contact, and especially to participate in a round of ‘family gatherings’ – parties to celebrate birthdays, bank holidays, special events. As a child, these gatherings seemed to me to lie at the heart of family life. The parties frequently were organised by my grandmother and took place in her own small, terraced house.

In contrast with David’s experience, ‘family talk’ was an integral part of my childhood, as we followed the lives of the members of this extended kin group, gossiped about them and planned the next party. The parties themselves gave ample room for what I later came to call family display. These were occasions on which it was evident that, in coming together in this way, the participants were acknowledging this group as ‘my family’.

For his part, my father was part of this group but played no active role in constituting it. He made no particular effort to draw in his own kin, though he visited and supported his mother, more out of sense of duty than attachment I think. He accepted that the family constituted by my mother’s kin was ‘our’ family. He knew them all, came the parties, mainly talked to the other men, and went off for a drink with them.

My stronger and broader sense of ‘family’ provides a significant contrast to David’s experience. Not only did it form a backdrop to my childhood, but it seemed to define who we were, both individually and collectively.

Accounting for differences

How do we account for these differences? At the outset we reject any major influence of social class, as there is sufficient similarity between our families to rule this out. We need to look elsewhere in order to understand these differences.

Genealogy and demography

An obvious place to start is genealogy, which defines positions in an individual’s kinship universe and demography, which in turn shows how far those positions are populated. A comparison between our respective kinship universes in childhood shows a dramatic difference: by chance Janet’s was much wider than David’s. So does the number of ‘available’ kin lead inevitably to different conceptions of family?

We are cautious about this explanation. There is a difference between the number of relatives an individual might be able to identify and the, usually much smaller, set that have any practical or emotional meaning. These ‘effective kin’ might be indicated by frequency of visits or interactions, exchanges of support, advice or services and, more generally, the ways in which lives are woven together over time, through a variety of family practices. Not all available kin are effective kin. Janet’s experience illustrates this.

Janet

I have described a group constituted by maternal kin as constituting ‘my family’ in my childhood experience. But a kinship diagram, with me at the centre, would show another group of people who could have been ‘my family’ in the same sense.

My father was the eldest of four siblings – he had two brothers and one sister – and between them they had four children. Apart from my father’s sister, who had emigrated to South Africa in the early 1950s, we did see my father’s kin fairly frequently, especially my paternal grandmother who lived quite close by. We called her ‘Gran Finch’ whereas my maternal grandmother was just ‘Gran’, and there was always a sense that it was not the same. I would have included Gran as part of ‘my family’ but the same would not apply Gran Finch. Although she lived quite nearby and we saw her quite frequently, my relationship with her was just different: friendly but more distant.

The potential effective kin on my father’s side were closer to me genealogically; they were my father’s siblings and their children – my aunts, uncles and cousins – the latter being in the same generation as me. Meanwhile, as my mother had no siblings, kin were from her mother’s generation – her aunts, uncles and cousins – and were more distant from me genealogically. Yet the bonds that shaped ‘my family’ were based on these relationships and not the – possibly more obvious – ones on my father’s side.

So we would argue that, while clearly Janet’s kinship universe had more potential than David’s to identify a core group of effective kin, and hence the possibility of a wider concept of ‘family’, the size of the kinship universe alone does not guarantee that this will happen, nor who will be part of it. Demography does set both the limits on and the opportunities for the formation of effective kin relationships, but genealogy is an inadequate guide to what this means in practice.

Location and locality

Geographical mobility, or lack of it, is often assumed to be a driving force in shaping the strength or fragility of family ties. Both our families moved house when we were children, each to a different area, though David’s family moved further than Janet’s.

David

When my family moved out of London to Hatch End they were moving to a completely new setting. As far as I know, they did not know anyone in the neighbourhood prior to moving here and the estate itself was very recently established. Maurice had made the journey from rural Wales to London, and Louisa from rural Oxfordshire to London, prior to this further period of settling down as a new family. Thus we have a combination of weak or distant kinship ties plus a new and fluid residential area some thirteen miles from the centre of London. There was no real sense of seeking to build relationships based on locality.

In relation to family contacts, my parents were already at some distance from any of their relatives, apart from my mother’s sister, Nellie, who initially lived with them but who died when I was a small child. Visits from Rennie, my father’s sister, were infrequent but the relationship was warm, and she kept up regular contacts through correspondence. Essentially, we remained close to the model of the isolated nuclear family.

Janet

As with David’s family, my childhood featured a move from an older house to one on an estate being built on the outskirts of Litherland. The distance between our old and our new home was about a mile and a half – not far in one sense, but not just round the corner. Travel between two locations was about half an hour on foot, or by an infrequent and unreliable bus service. The distance could have been far enough to reduce very regular contacts and provide the setting for developing different social networks.

In fact the opposite was the case. My mother was a friendly, sociable person. She made new friends, and maintained neighbourly relations with people who lived in our cul-de-sac. However this did not supplant the networks, based principally on family and long-standing acquaintanceship, which had existed before. Although we saw Gran less often than we had when we lived in her house, she was still an integral part of our lives, acting as an extra parent to both my sister and me. Later she was joined by an unmarried sister who, having contracted polio, went to live with my grandmother where she stayed for the rest of her life. Gran and her sister seemed to genuinely enjoy the company of children and were great fun to be with. I have strong and warm memories of Saturday morning outings to Birkenhead Market to purchase dressmaking supplies, or afternoon tea in the Kardoma café in upmarket Southport.

So moving to a new house, in a new area, changed relatively little essentially because we defined the distance from Gran’s house to our new home as ‘not very far’, and let it make little difference to established relationships and networks. Undoubtedly this was facilitated by the ability of both my parents to define themselves as still part of the locality where they were brought up. They had a significant shared history, having met in their teenage years, and been part of a group of friends who gravitated around church, youth club and walking groups. Many of their friends from that era were still around and, while not necessarily in regular contact, must have provided a reassuring sense of continuity. My father, for example, was a natural and talented musician but totally self-taught. For many years he continued to play in, and sometimes conducted, the Litherland Silver Band whose players included others who had been part of the teenage group. It was a great treat in my childhood to go and hear them play on the bandstand in the park on a Sunday afternoon.

The way that my parents were embedded in the locality meant that their main family connections were known and acknowledged. For new contacts, the kinship link provided an easy way in which my mother’s new neighbours could ‘place’ her – a consequence particularly of her association with Domville’s grocer’s shop. The Shop, as we always called it, was the family business started by my great-grandparents. During my childhood it was run by one of Gran’s brothers, a sister and Gran herself on a part-time basis. It was still a source of basic supplies and high-quality goods, like sliced ham, for many families in Litherland, but during the Second World War it was central to the local community because of food rationing – a status that the family plainly enjoyed. My mother had never used that family name but no one was in any doubt that she was part of the Domville clan. I can recall that, on meeting new neighbours, the information that ‘she’s a Domville’ would be met with clear, and apparently positive, recognition.

This is all some considerable contrast to David’s family, who were much less embedded in a locality, as well as having a smaller kin universe.

David

My parents were Methodists (which entailed weekly trips to nearby Pinner in order to attend worship), they were Labour supporters in a predominantly Conservative neighbourhood, and their class position was somewhat ambiguous but less securely middle class than might have been the case for many of their neighbours. At the same time, they did not have the wider bonds of family to fall back upon or to rely upon when confronted with this relatively weak sense of belonging in the wider neighbourhood. They were both less embedded into community and into family was the case for Janet’s family.

So we argue that location – and relocation – does not necessarily change who counts as ‘family’ and how relationships work. Human agency is important here. Up to a point, individuals and their effective kin can define what distance means – how far is ‘too far’ or ‘not too far’ to maintain the character of existing relationships. Of course, the further the distance the more difficult it will be to sustain this, though current communication opportunities would make this less so now than it was then.

Meanwhile embeddedness in a locality can have a reinforcing effect on an individual’s concept of ‘my family’ through the recognition of this by third parties.

Gender relations

Another dimension of family difference concerns gender differentiation in the household and the labour market. The stereotypical model of the nuclear family household, assumed to be based on a heterosexual couple, featured an explicit division of labour between women and men. In the post-war environment in the UK, public policy supported this model of families where men were the breadwinners and women the homemakers. How did this play out in each of our families?

David

Prior to her marriage, Louisa, like my father, worked in central London. As was common at that time, she ceased paid employment sometime shortly after her marriage and certainly before my birth. I do not know whose decision it was to move out to Hatch End but presumably the motivation had something to do with the improved quality of life that might be expected in a fairly new and green suburb.

Once established, it would seem to be apparent that a fairly ‘soft’ patriarchy was to prevail at home. The rhythms of the home reflected my father’s commuting to London and his involvement as a local preacher in the Methodist Church. This sometimes involved him in conducting services in different circuits, sometimes as far away as Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire.

My mother was, in a sense, caught in an uncertain period for women. She had enjoyed, by all accounts, her brief period of paid employment prior to motherhood and was clearly aware of the increasing involvement of women in the war effort. But my abiding memory of her is as a full-time mother and housewife. On reflection I realise what hard work this was, involving lighting and keeping going the solid fuel boiler, washing and drying clothes by hand, and all manner of food preparation including bottling fruit and making jams.

In keeping with the times, my father in contrast saw his role as breadwinner and as an educator. I have strong memories of weekly spelling tests on a Saturday morning. I can recall hearing frequent arguments between my parents – mostly, I recall, about money and the household budget. My father was later to earn extra money as a Pitman shorthand teacher; this had the effect of keeping him out of the house for even longer periods.

The description of ‘soft patriarchy’ probably applies as much to Janet’s family as to David’s, but in a rather different way.

Janet

My father was accorded a special status in the household: he was not expected to do any housework; he was asked what he would like to eat and this was provided, often being different from our food; and he was ultimately in charge of the television, when it went on and what we watched – a factor that became more and more irksome in my teenage years.

Yet this felt like a family where it was the women who really mattered. My father certainly felt marginal, and in many ways he was. He frequently observed (‘just joking’) that the family was dominated by women. My mother, her mother and – where relevant – their kin were at the heart of the family and made it all work. His relationships with them were cordial, but there was a strong sense that he was not part of what was really going on.

I believe that I recognised the significance of this female orientation even as a small child. I have a professionally commissioned photograph – one of my most treasured possessions – of four generations of ‘Domvilles’. I am the youngest, aged about three, with my mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, who organised the photograph. Although I was very young, I recognised that this was a special occasion. I can recall the photographer being ushered into the parlour (where we hardly ever ventured) above The Shop and taking great care with the picture, which shows four generations of women looking confident and strong.

My perception that it was women who counted while men were considerably more marginal to the family, was probably reinforced by my mother’s decision to return to paid work not long after my sister was settled in school, something that was relatively unusual in the late 1950s. Financial pressures would have played a part; I think that my mother wanted an income of her own, so that she was not completely dependent on my father. But more generally she seemed much happier and more relaxed once she returned to paid work.

She got a job which would now be called a PA (personal assistant), using her skills in shorthand and typing gained when she first left school. She worked for a company in the construction industry, located within short walking distance of Bridgewater Close, so she was able to juggle domestic and work responsibilities to an extent. If there was ever a conflict, Gran was again deployed to assist with family needs. My father was not expected to take on any domestic responsibilities, so there was no change to the division of labour in that sense. But my mother was no longer just the homemaker supporting her man; she was part breadwinner.

So what enabled Muriel to step out of the mould? Her personal biography tells us that, over several generations of her family, women had worked and provided for their family alongside men. She had the role model of her own mother, who had always worked in The Shop, sometimes on a part-time basis, and, when widowed at a young age, took in lodgers for a while to make ends meet.

So Muriel was raised in an environment where it was normal for a woman to take some responsibility for supporting herself and her family financially. This must have made taking paid employment feel less radical a step than it might have been otherwise. In a practical sense, this move was facilitated by her family.

It seems from the comparison of our two families that apparently settled views of gender relations in families produced rather different circumstances for each of our mothers. Muriel partially broke out of the stereotype by getting a secure and skilled job. Louisa did not do the equivalent type of paid work, earning money only occasionally by taking on casual cleaning jobs.

No doubt there are many possible ways of accounting for this difference. For our part we see that Louisa lacked some advantages Muriel was lucky enough to enjoy – a supportive environment born of past generations of women in her family who had made financial contributions to the household, and a concept of ‘family’ that stretched beyond the household and made practical help readily available.

Biography and history

It might be possible to list other factors that contributed to the differences between the two families. But what should already be apparent is the interconnectedness of the factors considered so far. Geography, social and spatial mobility and gender mediated through different social networks and personal communities contributed to the two distinct social patterns. A biographical perspective sharpens the focus on how the nature of these interconnected factors evolves over time, as individuals live their lives in historical circumstances which also change – major events, improving or deteriorating material circumstances, and cultural shifts. Although challenging, we believe that our use of comparative autobiographies also reveals the possibilities for better understanding the links between historical circumstances and individual lives, identities and relationships.

David

A specific example of this would be illegitimacy. When Maurice moved from rural Wales to London and its suburbs, this was not simply a journey through space but it was also one through time. This time was one in which illegitimacy was a potential source of social stigma. Quite how my grandfather handled the stigma in this small hamlet near Aberystwyth I shall never know; perhaps at a local level it was ignored. But it was clear that my own father was very much affected by this family secret and the story only emerged over a long period of time in bits and pieces. Stigma is something which is clearly felt at a personal level but which also reflects wider cultural concerns and anxieties, perhaps reflected in law, in everyday language and in cultural representations.

A key example of the interweaving of biography and history as we were each growing up is the dominant historical event in that period – the Second World War and its aftermath. The difference between our ages means that David experienced living through a war directly whereas Janet did not.

David

My family had relatively limited direct involvement with the war and its consequences. Within two or three years of my birth, my father found himself in naval uniform and based in Skegness. Later he was to spend a period in HMS Anson, off the coast of Iceland until he was given a medical discharge. His subsequent war work was largely fire-watching. The war may also have influenced the decision to move out to Hatch End. It was potentially safer and, in fact, received only three incendiary bombs during the course of the conflict.

Janet

I was born the year after the Second World War had ended, but it still cast its shadow during my childhood. The visual signs of destruction were all around us in north Liverpool, and took many years to erase. Food rationing was still operating until 1954. House building was going on everywhere, driven partly by the need to replace houses that had been destroyed. A bomb crater was one of my playgrounds.

My family had been directly affected by the war, without suffering the loss of any members. My father was drafted into the Royal Engineers but did not see active service overseas. My mother was living with her mother in Bridge Road, which was very hazardous during bombing raids. She worked in an insurance office by day, and by night she did shifts on the telephones at the town hall and fire-watching.

The experience of war, at close quarters in that part of Liverpool, must have been very daunting at the time but, as the 1950s wore on and different memories started to be built, my predominant sense was that my family talked mainly about what a good time they had. My grandmother talked about the soldiers who were billeted at her house, en route for embarkation at the Seaforth docks. She always referred to them in very warm terms – they were nice boys, they loved the food that she provided, and they were great fun. My mother’s accounts of the war were similar. She had married my father in 1940 and her top memory was VE (Victory in Europe) night when she had gone to Cornwall where he was stationed. We were told (many times) how they danced to the ‘Floral Dance’ until dawn.

Increasingly it felt as if the war had been the best time of their lives, almost as if they regretted its passing. I was first puzzled by this and then angered, as I grew into a teenager in the 1960s and was influenced by the CND movement and ideas about pacifism. I resented my parents for apparently idolising war. I now can see that, as time moved on, my family could allow themselves to remember the good times. They had been lucky; though surrounded by the destruction of property, no one in the family had been killed or even seriously injured. Meanwhile the aftermath of war, for my parents, had brought a lovely family home of the type that they could not have afforded otherwise. They had much to be grateful for as a result of the war, and no particular reason to remember the difficulties.

So our experiences of war and its impact on our respective families are really very different and, to an extent, counterintuitive. David was born before the war and lived through it, but in a place which was relatively safe from attack. Apart from his father’s brief spell in the Royal Navy, his family was not engaged with wartime activities to any significant extent. By contrast Janet, who was born after the war had ended, experienced it as a very significant element of the environment in which she grew up, both the visible physical destruction, and the continuing presence of the war in her family’s conversations and perceptions of the world.

This contrast is a striking example of why, in recognising the significance of historical events in shaping experience, it is important not to make unfounded assumptions about how that works in individual cases. People may move through the same historical time and similar social space, yet accumulate very different sets of relationships and experiences along the way.

Concluding remarks

The point of departure of this article was the realisation that our two families, although very similar in terms of social class, household composition and housing history, were also different in a variety of significant ways. These could be described in terms of the number and significance of other family members located in different households and the overall symbolic and practical significance of ‘family’ in everyday life.

In mapping differences and beginning to account for them, we have found an autobiographical approach to be very valuable. It has enabled us to look at the paths that individuals take as they move through their lives, with particular family constellations and locating these sets of practices within historical time. We argue that a comparison of two specific families may provide useful insights. In so doing, we recognise that the individuals who pass through particular families will have numerous different stories to tell. Such stories do not simply reflect the various forces – internal and external – that act on the individuals but are also, in their richness and complexity, constitutive of family life itself.

Our argument is not the banal one that families are different because the individuals who compose them are all different. Rather, it is that such differences emerge out of the interweaving of biographies over time within the context, the set of practices, of the particular family. We recognise that this has been a preliminary exploration, raising more questions than it answers. We are not seeking to provide definitive answers here, nor are we seeking to prove or to disprove any theories about family change in the 20th century. Rather, we are aiming to highlight complexities and to encourage the asking of different questions about family life. We hope to have shown that the stories that are woven together within individual families, and the comparison with others, are good to think with.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that there is no conflict of interest.

References

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  • Finch, J. and Mason, J. (1993) Negotiating Family Responsibilities, London: Routledge.

  • Finch, J. (2007) Displaying families, Sociology, 41(1): 6581. doi: 10.1177/0038038507072284

  • Morgan, D.H.J. (1975) Social Theory and the Family, London: Routledge.

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  • Finch, J. (1989) Family Obligations and Social Change, Cambridge: Polity.

  • Finch, J. and Mason, J. (1993) Negotiating Family Responsibilities, London: Routledge.

  • Finch, J. (2007) Displaying families, Sociology, 41(1): 6581. doi: 10.1177/0038038507072284

  • Morgan, D.H.J. (1975) Social Theory and the Family, London: Routledge.

  • Morgan, D.H.J. (1985) The Family, Politics and Social Theory, London: Routledge.

  • Morgan, D.H.J. (1996) Family Connections, Cambridge: Polity.

  • Morgan, D.H.J. (2011) Rethinking Family Practices, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

  • 1 Honorary Professor, University of Manchester, , UK
  • | 2 1937–2020 Emeritus Professor of Sociology, University of Manchester, , UK

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