Blood still runs thickly

Kinship and Friendship in Modern Britain
November 15, 1996

Graham Allan concentrates in his latest book on patterns of kinship and friendship in Britain today, and also examines how they differ now compared with the past. One of his most valuable contributions to the debate about change is that he demolishes many of the cruder stereotypes.

Contrary to much that is written, some of it even by sociologists, the empirical evidence indicates that, despite all the changes - economic, social and in people's values - since the last century and even in the past 50 years, kinship continues to show an extraordinary resilience. The key relationships are, as they have been for many centuries, those between parents and their adult children and to a lesser extent between fellow siblings.

Research shows that the overwhelming majority of these primary relatives remain in contact throughout the life cycle. And, despite press reports about the neglect of elderly parents by their offspring, statistically most frail elderly people continue to receive support from children, just as most married children with young children of their own are helped by their parents or parents-in-law.

Allan's measured assessments of the evidence are among the strengths of the book. In reporting the historical continuities, he does not neglect to point out the ways in which old patterns have succumbed. Primary kin, as he says, may "remain significant to people, both in practical and social terms" but "they are not as central in the organisation of daily life as they once were". Likewise, although friendship remains important as a source of "practical support and emotional meaning", social networks are more geographically dispersed than in the past.

His discussion of change focuses on the notion of "privatisation", put forward so persuasively by the authors of the Affluent Worker books in the late 1960s. They argued that in the post-1945 world the family and home had become more central to people's lives at the expense of sociability and participation in the social world outside. If this were so, it would obviously have had profound effects on kinship and friendship as well as on other elements of life.

The truth is that people have certainly become more centred on their family, domestic life and the home, but that at the same time there is no evidence that they have become isolated from neighbours, friends or relatives or generally less sociable. It may be that, because of geographical mobility and the growth of cities, fewer people know their neighbours than in the past. But even this applies less to, say, families with children and older people than to younger people and childless couples, who must always have been different in this respect. It also remains true that most people do have ties to neighbours, even if the links are usually at a fairly trivial level. But, as Allan adds, we know that people often recruit some of their friends from among their neighbours.

Drawing, as always, on the body of research, the book teases out many such insights that go beyond simple statements about people's relationships. An example is a discussion of parents' motives for giving support to their children and grandchildren. When parents help their children to set up their own home, and when, later, they "spoil" grandchildren with gifts, this might, he says, be interpreted as "just the expression of love and care". He adds that some sociological studies have, however, uncovered another element: that in return for their help, the parents are staking their right, accepted by the children, to continue to play a part in their lives. "This does not mean such gifts are not given through love, but it does mean that there are social consequences to such giving whose power comes from their not being vocalised".

The book is unmistakably addressed to students, with reading lists and exercises. Containing as it does such a wealth of material and such balanced interpretations, it will be immensely useful. It is a pity it is unlikely to reach a wider readership.

Peter Willmott is senior fellow, Policy Studies Institute, London.

Kinship and Friendship in Modern Britain

Author - Graham Allan
ISBN - 0 19 878124 5 and 878125 3
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £25.00 and £8.99
Pages - 143

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