Prejudice under another name

February 18, 2000

Academics manipulate research on the family to confirm their own prejudices, argues Frank Furedi

Politicians and all-purpose busy-bodies find it impossible to avoid the temptation to hold forth on the "problem" of the family. But the real problem is when supposedly dispassionate academics adopt a partisan standpoint to promote their pet version of family values.For, in the field of family studies, prejudice often masquerades as serious research.

The controversy around the recent Panorama programme on the impact of working mothers on their children shows how easily family research can become politicised. Panorama mobilised academic research to argue that young children would lose out if both parents worked. But because every opinion on this issue can be backed up by someone's research, it was not too long before academics pointed to studies that "proved" the benefits to children of a dual-wage household.

Thirty years ago, Michael Anderson, editor of the textbook, Sociology of the Family, said that every sociologist "knows at the outset too much about what he is supposed to be studying". In this respect, academics are no different from ordinary mortals. We all have direct experience of some kind of family life, which influences our views on this subject.

Indeed, objectivity is conspicuous by its absence in family research. Surveys about family problems too often confirm what the researcher already suspected. The line that separates "research" from "advocacy" is blurred. The conservative imagination will inevitably discover that the problem is the "single mother". Feminist researchers are more likely to target "irresponsible fathers". Those obsessed with the decline of the traditional family are likely to demonstrate that day care "damages" children. Those who think that the nuclear family is oppressive find that day care "enhances" the development of infants.

During the past three decades, the family has emerged as a high-profile political issue. Crime, drug addiction, eating disorders, health and educational outcomes are just some of the problems that are linked to family dysfunctions.

Governments find it easier to make pronouncements about the family than to promote solutions to wider social problems. In such circumstances, family researchers are under considerable pressure to adopt a partisan stance. Moreover, since funding bodies expect family-related research to provide clear policy proposals, it is difficult for such projects to be objective.

Prejudice-driven research obscures rather than illuminates. Take the national debate on teenage pregnancy. Objective research would ask why society is so obsessed with the relatively small number of teenagers who get pregnant. If this question was posed it would become evident that this "crisis" has little to do with the number of pregnant teenagers but with the fact that young girls who have children are less likely to get married than in the past.

There were significantly more teenage pregnancies in 1973, but in the 1970s young British girls who got pregnant got married.

The best thing family research can do is to critically engage with the common sense politicised opinions on the family. At least this way, social scientists can help shed light on what the problem is that is pre-occupying the nation.

Of course, as responsible citizens we have a responsibility to enter the debate. We are all entitled to our prejudices. But they should be presented as informed opinion, not as the product of authoritative scientific research.

As someone whose child has been in day care since its early weeks I am more interested in finding out the genuine consequences than anyone's apologies or justifications. And other parents feel the same.

Frank Furedi is reader in sociology, Darwin College, University of Kent at Canterbury.

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Family affair, page 18

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