Search for clues in Caribbean lifestyle

June 2, 1995

A study of Caribbean family structure, prompted by the 1991 census revelation that 51 per cent of African-Carribean mothers are single parents, is under way at the Cheltenham and Gloucester College of Higher Education.

Debates in the media in 1993 suggested that this statistic might account for social problems such as under-achievement.

Study leader Harry Goulbourne says this is too simplistic. Family structures here are very similar to those in the United States, where black people of Caribbean origin who went to the States in the 1950s and 1960s, are highly successful both academically and economically.

The three-year study, done in conjunction with Oxford Brookes University, will focus on families who migrated from the Caribbean to Britain in the 1950s and 1960s, and then back to the Caribbean in the 1970s and 1980s.

As much as per cent of the population of Barbados migrated here during that first period.

To complement census and other data, the researchers will also be using a qualitative technique known as the "transgenerational life-story". This entails in-depth interviews across three generations of families, which allows their life-histories to be mapped.

The study will also take into account the cultural differences between the various islands. Trinidad, for example, has seen less migration than Jamaica or Barbados, and those who did leave were mainly professionals.

More significant, though, are the differences between Caribbean families and other immigrant groups. An important feature is a strong sense of individualism arising from the collapse of tribal affinities and customs that accompanied the slave plantation systems. This break from traditionalism explains why there is no parallel in the Caribbean community of the Asian grocery store, which mobilises family members for labour.

Professor Goulbourne highlights the positive aspects of this individualism: "The worth of the individual outweighs the value of belonging to this or that group. Women have a freedom that is not found elsewhere, and there is strong participation of women in public life."

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