The family valued

November 22, 1996

The supposed decline of the family has long excited moralists and politicians eager to make its threatened status anelection issue. Now sociologist Stein Ringen is about to offer them some academicsupport. David Walker reports.

Labour MP Tony Wright is Tony Blair's ambassador to the thinking classes, an ex-academic who goes the rounds of think tanks and seminars doing high-minded spin doctoring. When he talks, you can be sure he is expressing, albeit in polysyllables and with appropriate scholarly references, the Labour leader's line.

Thus it was striking to hear him at a recent seminar, a few days after Tony Blair's much reported "family values" speech emphasising that Labour's engagement with children, parents, families was no passing fad, designed to win a few paragraphs on the front page of the Daily Mail. The condition - the perceived decline - of British families has entered politics for the duration of the election campaign.

Until now academic contributions to the great family debate have been meagre. It is not that scholars are not interested in the family - Peter Laslett long ago demolished the myth of a golden age of caring, sharing extended families and Lawrence Stone's work has shown that the historical marriage bed was less rosy than moralists liked to think, then or now. But heavyweight study relevant to contemporary debate has been lacking.

Not for much longer - if the promotional material being prepared by Oxford University Press for Stein Ringen's new book is any indicator. If Tony Wright is right and Labour makes a go of the politics of the family and - inevitably - the Tories respond in kind, next spring will see the family debate at a high pitch. Professor Ringen's book, Citizens, Families, and Reform, which is due out in the New Year, will make waves: there is political ammunition in it of high calibre, most of it for the gun barrels of the pro-family musketeers. It may also spark academic controversy as it contains both a thoroughgoing critique of the limitations of much economics and a challenge to British sociologists to get out and start mixing it with the real world. On the way Ringen, a fellow of Green College, Oxford, takes some painful - if exquisitely polite - potshots at certain fellow sociologists.

Stein Ringen's reputation is still largely confined to academic circles. He is someone admired by quantitative social researchers but not widely known, at least in Britain. For the past six years he has been professor of sociology at the University of Oxford, the first holder of this chair.

Aged 51, Ringen is a Norwegian who, after an academic career in Scandinavia, served as a high official in the ministry of justice in Oslo. He enjoys wide esteem in continental Europe; he is on sabbatical this academic year at the Ecole Normale Superieure de Cachan, in Paris. Thus his view is not confined to Britain, though he works with British national data sets. But it is in this country that his conclusions are likely to have shock value. Essentially, he argues, that living together in families - men, women and children together - makes such good economic sense that something must be going badly wrong in the bowels of society for it to have become such an underrated option.

Economic analysis, he says, deals with individuals and that usually misses the huge importance of consumption within the family. "Each family,'' he writes, "is a potent little factory for the production of material well-being.'' Families (in practice this will probably mean women - Ringen does not talk much about gender) produce things that could be bought in the market, from cooking to child care. You get things from living in a family that do not have to be paid for in pounds, shillings and pence. Family life thus adds value - it is not just social, it is also economic.

Families are like hives. "We cooperate on the use of our things, so from many things several people can consume without anyone having to consume less. For example a second person moves into a house and gets accommodation without anyone having to give their housing up. There is a multiplier effect, as if by magic value is created through family life."

Conventionally the family or household is a black box. Ringen's novelty is to try to open the box and put prices on that family consumption. When we look only at the money economy for signs of growth (or decline) we are only seeing half the picture. And when we look at trends, the two economies are moving in opposite directions. There is growth in the money economy, decline in the family economy. People are getting less and less economic value out of the family because family life - parents living with their children over time - is fading away.

"Today the family institution is in very serious decline in our societies,'' Ringen says. "This institution - one that has been around for centuries - is suddenly evaporating before our eyes." And sociologists have missed it. "I do believe that sociology as a subject is totally underestimating the pace and radicalism of social transformation at the end of the 20th century. We are in the midst of profound upheavals in the whole relationship of family, work and childhood yet the discipline has been surprisingly unable to say much about society that others are interested to hear."

How much common ground does Ringen share with the moral doomsters? "I don't think that it is moral decline. Young people are anxious about the family as an institution to which to entrust their life and future for good reasons. The divorce statistics tell them marriage has risks and then there are all the uncertainties about raising children. No wonder young people see family as a high risk strategy and are hesitant. That being said, however, there is no escaping the question of values and commitment. The modern culture is perhaps strong on 'me' and weak on 'us'.

"My economic measures are in a way a bit trivial. Economics is not the main thing in families, the main thing is living a valuable life and raising children. But these estimates are a way of looking at what goes on inside families, and once we start to measure we see that there are very considerable magnitudes of activity in those institutions, social and economic, and that these matter enormously for the lives we live. If we undermine this we pay a heavy price and the economic cost is probably not the most important part.'' But how far is any discourse about "families'' really talk about women, who still do most of the cooking, cleaning, child-caring and value-adding inside the home, whether they work outside it or not? Is not the logic of all pro-family positions either a profound alteration in men's attitudes towards the domestic division of labour or a concealed bid to get women back into the kitchen and lock the door?

Ringen answers equivocally. "Of course there are considerations other than the economic in the demand for work outside the family such as freedom, equality and dignity.'' What he wants is not to get women back into the family but to stop the underestimation of family work. Young men, he notes, "are in deep trouble about their situation in life."

But Ringen is not a hand-wringer. He points to the third noun in the title of his new book, reform. There is much that positive public policies can do for children, for families. People's chances in life can be improved. "There is everything to be gained also in terms of social inequalities from investment and expansion in education.'' Things can change in the family, too. In recent years families have become more economically "vulnerable'' to children in the sense that women without children earn more, so have more to lose when children come. "Families with children are, on average, relatively poor in terms of market goods. Families with children are, however, comparatively consumption-efficient because they are larger and have more members with lower needs than non-child families. From a situation in which families with children are located towards the lower end of the income distribution, which is generally the situation in contemporary industrial economies, redistribution of income to families with children would be a recommended policy whether society seeks to maximise or to equalise well-being."

Over to Tony Blair and John Major, who is surely not going to be left far behind him in the new family politics stakes. According to Stein Ringen, there is much that can be done to support families - even if both parties have yet to give any sign of willing the tax and benefit increases their vaunted pro-family stance would require.

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