Family change and community life

Family change and community life

Exploring the links

Jody Hughes and Wendy Stone

Research Paper No. 32 — May 2003

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Concern about community decline, a prominent theme in the social capital literature, is often based on the assumption that changes in family life, such as the increased number of marriages ending in separation and divorce, the growth of lone-parent families, and the increased workforce participation of women, have led to declining levels of social capital in communities. Yet while this idea features in the work of influential social capital thinkers (Putnam 1995;, Bourdieu 1993; Fukuyama 1999), and is common among politicians, policy makers and the media, the relationship between family change and community life has rarely been the focus of empirical scrutiny.

Using a national random sample of 1500 Australians from the Australian Institute of Family Studies Families, Social Capital and Citizenship survey (2001), this paper explores whether there is a link between changes in family life and community social capital, and the nature of any such link.

Overall, we find some support for the idea that changes in family life relate to low levels of community social capital. These findings can in part be accounted for by low levels of social capital and connectedness within families for men, as well as inadequate levels of other resources including time, most notably for women with children. However, we also find evidence that some family changes have positive spin offs for community social capital. In addition, we find that high levels of social capital within families does not always translate into high levels of social capital in communities; and that factors other than family life are also important for explaining levels of social capital in communities.

Authors and Acknowledgements

The authors would like to thank the numerous colleagues and peers who have contributed to the ideas upon which this paper is based, including participants at both the Australian Social Policy Conference 2001 and the International Sociological Association World Congress 2002, where earlier versions of this work were presented.

The paper has benefited considerably from the interest and helpful comments of colleagues at the Australian Institute of Family Studies, particularly Matthew Gray, David de Vaus and Ann Sanson, to whom we are grateful.


We are also indebted to Janeen Baxter, Barbara Misztal and Ian Winter, whose valuable comments have improved this paper. Any remaining shortcomings are, of course, the responsibility of the authors.

Publication details

Research Paper
No. 32
Published by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, May 2003.
50 pp.
Suggested citation:

Hughes, J., & Stone, W. (2003). Family change and community life: Exploring the links (Research Paper No. 32). Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies.



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