What future for family research?


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Content type
Research report

February 1999


Over the last twenty years, the Australian Institute of Family Studies has established itself as a key centre for research on the family in Australia. In planning its future research directions, the Institute wants to ensure that it continues to play a positive, relevant and pro-active role in the years to come.

The Australian Institute of Family Studies has recently been thinking about future directions for its research on the family in Australia.

It is clear that old agendas are changing, and that the Institute needs to be at the cutting edge of these developments. We cannot simply assume that the issues which dominated the Institute's work in the 1980s and 90s are still the pertinent issues for us to be researching in the years to come. We need to think afresh.

Through a series of internal seminars, we have been reviewing our work and its future rationale. We have not made any firm and binding decisions about the directions we should take, but we have begun to identify what we believe may be the sorts of key questions that research should be addressing over the next few years.

This Briefing Paper outlines some of the elements of a possible research agenda. The Institute welcomes discussion and feedback on these ideas.

Background: what was AIFS set up to do?

The Institute's research role was laid down in the Family Law Act 1975 which stipulates that it should:

'promote . . . by research . . . understanding of the factors affecting family and marital stability in Australia, with the object of promoting the protection of the family as the natural and fundamental unit in society.'

There are four things to note about this remit.

  • First, the emphasis is on family and marriage. This means that research which aims to strengthen and support marriage as an institution will always be central to the Institute's work, but it also means that research on other aspects of family life should figure strongly in our work. The Institute does not only work on issues concerning marriage and divorce, although its origins in the Family Law Act mean that such work will always be one key focus.
  • Second, we are enjoined to promote the stability of the family. This suggests that the Institute should not be afraid to 'take sides' in specific debates on the family, even if what it has to say is contentious, unpopular or against the grain of contemporary thinking. As a statutory authority, the Australian Institute of Family Studies should not be partisan, and as a centre for social scientific research, it should at all costs avoid polemic. But it should speak out when research demonstrates that something is 'good' or 'bad' for some aspect of family life, and it should not be worried about making such judgements publicly.
  • Third, the key focus is on the stability of the family, although the Act never defines what is meant by 'stability'. Stability should not be confused with lack of change. As the great French sociologist, Emile Durkheim, recognised a century ago, social institutions can suffer from too little change as much as from too much. Change that is too rapid is disruptive and distressing, but institutions that do not change and adapt as time goes by can become stagnant and anachronistic. We should therefore interpret family stability, not as continuity with the past, but as any pattern of family life which sustains adequate family functioning. More specifically, a stable family is one which supports the wellbeing of its individual members, which stays together for a sustained period of time, and which contributes positively to the wider society of which it forms a part.
  • Finally, there is a recognition in the Act that the family is the fundamental unit in society. This means that the Institute must not only look inside families, to understand what makes them function, but must also look at the relation between the family and other social institutions. Changes in society have a direct impact on family life, just as changes in family life can have huge implications for other aspects of social organisation.

The three dimensions of family functioning

When families are functioning properly, they contribute to stability at three levels:

  • stability at the level of the individual personality (the 'micro' level);
  • stability at the level of the family unit itself (the 'meso' level);
  • stability in the relation between the family and other social institutions (the 'macro' level).

The micro level: Producing stable personalities

The American sociologist Talcott Parsons pointed out in the 1950s that families in western cultures have lost many of their traditional tasks as a result of industrialisation and modernisation, but he identified two areas where they still have crucial, and unique, functions to perform:

  • families provide emotional gratification for adults (it is to the family that most of us still look for deep, committed and affectionate relationships, particularly in the form of enduring and exclusive sexual union between adults);
  • families play the crucial role in the socialisation of children.

Both of these areas are in principle important for an Institute of Family Studies to look at, but the second is the really crucial one. Above all else, the family is the basic unit for producing the next generation of Australians. It does not do this alone, of course, for the schools, the local neighbourhood and increasingly the mass media influence the ways young people think and behave, but the family is still the primary agency in rearing children.

This then points to the first core question to which the Institute should address its research:

What family arrangements (or other child care arrangements) best produce well adjusted and happy children who can fulfil their potential and grow into socially responsible and well adjusted adults?

This first core concern could lend itself to various different but highly pertinent research questions. For example:

  • Is there clear evidence for an association between family situation (two natural parents, step-parent families, single-parent families) and child wellbeing (as measured by intellectual development, health, emotional stability and later behavioural outcomes)?
  • Are there different patterns of parenting in different social groups in Australia which contribute to different outcomes for their children as they grow older?
  • How does institutional child care (nurseries, creches and so on) compare with parental care as regards outcomes for child wellbeing and development?

The meso level: Maintaining stable family units

In order to perform their various functions, families obviously have to stay together over a sustained period of time. To do this, they have to develop strategies for living together (for example, division of domestic tasks, strategies for conflict resolution), and they have to adjust successfully to changes over time (for example, the birth of children, the departure of children to form new, independent households, the growing dependency of ageing parents towards the end of their lives, the transmission of property from one generation to the next).

A second core focus for the Institute should therefore relate to the successful accomplishment of these integrative and adaptive tasks. In other words, we should look at what it is that enables families successfully to stay together and to function well as social units, as well as looking at the sorts of arrangements that need to be put in place when they disintegrate.

Given its origins in the Family Law Act, the Australian Institute of Family Studies has tended in the past to put more emphasis on arrangements surrounding the failure of marriages than on the factors contributing to their success. In the future, perhaps, we should strike a better balance between these two concerns.

The core question posed at this level of analysis is:

How do stable families come to be formed, how do they succeed in managing problems and in adapting to change, and what are the best arrangements for managing the break-up of families when they can no longer function successfully?

Again, this broad question could lead into a number of different but important research areas. For example:

  • We should continue to do research on divorce and marital separation with a view to informing the operation of the Family Law Act, but it would seem appropriate to extend this work into some new but related areas such as:
    • arrangements governing the break-up of de facto relationships as well as marriages;
    • the impact of divorce settlements on the economic and emotional stability and viability of second marriages;
    • how 'no fault' divorce can be made to satisfy the emotional needs of aggrieved partners who feel that they are the victims of behaviour which now goes 'unpunished'.
  • We should probably also continue to do work on how families cope with life course transitions, including the birth of children, 'empty nesting', retirement, and the care of elderly parents.
  • Beyond this, there are questions about how to prevent marital and partnership breakdown. Do people now have unrealistic expectations about the emotional fulfilment to be had from a partner, and if so, how could this be tackled? Can a stronger spirit of individualism in the contemporary period be reconciled with acceptance of family responsibilities? And given that cohabitation before marriage reduces the probability of the marriage lasting, how might the increasing trend to cohabitation be made more stable?

The macro level: Contributing to social stability

As well as adjusting to internal change and development, families must also adapt to changes in their external environment. Again going back to Talcott Parsons, we can understand the family as one among four 'sub systems' which together contribute to a dynamic but stable society. Families contribute to, and are in turn affected by, each of the other three:

  • the economic sub-system- families supply labour for the production process, and in turn consume what the economy produces;
  • the political sub-system - families supply responsible and active citizens and in turn consume various services which the government provides;
  • the community sub-system - families contribute to the vibrancy of community life and in turn make use of the services and relationships which the community can provide.

To understand the contemporary family in Australia, we have to understand the changing relations between the family and these other three sets of social institutions. Change in any one of these three areas will have profound effects on family stability. For example:

  • economic change, such as a decline in the number of traditionally male manual jobs, will force an adjustment in the way men and women organise their roles and responsibilities within the family;
  • political change, such as a reform of state welfare, may require families to meet certain of their needs in new ways;
  • community change, such as a rise in crime or vandalism, will lead families to adjust (for example, by withdrawing their children from local schools or by turning in on themselves).

Equally, rapid change in the family itself will spill over into each of these other areas. A change in the domestic role of women has profound implications for the world of employment; an increase in rates of single parenting will almost certainly result in increasing levels of demand on state spending; a change in the way children are brought up may lead to more anti-social behaviour; and so on.

A third core area of family research, therefore, should focus broadly on the relation between family change and economic, political and social change. The question to be addressed is:

How are contemporary changes in the economy, the organisation of government services and local community life impacting on the stability of families, and how is family change affecting the functioning of the economy, the demands made on government, and the overall cohesion of Australian society?

The sorts of questions relevant to this theme which research might address include:

  • How are changes in the labour market (increased flexibility, increasing demands for highly-skilled labour, increasing opportunities for women) impacting on patterns of family life?
  • Are actual or planned changes in the organisation and funding of state welfare promoting or reducing family stability and self-reliance?
  • Are family changes, such as increased levels of cohabitation and increased divorce rates, strengthening or weakening participation in community life and recognition of civic responsibilities?

The three 'big issues'

Drawing all this together, and expressing it in bald and simple terms, it can be argued that the research agenda for the Australian Institute of Family Studies should turn on three basic issues:

  • What family arrangements promote good child rearing?
  • What family arrangements promote good marriages or de facto unions?
  • What family arrangements promote good citizenship?

The Institute's program: the next steps

If these three core areas of concern do indeed indicate the sorts of areas in which family research should now be concentrated, then the next step will be to reorganise ourselves internally into three research programs, each of which will develop and run just one or two major projects.

Program I: Child development, child care and responsible parenting

Under this umbrella, there should probably be two projects running at any one time, one focusing on issues to do with outcomes of different patterns of child care, and the other looking more specifically at aspects of parental roles and responsibilities. The principal (but not exclusive) disciplinary resource in both cases will be developmental psychology, and the research should aim to inform government policies in areas such as maternity and paternity leave, family benefits, family counselling, and child care provision and regulation. In addition, the Institute will continue to support research on the prevention of child maltreatment under the auspices of the National Child Protection Clearing House.

Program II: Marriage, family functioning and family law

This program will probably also run two major projects at any one time, one specifically aimed at informing family law issues (for example, property settlements, child access, family mediation), and the other aimed rather at understanding and therefore promoting the factors contributing to the success of marital and de facto partnerships. Work here will probably be grounded in the areas of social demography, sociology and socio-legal studies, and this program's policy relevance should lie, not simply in its close association with the concerns of the Family Court, but also in advising on matters to do with marital counselling and the social support of families at different stages of the life cycle.

Program III: The family, social change and social cohesion

Here we should be looking at the way different families combine varying degrees of economic self-reliance with use of state services and community networks, and the results that follow from different mixes of these three sets of resources. The disciplinary basis of this program will be mainly sociology and welfare economics, and research in this area should explicitly inform current policy debates regarding issues such as how to discourage the emergence of an underclass culture of state dependency, the need to encourage family self-reliance, and the concern about the erosion of community networks and social civility (often referred to as 'social capital').

What now?

Over the last twenty years, the Australian Institute of Family Studies has established itself as a key resource in family studies in Australia. Our research planning must ensure that the Institute continues to play a positive, relevant and pro-active role in the years to come.

The Institute is in the process of finalising its research program for the next three years and beyond. Feedback on the ideas set out in this Briefing Paper would be most welcome. The author would also be pleased to discuss the issues further with interested parties.


Saunders, P. (1999). What future for family research? (Australian Family Briefing No. 5). Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies.



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