From ESA – Strategies & Activities

Dirk Hofäcker
Edward Tolhurst
Christiane Schnell
Helena Hirvonen

RN Reports – RN13 Sociology of Families and Intimate Lives

Issue 42: 1968 - 50 Years On Wed 28 Nov 2018 0

Detlev Lück, RN13 Coordinator 2017-2019
Vida Česnuitytė, RN13 Co-coordinator 2017-2019

Studying Families and People’s Intimate Lives in a European Perspective

ESA’s very first conference included a panel session on family structures and new forms of living together. It identified need for more extended and systematic family research in Europe. Thus, during ESA’s second conference, held in 1995 in Budapest, the Research Network “Sociology of the Family” was founded and already active with own sessions. Based on trends in family lives as such, the title later on changed into “Sociology of Families”, and then, in 2003, into “Sociology of Families and Intimate Lives”. Initiators and first coordinators were Jean Kellerhals (Switzerland) and Claudine Attias-Donfut (France). Over the decades, the network has been managed by scholars from Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Lithuania, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. Today, RN13 is one of the largest of ESA’s Research Networks. It unites more than 140 researchers from almost all the countries of Europe and beyond, including Australia, Canada, Japan, and the United States.

Until the 1980s, European family research remained rather unsystematic and accidental. Family was predominantly perceived and studied as an institution, coming from a structural-functional perspective. In the past decades, however, family experienced profound changes, which scholars are linking to influences of globalisation, individualisation, changing gender conceptions, changing labour markets, policy changes, and other features of late modernity. People construct their families, personal lives, and intimacy in new, less standardised ways. Cohabitation (without marriage), divorces, single parenthood, same sex couples, and other “atypical” patterns of familial lives have spread and are being de-stigmatised. At the same time, some “traditional” general contours remained stable. This ambivalence and dynamic of the object of research has caused also heterogeneity of research interests, of theoretical schools and methodological approaches among European family research today. RN13 is trying to integrate this heterogeneity and look out for promising innovative perspectives and insights.

Members of RN13 at the ESA Conference 2013 in Torino. From left to right: Detlev Lück, Karin Wall, Rita Gouveia, Giovanna Rossi (coordinator at the time), Eric Widmer, Vida Česnuitytė, Vida Kanopienė, Vanessa Cunha.

RN13 defines its purpose as encouraging, sustaining, promoting and linking research on families and intimate lives from the sociological perspective within and between countries in Europe. The network’s activities are organised by a Coordinator, a Co-coordinator, and an Executive Board, sharing the responsibilities. Additionally, RN13 has an Advisory Board, consisting currently of ten experienced senior researchers who consult with the Coordinators and the Executive Board.

The network organises sessions at ESA Conferences as well as Interim Meetings in the years in between. Numbers of participants and papers have been increasing: At the ESA Conference in Essex (1997), 71 papers were presented; at the last Conference in Athens (2017) 148 presentations were held. For Athens, the Boards had to review more than 200 submissions. In addition to its own sessions, RN13 organises joint sessions in cooperation with other RNs; and also the number of such sessions has been increasing during the last decade.

At the Interim Meetings, which usually are three day events, between 50 and 70 papers have been presented. Here organisers try to avoid parallel sessions or limit them to two at the most. Also, we try to give each contribution somewhat more time and more attention. Our acceptance rates have been around 70 to 80 percent – the priority is to be inclusive rather than exclusive, rejecting only submissions that do not meet common quality standards or the topic of the event. RN13 events are open to non-members of RN13. However, non-members pay a fee for attending Interim Meetings while RN13 members attend for free. Usually about half of the attendees at RN13 events are non-members.

RN13 members at a session of the Interim Meeting 2016 in Bristol (United Kingdom).

Whereas at ESA Conferences, all topics in the context of family research are represented by sessions – from couple relations to parenting, from family forms to family dissolution, from family policies to family practices, from care to domestic violence –, the Interim Meetings set a focus on one, rather large, thematic context. For example, in Vilnius (2014), this has been “Family: continuity and change”. In Bristol (2016), it has been “Parenthood: Perspectives on Family Lives”. This year, 2018, in Kuopio, it has been “Families known and unknown”. Here we have focused on the subjective and cultural meanings of “family” and family-related aspects as well as its legal and official definitions.

Topics of Interim Meetings and their sessions usually reflect research in which RN13 members are involved. Some topics remain in focus over decades, for example family forms or reconciling care and paid work. Some topics are addressed more rarely. During the most recent conferences, these were, for example, legal regulation of family life, same sex couples or polygamy. Some topics are re-debated from time to time, such as fertility, fathering or mothering. The latter two are examples for research in which new theoretical and methodological approaches are applied: Recently more attention has been given to the details of parenting practices instead of looking at rough indicators of who is in charge or attitudes regarding who should be in charge of what.

Ingrid Arnet Connidis giving her keynote speech at the RN13 Interim Meeting 2018 in Kuopio (Finland).

At Interim Meetings, we usually invite one or two keynote speakers, such as Petra Nordqvist and Ingrid Arnet Connidis in 2018 in Kuopio. And we particularly encourage PhD students to submit and present their work. The best two PhD student papers are awarded by financial prizes. After conferences and Interim Meetings, we usually offer presenters opportunities to publish their work as articles or book chapters by editing special issues or volumes.

RN13 members on a boat ride across Kallavesi lake during Interim Meeting in 2018 in Kuopio (Finland).

During an event, we usually have social activities, such as conference dinners and excursions, at which maybe more exchange and networking occurs than during the actual scientific programme. At the last Interim Meeting, for example, we went on a boat ride across Kallavesi lake and we climbed the Puijo tower for a look across the Finnish lakes and woods from above.

Between the events, we keep in contact with our members via the quarterly RN13 newsletter. The newsletter publishes current and relevant call for papers which we know of. It mentions recent publications in our field. And it presents an example of ongoing European research in family sociology. A second medium which we are still developing is, of course, our website. Here, we intend to offer a permanent meaningful self-presentation, see the RN13 section on the ESA website.