Family rhythms: the changing textures of family life in Ireland

Published in Book Reviews, Issue 1 (January/February 2017), Reviews, Volume 25

Manchester University Press
ISBN 9780719091520

Reviewed by: Mary Corcoran

Mary Corcoran is Professor of Sociology at Maynooth University.

What a joy to review a sociological work that is empirically rich and theoretically driven while avoiding a retreat into the obtuse and the arcane. Family rhythms: the changing texture of family life in Ireland is intended as a textbook for social science students but will be of interest to the wider public. The book deftly escorts the reader through the field of family studies, explaining with clarity the pros and cons of different explanatory models. Usefully every theoretical observation is matched with an illustration that brings the Irish family to life. Throughout the reader is treated to excerpts and vignettes from: Life histories and social change (2007) (100 interviews with respondents from three birth cohorts across the twentieth century) and Growing up in Ireland (2008) (a panel study which includes qualitative interview data gathered from 120 of the participating families). These data are supplemented with reference to ‘landmark’ investigations of the Irish family by, amongst others, anthropologists, sociologists and social historians. As such, the book offers a rich repository of the cumulative social scientific study of family practices in twentieth- and 21st-century Ireland.

Family rhythms works on two levels: (1) as a socio-historical primer on family life in Ireland, and (2) as a template for how to blend theory with empirical data to enhance understanding. Empirical materials are deployed to great effect to paint a detailed, textured and informative account of families and family life in Ireland. The text demonstrates the value of adapting an interrogative sociological approach and taking history seriously, refusing to accept binary assumptions about how things were then and how they are now.

The first part of the book sets out to develop ‘a new understanding of the transformation of Irish families since the early decades of the twentieth century’ (p. 9). There is no simple transition from a traditional to a modern family model. In fact, the authors note the extent to which extended kinship relations continued to be at the heart of family life in modern urban environments and were consistent with modern value systems, both in Ireland and elsewhere. There is a real sensitivity to the shaping role of demography on family forms, the changing political economy of family systems and the role of values and perceptions in the constitution of family life. These are mirrored in changing Irish family policy paradigms, which have shifted across time from patriarchal familialism to egalitarian individualism. Adapting a life-course perspective allows the authors to interweave their analysis of family life with broader demographic processes, and to demonstrate the significance for family experience and outcomes of the historical period or birth cohort in which people are born—the life chances enjoyed as members of specific class and race/ethnic groups and the life transitions that are most significant in people’s lives. The authors are effective at demonstrating how the micro-practices of family life are played out against the backdrop of macro-societal changes expressed in demographic, economic and value terms. Moreover, the book is enriched by the adaptation of a comparative approach so that we can understand and interpret trends in Ireland in light of trends elsewhere. This allows the authors to address the issue of Irish exceptionalism. They conclude that while family trends may have diverged from other developed countries before the 1980s, they have been on a convergent trajectory since then. They note, however, that what makes Ireland different or the same as other countries depends in part on the temporal scale against which trends are being measured.

Part II of the book explores changing families across the life course, beginning with the concept of childhood and moving on to family formation, parenting in the middle years and grandparenting in later life. Taking a long historical view allows the authors to note the effect of familial disruption on children’s lives across time:

‘Irish children have experienced family disruption and separation from their parents for multiple reasons over an extended period of time … different forms of family disruption may have different consequences for children in varying social and historical contexts’ (p. 71).

Attitudes toward corporal punishment have evolved considerably, as has what parents desire for their children. People born in the first half of the twentieth century hoped for an adequate standard of living and that their children would retain their religious faith and identity, whereas those born in the second half of the century emphasise their children’s happiness and agency. Contemporary aspirations for children are tempered by anxiety about the world in which they are growing up (p. 77). Similarly, the data show that while contemporary parents express concern about the external pressures emanating from a highly sexualised world, parents of earlier generations were much more inwardly focused: protecting the family name against any hint of sexual impropriety on the part of their children.

Delayed adult life transitions are a feature of the current era and are linked to changing family patterns, including what the authors describe as the ‘unbundling’ of marriage, parenthood and household formation. The tight order and social sanctioning of the sequencing of adult transitions in an earlier historical period have unravelled, producing greater variation and more non-linear sequencing in family practices. People managing households and raising children in their middle years are subject to gendered moral rationalities, which tend to reproduce unequal gender relations in both the home and the workplace. The authors document considerable continuity in the warmth and affection between grandparents and grandchildren despite the changing family contexts for their relationship. While today’s grandparents are relied upon for care and support, grandparents make concerted efforts not to interfere with child-raising practices.

This is a book that is rich in historical detail and sociological insight. It is written in a sophisticated and accessible style that does not talk down to the reader. Family rhythms is destined to be the ‘go to’ volume for those seeking an understanding of Irish families past and present.


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