Conference News: “Comparing families: does international perspective help?”

This overview has been prepared together with Anna Rybińska, one of the organising committee members of the conference “Comparing families: does international perspective help?”.

How to compare families across countries? What such comparisons add to country-specific studies? Has using cross-country comparisons brought us closer to understanding family-related behaviours? Aiming to answer these questions, members of an Italian-Polish FAMCHIP research project organized a conference “Comparing families: does international perspective help?” in Warsaw on December 17.-18.2013.FAMCHIP

Comparative research went a long way since its beginning. In her opening key-note speech, Gerda Neyer from the Stockholm University Demography Unit summarised major changes and revolutions in this field – firstly, moving from “universality claim” to acknowledgment of social context. Individuals begun to be perceived as embedded in social environment shaped by cultural norms, economic conditions, and political structures. Secondly, there was a change from comparing countries to comparing regimes: in 1970, Przeworski & Teune replaced “countries” by “variables” to provide means to quantify differences between countries. The field of comparative research also benefited from methodological advancements and major improvement of data available for analyses.

Looking for differences regarding age, sex, marital status, education, and employment has a long and rich history in family demography. Comparisons across time evolve around the notion of “critical juncture” which is following Neyer’s definition: “a point in calendar time at which a significant change occurs that is likely to have an impact on subsequent behaviour”. In family demography these changes impact family- related behaviours, usually fertility behaviours and are mainly identified with family policy changes such as extending parental leave or increasing financial allowances for families. Comparisons across space center on comparing welfare state regimes by classifying the regimes based on e.g. Esping-Andersen 1990, Lewis 1992 or Gornick et al. 1996. Comparing welfare regimes accounts for different connections between social policies, employment and educational system and aims at understanding if the type of regime might impact changes in family formation processes and individual family behaviours.

Comparative analysis explained by Neyer might cause certain difficulties. While analysing changes in behaviours over time, we face several questions as how long is “before” or “after” a critical juncture? What changes in behaviours were caused purely due to critical juncture? How can we know that the changes did not start before the juncture? Was the change we take into consideration even a “critical juncture”? When we compare welfare regimes, new doubts emerge. Which dimensions of social regimes matter? How to differentiate countries within one welfare type? How to deal with hybrid cases?

Arnstein Aassve from the University of Bocconi in Italy held the second keynote speech, focusing on welfare typologies. According to Aassve, it is important to note that there are other important transitions happening, besides the Second Demographic Transition. Transitions to consider include globalisation, labour market changes, onset of mass education, and digital age, for example. There has also been a change in institutions over time, therefore when looking at demographic dynamics, we should aim to look beyond the cross-sectional or current welfare regime situation.

Although we should account for institutional change over time, there exist also long-term overarching cultural trends or traits that are important in considering welfare regimes, according to Aassve. Such traits vary across countries, but remain stable over time. An example of one of these traits is generalised trust which concerns trust towards strangers or people outside our families, and can be considered an indicator of flexibility of institutions (and thus institutional change). Such traits could be interacted with structural changes that have taken place in societies (e.g. onset of mass education) to see the full dynamics of welfare regime change.

In addition, there were several comparative research works in family demography presented. For example, Sebastian Klüsener (from the Max Planck Demographic Research Institute) gave an overview of spatial variation in childbearing and cohabitation in Europe. Woody Carlson (the Florida State University) compared transition into households between Italian and French men. Brienna Perelli-Harris (the University of Southampton) introduced results from focus groups held in 10 countries about social norms and perceptions regarding marriage and cohabitation. Paula Albuquerque (the Technical University of Lisbon) focused on differences in intergenerational private transfers across European nations.

The conference was part of the “Family Change in Italy and Poland –  FAMCHIP” project – a cooperation of researchers from the Institute of Statistics and Demography of Warsaw School of Economics and the Department of Statistics, Informatics, Applications “G.Parenti” of the University of Florence. During the conference, one of the project members, Gustavo De Santis presented a joint research with Silvana Salvini and Mauro Maltagliati on new ideas on measuring the cultural distance between countries, pointing out similarities and differences between two countries participating in FAMCHIP.  The presentation of Anna Baranowska-Rataj, Monika Mynarska and Daniele Vignoli summarised differences in the impact of religion and social networks on the spread of cohabitation in Italy and Poland. Under a catchy title “Will they turn their back on you?” Anna Baranowska-Rataj and Elena Pirani presented how relations with parents change when young Italians and Poles choose cohabitation. Other analysis conducted during three years of this fruitful cooperation include working papers on childlessness , ties between women’s employment and fertility in different institutional context and research on marital stability.

You can see the full programme of the conference here. The slides of all presentations will be available at the conference website soon, so do check it in case you are interested in downloading some of these presentations.

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