Is the ‘Australian Suburban Nuclear Family Dream’ too strong to die?

Whilst we often hold up the suburban nuclear family as ‘typical’ of Australian society, it is becoming increasingly clear that this form of co-habitation was a ‘special’ constellation that characterised the era of the 1950s and 1960s. Several trends mark its evident decline. The average Australian household is shrinking and ageing, and while specific historical factors are often held up to explain this shift – the sexual revolution, the advent of contraception and the rise in family planning – a broader social movement towards greater ‘individualisation’ plays a great part in this story.

The British sociologist Anthony Giddens describes the ‘transformation of intimacy’ in the later 20th century ‘late modern’ period, which continues today. We have so much more independence now from the constraints of traditional family and gender roles, that we can (and do) seek emotionally driven, egalitarian ‘pure relationships’ over traditional bonds such as marriage. This can be seen in the decline in marriage rates in Australia, and in the rising proportion of defacto couples.

Giddens’ theory goes further than marriage. It implies that human relations have become so individualised that we have lost (or can afford to lose) interest in traditional forms of cohabitation – such as the nuclear family – of any kind. This is evidenced in media concerns about the rise in childless couples, single parent families, and in particular, lone person households. However, a close examination of ABS statistics reveals a more complex picture.

The proportion of single parents, childless couples, and lone-person households in Australia increased substantially up to just past the turn of the millennium, but then slowed to almost no change. Research from the Australian Institute of Family Studies shows that while the proportion of childless couple families is projected to overtake child couple families by 2036, there is almost no projected increase in the proportion of single parent families. ABS data also shows only a very small increase in lone-person households to 2036, which is much lower than the large increases seen in countries overseas, particularly in Scandinavia and Western Europe.

Evidently, Giddens’ transformation is taking place to some degree, but seemingly at a lesser rate in Australia than in other countries. Perhaps that raises the question – what makes our families and us so special? Is the ‘Australian Suburban Nuclear Family Dream’ too strong to die?

#S208UOW17 #Tut5

Industrial Sydney – A Snapshot from Philippa Barr

The shape and development of industrial cities like Sydney was not just driven by house prices and factory conditions, but by random occurrences such as the arrival of a bubonic plague epidemic in 1901, and government/citizen response to this plague. As noted by Philippa Barr, government planning and people-power shape cities, for better and worse.

In her SOC208 UOW lecture this week, Barr relates how the Sydney plague created contestation between migrant and Anglo-Australian groups over issues of pollution and sanitation. Despite a poor understanding of the epidemiology behind the spread of plague (i.e. from rats, not airborne vectors), Barr notes that the 1901 arrival lead to the widespread instigation of quarantine on many communities in and around the upper Sydney CBD and Darling Harbour, because of the perceived poor quality of the ‘infected’ air in these regions. Many people, including large groups of Chinese ethnic migrants, were removed to quarantine stations, whole streets were closed, washed, and many hundreds of ‘unsanitary’ houses were demolished. Suspected quarantine persons were subject to public avoidance on streets and public transport (i.e. trams), and ‘citizen vigilant committees’ were formed to go around and identify suspect practices of poor hygiene (often identifying great ‘failures’ along ethnic/racial lines).

Barr notes, channeling ideas from Foucault and Elias, how these instances can be viewed as an example of historical governments exercising greater control over where and how people lived, and of the citizenry at the time exercising greater control over the standards of personal hygiene of their fellow (often non-white) citizens.

#S208UOW17 #Tut4

‘The most suburban nation in the world’ – origins and influences for the Australian nuclear-family suburban model

Australians were amongst the first to claim the space between city and country as sites to raise nuclear families, and laid the foundation for a way of life that would see Australia become the world’s most suburbanized country in the 20th century. They were inspired by religious interests in purer lives and European/American movements to create and live in healthier, greener environments. The English Garden City movement started by Ebenezzer Howard encouraged an interest in creating new communities in places like Northern and Western Sydney.

American innovations had even more to offer us. The Chicago School of Sociology provided a model for the rise of the suburbs in most countries, with the movement of wealthier families into these outer regions as a natural progression away from the poverty, ill health and poor sanitation in the cities. American experiments also influenced the design and spread of our cities, from the proto-suburban model communities of Llwellyn Park near New York – featuring set-back houses, fixed blocks, contoured streets, and shared gardens funded by private owners’ association levies – to the back to front design of Radburn houses that were incorporated into Australia’s large scale, post-war, public housing projects.

And critical to the development of American and Australian suburbs was the taxpayer-subsidised ascension of the automobile over pedestrians and streetcars. Motor cars enabled longer commutes, ‘easy’ movement in and out of suburban spaces, and the creation of shopping plazas with large car-parks built around highway junctions – precursors to our modern, Westfields, mega-shopping malls.

All of this lead to the rise of the ‘special’ 1950s, and the dominance of the ‘quarter acre block’ suburban nuclear family in Australia at this time and for several decades thereafter. Families had never seemed tighter, smaller, younger, or more specialised, with most adults married (only 22% single), an absence of grandparents and extended kin, a median marriage age of 23, and with less than a third of mothers working in some form of paid employment.

However, these movements were already laying the seeds of their own undoing. The unsustainable sprawl of houses, the congestion of cars, and the stifling, mono-cultural and patriarchal nature of the suburban nuclear family, would all become apparent features of suburban life within a few short decades.

#S208UOW17 #Tut3

Industrial cities and families – the seeds of suburbia?

For many of us who grew up in suburban families, we take their existence for granted as a normal, ahistorical way of life. Few of us might be aware of the history of the suburb and the family, and the Industrial and agricultural/ feudal ways of life that preceded it.

Pre-industrial society was comprised of families in a variety of extended and nuclear forms. People lived and worked amongst extended kinship groups in communal villages and towns, and both men and women had a role in the localised, small-scale, production that characterized this time.

These forms changed in the Industrial Revolution. Middle class families became more nuclear-oriented in form, with a clearer gender divide of labour into male wage-workers and female child carers. Meanwhile, working class men, women and children worked long hours in urban factories and lived in over-crowded urban cottages and apartments. This created the terrible mix of poverty, disease, and pollution that was captured so vividly in the writing of Frederick Engels on the Great Towns of England.

In Australia, the 19th middle classes arriving from England and the working-classes families renting the cramped terraces that dominated the cities of Sydney and Melbourne dreamed of a better life. They were to find it, for the most part, in the role out of 20th century suburbia.

#S208UOW17 #Tut2

Boy, Girl, Straight, Gay … Starved, Groomed, Altered?

How do you know if you’re a boy or girl, straight or gay, or something else altogether? Is it just obvious biology, something you’ve always known instinctively? Or is it something you’ve learned? What about your sexuality? Or what about your image of yourself as a sexual person?

While conventional perspectives focus on a hetero-normative image of men and women accompanied by prescribed male and female behaviours, and other perspectives gave range to a number of alternative conceptions – gay, lesbian, queer, transgender etc – the origins and repercussions of our sex, gender and sexuality are contested.

Some say that sexuality is fluid and eroticism is plastic, changing over the life course and in different contexts. Others point out that ‘obvious biological’ parts of our existence – our bodies – are increasingly altered to confirm to socially derived gendered stereotypes. Many women continue to alter themselves in ways ranging ‘beach ready body dieting to labiaplasty in pursuit of the perfect female form. Similarly, eating disorders, cosmetic surgery, and sales of protein enhancement and grooming products are steadily increasing amongst men.

What do you think? How much of our sex, gender and sexuality is innate and biological, and how much is environmental and social?

#S327UOW17 #Tut4

Cities, Communities and Families

What kind of house did you grow up? What kind of family did you grow up with, and did it suit that house? We often take for granted that our childhood houses and families are ‘natural’ forms that we should try to emulate, in particular, the much-venerated nuclear family embedded in a leafy or coastal Australian suburb.

However, is this future desirable and possible? With housing costs increasing, and commuting times from home to work becoming ridiculous, is the great Australian dream of a nuclear family in a suburban house on a quarter-acre block becoming a thing of the past? And if the two don’t fit together any more, which would you rather change – your family or your home?

#S208UOW17 #Tut1

My new JOS article – ‘I’ll just text you’: Is face-to-face social contact declining in a mediated world?

‘I’ll just text you’: Is face-to-face social contact declining in a mediated world?

The Journal of Sociology, 2016

Roger Patulny and Claire Seaman

The rise in the network society might lead to a decline in face-to-face contact as people substitute it with more mediated forms, or an increase in both face-to-face and mediated contact as complements, with unknown consequences for social support. This article examines trends in social contact, mediated contact (phone, online, etc.), and social support in 2002, 2006 and 2010, using aggregated ABS General Social Survey data. Results show an aggregate decline in face-to-face contact and rise in mediated contact in Australia between 2002 and 2010, but no aggregate decline in perceived social support, and a strong positive individual-level association between both forms of contact and social support. There are, however, signs of an emerging class-based digital divide, with low-income older men and less educated respondents reporting lower levels of mediated contact and social support by 2010.

Are we happy yet?

Who doesn’t want to be happy? The last few decades have seen a great rise in the pursuit of happiness. Not the Aristotelian pursuit of a virtuous, well rounded emotional life, nor the Jeffersonian pursuit of happiness through liberty as an ‘inalienable right’, nor even the Utilitarian pursuit of happiness as the ‘greatest good for the greatest number’. Rather, there has been a surge of interest in measuring and planning for the happiness of nations. The OECD now tracks wellbeing measures across countries, Bhutan has pioneered in interest in Gross National Happiness (GNH) over GDP as a measure of societal progress, and the UK is interested in finding ‘happy places’ by measuring wellbeing and happiness by geographic location. Happiness is clearly now an important measure of social progress.

And yet happiness is still largely individualised as an emotion. Despite studies by world happiness experts like Ruut Veenhoven showing that happiness is clearly linked to social structural conditions in that it varies substantially across rich, poor and unequal nations, the treatments for happiness are still largely individualised. Medication and therapy – including mass therapy, or a societal/national foci on promoting mindfulness, positive psychology and CBT – are put forward as the means for resolving unhappiness, even when changes in economic and work conditions, family, gender, ethnic, and age structures, and urban and social connection may be the primary culprits in causing unhappiness. Can the proliferation of lists on how to be happy in 5, 7, 13, or 25 ‘science-backed’ easy (and obviously non-contradictory …) steps really compensate for broader social change?

And what about other emotions? How much of our unhappiness is about rising anxiety, depression, stress and anger? How much of our happiness depends on peace, contentment and love? And how much does our happiness – in all its related emotional forms – depend on what we are doing, rather than how we might sum up our lives on a 0 to 10 scale of satisfaction? In previous research, my colleague Kimberly Fisher and I found (unexpectedly) that Americans would enjoy their time less if they lived like Australians, because they would spend more time doing unpleasant things like housework, and less time doing fun things like having people over for dinner. We also found that the GFC seemed to have the effect of helping Americans re-evaluate the quality of their time, and enjoy the grind of work less and the pleasantness of social and family time more. Clearly, reflecting on and adjusting the social circumstances and lives that make us happy is an important element of our actual happiness. Mary Holmes calls this emotional reflexivity, or “an embodied, cognitive and relational process in which social actors have feelings about and try to understand and alter their lives in relation to their social and natural environment and to others.”

I say – as I always do with regards to all matters sociological – that structure and agency go hand in hand in the consideration of our happiness. We can change the world – and we can change ourselves – one emotion at a time, with reflection and awareness. I say that we need to be reflexive about what makes us happy (how society affects us), what makes others happy (how we affect society), if there are contradictions and inequalities in happiness, and when it is appropriate to beshow, or change our happiness, unhappiness, or other emotions – rather than assuming we should always try and be simply happy as a default for living. If we can do these things, I think we can start to really understand what it means to be happy in today’s society, and to understand and build truly happy societies.

What do you think?

#S327UOW16 #Tut12

Which is worse – the experience or the stigma of mental illness?

According to Beyond Blue, it is estimated that in 1 year, 1 million Australian adults will experience depression and 2 million will experience anxiety; that 45% of Australians will experience mental health problem in their lifetime; that; and that 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men will experience depression.

However, anxiety, depression and sadness are only some of the difficult (or what I would call primary) emotions associated with mental illness. Those who experience it also have to deal with the stigma associated with mental illness, and with a range of secondary emotions associated – disgust, embarrassment, guilt and shame – associated with the experience of stigma. Erving Goffman described stigma as a discrepancy between a virtual and an actual social identity, where a person is “reduced in our minds from a whole and usual person to a tainted, discounted one.” Whether at work, home, school or in public, having to hide one’s condition – or suffer the indignity of being treated as a ‘tainted’ person – only compounds the difficult emotional experience of managing a mental illness.

Kathy Charmaz provides a critical sociological perspective to the problem, in arguing that our society sets up standards of normal health – a ‘core’ of healthy images and spaces – and expects people to either commit to a clear core (be consistently healthy) or accept a marginalized position outside of this (with an internalized, stigmatized, and shameful identity), but not to ‘pretend’ health or ‘exaggerate’ one’s illness, as those with mental illness are often suspect of doing. Gillian Bendelow notes that the great rise in pharmacological treatments over previous decades and that the use of anti-depressants is seen as the more socially conventional and acceptable approach to the ‘treatment’ of mental illness. Evidence of this can be seen in the fact that Australia now ranks second in the world in anti-depressant prescriptions.

Are more anti-depressants the solution? Davey and Chan (2012) challenge their effectiveness, and suggest that they should be increasingly used only in combination with psychotherapeutic approaches. However, this approach still individualises the problem, and does little to look at the social conditions and the stigma that compounds the experience of mental illness. Perhaps its time to move the focus away from the ‘core’ and towards the periphery, and do more to end the stigma associated with mental illness, anxiety and depression?

#S327UOW16 #Tut11

Do we improve mental health through more services, or restructuring our work, cities and social connections?

There has been intense investment in mental health resources and treatments over the last few decades in Australia. This includes the establishment of initiatives such as the Black Dog Institute, the headspace National Youth Mental Health Initiative (a good program, which I helped evaluate), and recently a multi-sector initiative aimed at ‘Creating Mentally health Workplaces’.

Despite these efforts, however, the expenditure on and costs of mental health issues continue to rise, and the prevalence of anxiety issues in our society remains high. Anthony Jorm, at the University of Melbourne, estimates that around 15% of Australians suffer from an anxiety disorder, but many Australians don’t understand these issues, can’t recognise the symptoms, and tend to dismiss them as ‘everyday worries’. This serves both to downplay the severity and impact of anxiety issues on the national psyche, but also – importantly – obscure the social basis to such emotions. A similar story applies to the experience of loneliness. As Adrian Franklin finds, loneliness is endemic in Australia.

There are numerous sociological explanations behind ingrained, or rising, anxiety and loneliness in our society. Certain groups are at greater risk of loneliness than others – older men for example – but sociologists such as Anthony Giddens and Zigmund Bauman point out the atomising affect of late modernity, where human relations become more individualised, and we become less invested in keeping our groups and connections together. And we are not helped by the way we structure our modern lives. Work is increasingly temporary and fractious, sending us off to all sorts of places, to work all sorts of hours, with increasing precarity. Our cities continue to sprawl into suburban ‘exopolises’, lacking natural social centres within which people can connect and socialise. And our media changes, becoming supposedly more ‘social’, but with uncertain consequences in terms of the exact impact it has on our face-to-face interaction.

The exact alchemy of factors that entrench anxiety and loneliness in modern society is unclear. However, the need to examine these factors sociologically is paramount. Do we need more expenditure on mental health services? Or is this just a Band-Aid solution? Do we instead need to examine, recognise, and cost options for making deeper, structural changes to our social, urban and media environments that impact our sense of sociability and security, and our feelings of anxiety, isolation and loneliness?

#S327UOW16 #Tut10