Kinship and Social Security

An interdisciplinary project with an anthropological agenda
funded by the European Union's Sixth Framework Programme
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Summary of main findings

Introduction - research aims and strategy

Much of the debate about state family policies turns on the impact that these policies will have on the behaviour of the people affected. Typical questions are
  1. whether state assistance 'crowds out' mutual assistance between relatives because it is no longer necessary
  2. whether, on the contrary, it 'crowds in' mutual help between relatives by providing people with more resources to help each other
  3. the effects of state benefits on birth rates
  4. their impact on labour market participation, particularly by women.
These are complex questions because they involve the intersection between state policies, economic circumstances, personal motivations and cultural differences - and the impact that all of them can have on the answers to one central question, which we phrased as "why (not) help your relatives". This question includes the issues outlined above but extends beyond them since families are central to people's sense of social identity and therefore the interactions between relatives also influence, and are influenced by, the ways people understand and involve themselves in all kinds of community life. Though possibly not a direct concern of policy makers, these wider implications of kinship behaviour need to be taken into account in assessing both the influences on, and outcomes of, policies directed at the explicit objective outlined above.

The first major innovation of the KASS research strategy has been to study these questions, which are generally approached separately, as aspects of an interconnected system. This applies at the theoretical level: where KASS draws on anthropological and historical analyses as well as the more usual economic approaches to the questions outlined above. It is also reflected in our research design.

In order to obtain a cross-section of European societies - in terms of geography, culture and recent historical experience - we chose eight European countries: France, Sweden, Germany, Austria, Italy, Croatia, Poland and Russia. For each country we undertook a historical review of the development of family policy since the foundation of the welfare state, along with evidence on economic developments and changes and available statistical data on changing demographic and family patterns.

For a deeper understanding of differences in kinship practices, and their relationship to local cultures, economic circumstances and welfare provision, we undertook ethnographic studies of 19 different localities (2 or 3 in each of the eight countries, always including both an urban and a rural location). This was coupled with in-depth quantitative interviews which a representative sample of respondents in each locality, in which we explored the extend of their knowledge of their kinship networks, and collected detailed information about both practical and social interactions with their relatives. The collection, and subsequent statistical analysis of data from this kinship network questionnaire, at its close integration with ethnographic findings constitutes the major methodological innovation of our study. The data it provided could be analysed at individual-level to assess hypotheses regarding knowledge, behaviour and motivation, and at locality-level to assess issues regarding cultural and economic differences.

Though the locality-based research strategy provided great depth of information it could not, by itself guarantee that our results were representative at national level. In order to check this we have drawn where possible on national statistics and statistics from comparative social surveys, including the European Values Survey, and the International Social Survey Programme (ISSP). It has been particularly valuable to compare our findings on intergenerational help with those from the Survey of health, aging and retirement in Europe (SHARE).

Patterns of kinship

The role of kinship ties in practical and social life can be thought of in terms of three implicit contracts. Much recent work on kinship and social policy rightly emphasises the implicit contract between successive generations as a source of practical, emotional and financial support - both on a regular basis and as an insurance for times of crisis such as illness, unemployment, divorce and bereavement. Support from the grand-parental generation for their own children's parenting can greatly assist the reconciliation of parenting and employment, and people in middle and later-middle age are an important source of care for the dependent elderly. However, the degree of commitment to these roles does vary according to both culture and context, and the ability to sustain them is also coming under pressure from demographic and social change.

The other two contracts are the partnership between each individual and their reproductive partner (and that partner's kin), and the contract that links everyone, through their kin or in their own right, to the social life of the community as a whole. The contract between reproductive partners includes the division of productive, child-rearing and domestic labour, as well as the ways in which the partners support each other's social identities. The contract with the community as a whole goes beyond the formal obligations and rights resulting from legal citizenship. It also includes the obligations and pleasures of participating in social and ritual life, sometimes in ones own right and sometimes as a representative of ones family. It is a well-established finding of anthropological kinship theory that the three contracts are inter-dependent, that many different combinations are possible, that they are closely connected to questions of economic organisation and inheritance, and that they are to a considerable extent encoded in local cultures (including language). In modern societies, they are moreover embedded in public welfare arrangements.

Our research has confirmed that these general conclusions apply as much to contemporary European societies as to any others, and identified two broad ways in which the three contracts are combined.
  • In one combination, typical of northern and western Europe, the contract between the individual and society as a whole is direct, the conception of society is geographically quite wide, and family life is centred on the reproductive couple. In this combination, intergenerational ties are relatively down-played - though, nevertheless, substantial amounts of help flow from parents to adult children. Co-residence of different adult generations is virtually non-existent.

  • In the other combination, typical of southern and eastern Europe, intergenerational ties are emphasised, and the link between reproductive partners is correspondingly down-played. Features of the model are highly distinct gender roles, a conception of social identity in which the individual relates to the community at large as a member of an extended family, and a community that is geographically concentrated enough for each individual's family background to be generally known. Intergenerational co-residence (or close residence) is common, and allows for extensive flows of help in both directions.
In practice most of the nineteen communities that we studied in depth fall somewhere between these two patterns. However, they do so in a systematic way, since the different aspects of the models vary together. A community that resembles one of the two patterns in a particular respect tends to resemble it in other ways as well.

Though these arrangements have deep cultural roots they are not impervious to economic factors. The second pattern is adapted to family-based production (most notably in agriculture) in which the moral debt of the younger generation for the inheritance of the family capital underpins the relatively high status of members of the older generation. The first pattern is better adapted to modern capitalism, in which most families do not own and transmit their own productive capital, and in which each person ideally enters the labour market in his or her own right, irrespective of family ties.

Recent economic changes, specifically the concluding phases of Europe's centuries-long process of urbanisation and industrialization, and the spread of a knowledge- and service-based economy with its concomitants of an extremely prolonged period of educational dependency and of the equal employability of women and men, have moved communities in all parts of Europe further towards the individualistic pole, but have not abolished the long-standing differences between European macro-regions. The result in northwest Europe has been a more flexible and less gender-biased version of the existing system. Kinship ties in the south and east remain more formal, but the system is coming under strain in ways that will be described later on.

The roots of individual behaviour towards kin

Social systems become real through the behaviour of individual people as they interact with one another, so a full understanding of the social patterns described above requires an account of the way people understand and feel about their connections with relatives and other people - in other words it requires an account of individual cognition and motivation and the way these interact with material and cultural factors.

Some aspects of our data - the facts that economic change has been accompanied by changes in kinship patterns, and that at present kinship patterns in agricultural areas are notably different from those in urban areas - suggest that rational adaptation to economic circumstances plays an important role in the evolution and maintenance of different kinship systems. On the other hand the fact that the pattern of relative differences in household composition between the eight KASS countries has been maintained with little change over the last century, and indeed can be traced much further back in history, suggesting that other factors besides pragmatic rationality play a role in the motivation of kinship behaviour. These points are confirmed when we examine the data on motivation and cognition directly.

There is a nearly universal inclination on the part of members of older generations to help younger relatives. This applies when parents help their young children, but continues after those children have grown up, and are themselves founding households and having children. The reverse tendency, of younger relatives to help older relatives, exists but is much weaker.

Reciprocity is an important factor in relationships between relatives - people are much more likely to help specific relatives if the individuals concerned have also been helpful to them. However, a strict balance between favours given and received is not expected between kin, and major imbalances can persist for far longer than would be acceptable between unrelated neighbours.

The readiness to help falls off rapidly with the increase of both genealogical and (in the case of physical help) geographical distance between the relatives concerned. Each of these factors makes a distinct contribution to the likelihood of providing help. The first reflects a preference for helping people who are closely related. The second reflects a rational preference for offering physical help where the balance between the value of the help to receiver and the cost and inconvenience for the giver is most favourable. The two factors are not independent of each other, since decisions about residence are themselves linked to kinship relationships and are influenced both by the feelings and strategies of particular individuals and families and by cultural norms. The net result is that nearly all practical help between relatives takes place between members of the 'entourage' family, those who are close genealogically, geographically, or in both respects.

However, not all interactions between kin are motivated by practical concerns, and social contacts and ritual exchanges between kin typically extend some way beyond those who are likely to be involved in exchanges of practical assistance. This is particularly the case in those communities where the three implicit social contracts place most emphasis on local and intergenerational ties. This behaviour, which is not obviously rational in utilitarian terms, appears to strengthen the ties that link families together into an overall communities. In less kinship-oriented societies, a similar emphasis is placed on non-utilitarian friendships, which function to link people into a community of individuals rather than of family units.

As well as this distinction between ties between kin and ties between individuals, different communities are distinguished by how widely they typically draw the boundaries of the practically effective 'entourage family' and how much help its members actually give each other. This reflects differences in the cognitive schemes that people in different communities apply to kinship ties - manifested most obviously in distinct systems of kinship terminology, but also in residence patterns and other symbolically charged aspects of behaviour.

There is also some indication that systematic differences in behaviour patterns can lead to differences in cognitive schemes. For instance, there are often cultural as well as behavioural differences between urban and rural areas in the same country, and the Kass field studies have revealed examples of cultural changes in the course of rural-to-urban migration as well as between generations in situations of economic change.

Culture and practice: correlations and strains

We noticed above that differences between kinship practices in the 19 specific localities studied by KASS could be explained as the result of the combined effect of rational adaptation to economic factors and of cultural difference in cognitive schemes - both pragmatic rationality and culturally specific cognitions making their contribution to the behavioural outcomes in each place.

However, the discussion in the previous section suggests that
  1. cognitive schemes might be correlated with economic situation
  2. strains might emerge when cognitive schemes and pragmatic realities are ill-matched.
Both of these predictions turn out to be true.
  1. The kinship terminologies associated with localised extended family systems are found in the countries which still have relatively high proportions of their population in agriculture.
  2. The strains show up in birth rates. For urban areas these are currently lowest in those countries whose culture is marked by large families, emphasis on distinct gender roles, and a tradition of spatial closeness of near kin. There are some indications in our data that in earlier decades (though no longer) fertility in rural araes was highest in those countries characterised by kinship contracts of this kind. The reasons for this might be either a sense of cognitive dissonance between cultural norm and pragmatic reality, or the actual inconvenience of operating kinship contracts that fail to allow for the practical constraints.

The role of the state and our recommendations for policy

Viewed historically ex post public family policies can be seen as largely, though not entirely, endogenous to the kinship systems of the countries in question. However, viewed ex ante by policy makers hoping to make a difference to the lives of their fellow citizens, there is always the possibility of alternative choices that may bring different outcomes.

Looking at the matter ex post we see that European states have typically acted
  1. to deal with emergent problems (poverty, economic needs for new education provisions, low birth rates)
  2. but seek to do so in a way that preserves the existing system of kinship contracts.
  3. Sometimes, however, they act to change the system. They may to do deliberately, as in the case of some communist regimes. More typically however, change comes as the unintended result of some other policy (e.g.on education).
Let us now look ex ante at the choices facing contemporary European governments as a result of the ever increasing penetration of the individualistically based knowledge economy, and of current low fertility rates. We review the possibilities in the light of the causal relationships analysed in previous sections. Our concern is with the broad lines of policy rather than with the precise calibration of specific measures.

One major priority is the welfare of old people. The recommendations here are clear, and apply to societies with both major configurations of kinship contracts. Old people are particularly at risk because families' own priorities generally favour provision for the young. As the ratio of younger people to older people declines the pressure on the limited private willingness to help older relatives will become more severe. Pensions therefore continue to be a priority and, because old people are likely to pass some of the resulting income to younger family members, there will be additional knock-on benefits to younger family members, which will themselves entail reciprocal help to the old people. The overall effect is thus likely to include some strengthening of family relationships (i.e. a 'crowding in' effect).

The other major priority for contemporary European family policy is fertility. State benefits can play a valuable role here by
  1. reducing the risk of poverty for child-bearing families
  2. providing assistance that enables employment-oriented mothers to continue working.
However, since the collapse of communism, measures of this kind have only been implemented systematically in north western Europe (and very recently in Germany) largely because of fears in southern and central-eastern countries that they will upset the intergenerational and gender contracts in the existing kinship system. The earlier analysis of the feedback relation between practice and culture suggests that these fears may be reasonable.

The policy options currently facing governments in the more familistic societies appear to be
  1. implement state provided support for parents, and for mothers in particular. This policy may not be as effective as it is in northwest Europe if parents are influenced by a feeling that help ought to be provided from within the family. But if it is effective the resulting changes in practice risk undermining further the pre-existing system of intergenerational and gender contracts.
  2. use state resources to fund help by family members themselves (e.g. grants to grandparents who help with child care, or to mothers who stay at home to look after their children). Such a system would support existing kinship structures, but as with the previous strategy its effectiveness may be limited by the perceptions and values of social participants. If part of the reason for lower fertility in south and east Europe is a reluctance of potential mothers - educationally socialised into a system of individualistic work relationships - to re-enter the world of family obligations, subsidising family relationships may not be enough to overcome their reluctance. Since we don't know the relative importance of practical difficulties and cognitive dissonance in this case we cannot be sure of the outcome. All that we can say is that policies of this kind may be worth a try.
The need for state support to parents in one form or other is unlikely to disappear unless economic changes lead to the re-emergence of an economy based on local relationships, and the transmission of physical and intellectual capital within the family. We mention this possibility, because something of this kind does appear more common in parts of southern Europe than in the northwest. However, its importance does not appear to be increasing, and so offers little realistic hope that systems of extended and localised kinship relationships can become self-sustaining. In practice, families in both parts of Europe are likely to remain dependent on state support in order to achieve adequate levels of welfare and reproduction.

Initial findings

   Historical research posters
  • Austria by Johannes Pflegerl, Christine Geserick [...pdf]
  • Croatia by Hannes Grandits, Zoran Cica [...pdf]
  • France by Georges Augustins, Martine Segalen [...pdf]
  • Germany by Heidi Rosenbaum, Elisabeth Timm [...pdf]
  • Italy by Pier Paolo Viazzo, Francesco Zanotelli [...pdf]
  • Russia by Irina Trocuk, Alexandr Nikulin [...pdf]
  • Sweden by David Gaunt, Ida Ohlsson [...pdf]

   Ethnographic research posters

  • Austria
Urban Fieldsite by Elisabeth Strasser, Peter Schweitzer [...pdf]
Rural Fieldsite by Gertraud Seiser, Peter Schweitzer [...pdf]
  • Croatia
Urban fieldsite by Carolin Leutloff-Grandits, Tihana Rubic [...pdf]
Rural fieldsite by Carolin Leutloff-Grandits, Danijela Birt [...pdf]
  • France
Urban fieldsite by Martine Segalen, Vanessa Manceron [...pdf]
Small town fieldsite by Sophie Chevalier, Laurent Amiotte-Suchet [...pdf]
Rural fieldsite by Georges Augustins, Anne Sourdril [...pdf]
  • Germany
Urban fieldsite by Tatjana Thelen [...pdf]
Rural fieldsite by Tatjana Thelen [...pdf]
  • Italy
Urban fieldsite by Simone Ghezzi, Simona Sambati [...pdf]
Rural fieldsite by Nevill Colclough, Carlo Capello [...pdf]
  • Poland
Urban fieldsite by Michal Buchowski, Agata Stanisz [...pdf]
  • Russia
Urban fieldsite by Dmitry Rogozin, Elizabeth Polukhina, Anna Turchik, Irina Solodova [...pdf]
Rural fieldsite by Konstantin Poleshuk [...pdf]
  • Sweden
Urban fieldsite by Hans Marks, David Gaunt, Susanne Larsson, Ylva Preutz [...pdf]
Rural fieldsite by Hans Marks, David Gaunt, Susanne Larsson, Ylva Preutz [...pdf]
coordinated by: Dr. Patrick Heady
Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle/Saale, Germany
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