• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Sunday 25th April, 2010

Family life? – Norwegian bear says it’s a picnic

How well we are able to design universal parenting programs – ones that work as beneficially in Belgrade as in Buenos Aries – is a fair measure of how much we know about our common humanity.For the science to be good it must be good anywhere, even taking into account culture, climate and religion. [See for example: Are the qualities of good parenting good the world over?]But our understanding of the similarities and differences in family life around the world is quite limited. There is neither a common descriptive language nor a widely accepted conceptual framework. Lifestyles change; analytical methods remain in a state of flux.As Norwegians Marit Haldar and Randi Waerdahl report in the UK journal Sociology, in some quarters research is veering toward the view that families are better understood as something that is “done”. “Doing family things” is more important diagnostically that “being” a family.The Oslo University team take another step away from the rut of UK political debate about the future of the family, by drawing on the work of Keele University social scientist Dame Janet Finch, who argued in a 2007 Sociology article that, as much as by what is “done,” families are defined by their need to be “displayed”. Certain behavior, perhaps as superficially mundane as acknowledging a gift, confirms that certain people are part of the family action:

    There are circumstances where the same act – reading a bedtime story to one’s child – would require some form of display in order to establish it as a “family” activity. This would occur, for example, if the child’s father had been on a lengthy trip abroad and the activity was therefore not routine, or if the child’s mother acquires a new partner who wants to act as a parent to her children. In these circumstances the activity may be enjoyable for both parties, but it is not fully embedded in a particular set of relationships as a “family practice” and something more is needed to demonstrate that the man is reading the story as part of his relationship as “father” to the child. Thus display becomes necessary.
This train of thought Haldar and Waerdahl use in the rationale for a form of universal family research that depends for its insights less on the static record of “outsider” interviews and questionnaires, more on the contemporary account of cultural behavior revealed by world-wandering teddy bears.The researchers are ready for the sudden intake of breath:
    We present a method here that yields material about family life that is produced by the circulation of representations in a local context before the material reaches the researcher. The significance of this circulation is that we receive data that are saturated by social and cultural norms with low researcher intervention. This provides a potential for comparisons between cultures. Having two sets of data from different cultures adds richness by providing a contrast that is needed to illuminate the taken-for-granted.
Teddy bears and teddy diaries, they explain, have been used routinely in Norway since 1997 to help children make the transition between family and first grade.
    Each school class is provided with a teddy bear which carries a diary that will visit each child’s home. The diary is used to record the teddy bear’s experiences during these visits. These stories are shared with the others in class, and with families who, in turn, receive the teddy’s visits. Typically, children and parents write the family entry together. Although the intention of the exercise is educational, it provides researchers with a unique access to family representations.
What some researchers might consider the weakness of the approach – the absence of objectivity – here is regarded as an unusual strength. Bears move mole-like between families, diaries circulate, the “cultural repertoires at work in families are reinforced” and the insights along with the multi-perspective detail accumulate.
    Stories are inflated through competition in being wholesome, normal or exceptional. Being received in families where actions, reactions and relations vary, the circulation process creates a social bias in the construction and constitution of the material. By reducing researcher bias and increasing the influence of the local context, we believe that we can retrieve information about meaningful classifications in the local culture.
In their investigation of social norms, Haldar and Waerdahl sent teddy bears and diaries to Beijing and afterwards set the Norwegian diaries beside the Chinese ones. The comparison, they say, illuminated the significance of a number of aspects of family life that might otherwise have been taken for granted or overlooked.For example, Chinese accounts are of family being “done” close to home, whereas the home is rarely mentioned in the Norwegian entries. The normative image of a good Norwegian childhood is located outside; the Chinese variation speaks for a preoccupation with the academic and domestic. But Haldar and Waerdahl’s enthusiasm for circulating diary research is as much about its ability to uncover what cultural context produces as what it appears to draw distinctions between.
    Comparative research faces many challenges of interpretation and measurement. One recurring concern in interpretative comparisons between different societies is that the cultural context in itself plays a dominant role in the construction and understanding of phenomena, and this decreases the potential for cross-cultural comparison. Since we were not interested in comparing phenomena that had been extracted from their cultural context, but rather phenomena that had been produced by the cultural context, the problem of cultural bias was turned into an advantage.
See: Haldar M and Waerdahl R, “Teddy Diaries: A Method for Studying the Display of Family Life” Sociology 2009; 43; pp 1141-1150 and Finch J “Displaying Families” Sociology 2007; 41; pp 65-81.• A podcast discussion of Haldar and Waerdahl’s work is available on the BBC Thinking Allowed website.

Back to Archives