WISERD symposium on the family and civil society: across the generations

On the 20th November, researchers from universities and third sector organisations came together at the London offices of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) for a symposium on the relationship between the family and civil society. Chaired by WISERD co-director, Professor Sally Power, the event provided an opportunity to share updates on WISERD Civil Society projects and to map the diverse approaches being taken to studying the role that family plays in the restriction, development, transmission or transformation of civic engagement.

Families, volunteering and charitable giving

Becoming a parent was identified as a critical moment in people’s volunteering trajectories – with parenthood crowding out some opportunities for involvement, but fostering others (for example, involvement as a school governor or attendance at PTA meetings). Véronique Jochum from the NCVO outlined how limited time resources can reduce engagement in civil society, especially for mothers, unless childcare is integrated into volunteering opportunities. Veronique also explored how some charities and non-governmental organisations are increasingly using ‘the family’ to promote involvement – suggesting that volunteering provides a chance for families to spend quality time together while doing something ‘worthwhile’.

Cardiff University PhD student, Rhian Powell, drew on her doctoral work to explore how individuals make decisions about their own legacy in relation to family, civil society and the state. Her work indicates that while for some, charitable bequests are in tension with family responsibilities, for others, ideas about family can actually motivate individuals to leave money to charities.

Together, these studies shed light on the ways in which family ties and obligations might help us to better understand the motivations and tensions that individuals experience in relation to their involvement and participation in civil society.




Families and political engagement

Mario Quaranta from the European University Institute, Italy, presented international research findings that showed children with socially engaged parents are more likely to be politically involved. Given the significance of this engagement for a range of social benefits it is likely that that those who don’t have engaged parents might be at a disadvantage. This issue was also picked up by Dr Emily Rainsford, from Newcastle University, who drew on a European study charting the unequal intergenerational transmission of values and capital. Similarly, WISERD researcher, Dr Stuart Fox presented data from a WISERD study exploring the intergenerational transmission of Euroscepticism, finding that children of highly Eurosceptic parents are more likely to support Brexit (but that this association was different for mothers and fathers).

These studies all highlight the importance of family experiences in shaping the attitudes and values of children (as future citizens), presenting somewhat of a conundrum – if children participate in civil society just like their parents, does this lead to ‘political immobility?’ Or, put another way, could the role of the family in passing down the skills and values needed to participate in political or civic activities have implications for the ‘supply’ of engaged citizens, and could this actually perpetuate inequalities?

Families through time: thinking about past and future generations

An important theme that emerged during the event was that of family ties extending into the past and reaching into the future – both as a way of understanding individual biographies and identities, and as a mode for thinking about future value formation and behavioural change. WISERD researchers, Dr Helen Blakely and Rhys Davies highlighted the role of kinship, history and place in the intergenerational transmission of trade union membership in the South Wales valleys, and reflected on how these identities have built up over multiple generations. Similarly, WISERD researcher, Dr Esther Muddiman, drew on an ongoing WISERD project to explore how individuals draw on childhood memories when accounting for their own involvement in various political or voluntary activities, and how rifts and ruptures in political values are managed in order to maintain family closeness.

Professor Hilary Graham from the University of York, on the other hand, prompted us to look forward, exploring how reframing climate change in terms of the impact it will have on future generations might prompt civic action. This entails moving away from ‘technical’ or ‘science-based calendar time’ framings of the challenges of climate change, towards thinking about the implications for our children and children’s children. Professor Graham argued that we urgently need a civil society that is inclusive of future citizens and future societies.




Methodological and theoretical challenges for the future

Throughout the day is was clear that unravelling the relationship between the family and civil society involved confronting a number of methodological and theoretical challenges. For example, it is difficult to disentangle life course events from intergenerational dimensions. It is also the case that by emphasising intergenerational transmission there is danger that we overlook the failure of parents to pass on their values and dispositions to their children. Indeed, it could be argued that intergenerational transmission of civic ‘virtues’ is the exception rather than the norm. On the other hand, it may be that the very pervasiveness of this kind of inheritance makes it difficult to identify and measure as a distinct phenomenon. These are issues that we hope to explore in future deliberations.

PhD student, Rhian Powell said, “The symposium provided the opportunity to meet and network with other researchers who have a shared interest in the role of family in civil society. Hearing the diverse ways that others had approached the role of the family in civil society was engaging and thought-provoking. I found the event had a supportive atmosphere which provided many opportunities for discussion and debate.”