France: The Creation of New Family Biographies

For the first time, the question of whether France is experiencing an ever more diverse range of family models is to be investigated on the basis of complete life histories. These will reveal how family structures develop throughout the course of a lifetime and the various different family constellations which emerge in the process. The project - now under way as part of an Erwin Schrödinger Fellowship from the Austrian Science Fund FWF - will identify the associated effects on birth rates and enable comparisons with other countries in Northern Europe and with Austria.

Is the classical father/mother/children-family a lasting model? Or are there ever more diverse family structures throughout one's life course? Using France as an example these questions will be answered now. © Use of this photo for editorial purposes is free of charge

A person's life story does not revolve solely around their job - family life is also central to the way we all live our lives. Over the course of a lifetime, a person may experience the creation of new family structures, their transformation over time and, in the end, their subsequent collapse.

Dr. Maria Winkler-Dworak of the Institute of Demography at the Austrian Academy of Sciences is beginning research into this subject at the University of Wisconsin, one of the leading social science centres studying population structures. Dr. Winkler-Dworak's study will examine the current structure of such family biographies in France and, in particular, investigate whether these have changed over the past few decades. The core question is whether people are now experiencing an increasingly diverse range of family models throughout their life course, models which are more turbulent and less structured than in previous eras. They will focus in particular on analysing the correlation of partnership and fertility decisions and its effect on an individual's family history.

Classic or Patchwork
Dr. Winkler-Dworak explains that it has so far been impossible to give clear predictions about the changes of the modern family life trajectories: "On the one hand, declining birth rates and a strong tendency towards the two-child norm has led to a standardisation in birth patterns. On the other hand, the increasing instability of partnerships has resulted in the individual's experience of the family often becoming much more turbulent and diverse than before. People often enter into several different relationships during the course of their lives, and also experience a very varied range of family constellations, ranging from the classic father/mother/child family to the patchwork family." Depending on whether the trend towards uniformity in birth patterns or towards ever more complex partnerships prevails, family models can be identified either as uniform or increasingly diverse.

This study of complete family biographies is the first of its kind and aims to reveal which of these two trends is the more dominant and examine the associated impact on the family model. In particular, it will explore the potential effects of unstable partnerships on birth patterns. On the one hand, unstable partnerships make it more difficult to achieve the desired number of children within a single marriage or cohabitation, while, on the other, a new partnership may result in additional births.

Full Spectrum
As Dr. Winkler-Dworak explains, the extensive survey carried out by the French "Etude de l'Histoire Familiale" (EHF) laid the foundations necessary for this study: "The high quality and sheer scale of the EHF survey will allow us to identify the full spectrum of paths families follow, including those which are rather more unusual. We can study the data provided by 380,000 men and women who were asked about their origins, children, partnerships and social background. One key factor is that, in contrast to other surveys, there is a relatively large body of data available on men. In addition to identifying general family models, this means we will also be able to reveal potential differences in the family biographies of men and women."

This study is being undertaken as part of the Erwin Schrödinger Fellowship from the FWF, which gives young scientists the opportunity to work at renowned foreign research institutes. The study will also allow comparative analyses to be carried out with other countries. For example, the U.S. and the Scandinavian countries, like France, exhibit relatively high birth rates alongside more unstable forms of partnership. A particularly fascinating slant is offered by comparisons with other countries which have different structures and which, like Austria, have low birth rates. Plans are already in place to carry out comparative analyses into this aspect as soon as the UN releases new data for Austria in 2009.

Scientific Contact
DI Dr. Maria Winkler-Dworak
Austrian Academy of Sciences
Vienna Institute of Demography
Wohllebengasse 12-14, 6th floor
1040 Wien
T +43 / 1 / 51581-7709

Austrian Science Fund FWF
Mag. Stefan Bernhardt

Copy Editing & Distribution
PR&D - Public Relations for Research & Education
Campus Vienna Biocenter 2
1030 Wien
T +43 / 1 / 505 70 44