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Changing Families in Changing Circumstances

Dr Nick Buck & Professor Jonathan Gershuny, ESRC Research Centre on Micro-Social Change in Britain Nick Moon, NOP Social and Political

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Ever since the sixties the role of the family has been a popular topic of academic analysis and media discussion, occasionally reaching high levels of public consciousness, as with the screening of Cathy Come Home, or the later BBC fly on the wall documentary The Family. It does however seem that the whole issue of whither the family into the 21st Century? has moved to the top of the political agenda recently, and as with many topics at the top of this agenda, discussion of it has tended to generate more heat than light.

The discussion has been hampered by the fact that there is at once too much and too little research evidence. Too much, because as well as the vast range of official statistics on marriage, childbirth and so on, there are large numbers of serious studies attempting to understand the impact of changes in family structure, and many more simply trying to fill or sell newspapers; and too little because even with the survey data available, many of these studies require a large amount of inference and extrapolation to reach their conclusions.

BHPS is an annual panel study of households, or more exactly, of individuals within households, and this is what gives it its unique value. Not only is it a panel study, producing data showing change within the same households year after year, but by interviewing all the adult members of the household it enables the Research Centre to build up a picture of the inter-relationships within the household, for example how a change in employment status of one household member can affect all the others.

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