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Older people's views on their past and their relatives are conditioned by social structure

Two recent doctoral theses carried out within the NCCR LIVES, and which are based on data from the Vivre/Leben/Vivere survey, explore the ageing process from very different angles while reaching similar conclusions. Nora Dasoki at the University of Lausanne focused on autobiographical memory, and Myriam Girardin at the University of Geneva explored family configurations. Both show that in retrospect, the context weighs heavily on the individuals. And in doing so, they somewhat challenge the sacred nature of the family.

What is left when life draws to a close? This question is implied in both of the theses presented within days of each other at the University of Lausanne and the University of Geneva. Both pieces of research drew on data from the Vivre-Leben-Vivere (VLV) survey, which is carried out by the Center for the Interdisciplinary Study of Gerontology and Vulnerability (CIGEV) and funded by the Swiss National Center of Competence in Research LIVES – Overcoming vulnerability: Life course perspectives (NCCR LIVES). On 3 February 2017 in Lausanne, Nora Dasoki defended her doctoral research entitled "Autobiographical memory and ageing: Representations of periods of happiness and vulnerability”; On 13 February in Geneva, Myriam Girardin presented her work on " Family configurations in the last stages of life".

The VLV study brings together a wealth of information on the retired population in Switzerland. Nora Dasoki's and Myriam Girardin's theses focused on the results of the first wave (2011-2012) of questionnaires. However, the two doctoral researchers used different approaches: Nora Dasoki adopted a psycho-social perspective, using as a tool "life calendars" on which respondents marked the various stages of happiness and vulnerability experienced throughout their life course; Myriam Girardin used a sociological perspective with a focus on network analysis in order to describe the different types and modes of family relationships, indicating the quantity and nature of social capital offered by each one.

The common ground shared by these two theses lies in the significance of social norms and of the structural context in the assessments older people make of their past and their close relationships. To some extent, however, both researchers provide a fresh look at certain clichés relating to the fundamental importance of the traditional family. But in particular, they also point out how significantly people's lives continue to be affected by social and gender inequalities.

Mixed feelings toward family

For instance, Nora Dasoki shows that people who did not have children do not experience fewer periods of happiness throughout the course of their lives than those who did become parents. In general, those people who had children report a peak of happiness around that specific time, but the curve then returns to the same level as for those people without children. Interestingly, men are more likely to identify their wedding and the birth of their children as particularly happy moments, suggesting that they could be more influenced than women by what is known as the "cultural life script", i.e. the social norms or prescriptive expectations of what a "normal" life should be like. Nora Dasoki explains this difference by the fact that motherhood involves greater sacrifices than fatherhood: women are therefore less likely to idealise the past.

In her thesis on the effect of family configurations in later life, Myriam Girardin shows that 20% of older people with children do not identify them as being among the most important people in their family network. Significant members of the family unit can also be siblings, relations in the wider family or close friends. This is far from the image of the classic nuclear family central to gerontology where the traditional model is a resource which ensures emotional and physical wellbeing in the 3rd and 4th ages. According to the researcher, the family is actually a highly ambivalent arena involving varying degrees of support and tension.

Without going into the detail of the six family configurations outlined in this work, we will consider for a moment the marked gender asymmetry identified by Myriam Girardin: older people whose daughter is the most significant person in their network benefit from a lower social capital than those whose family configuration places a son in the central role. In this case, the network is denser and characterised by stronger links of interdependency, often associated with a pivotal role taken by the daughter-in-law in providing support. Sons-in-law are almost never identified as significant people in configurations based around the daughter, who is left alone to support her elderly parent(s).

The importance of structure

These two theses perfectly illustrate the predominance of the structural context in people's lives. By exploring family configurations, Myriam Girardin highlights the cases of isolated people who have almost no significant loved one to count on. This situation especially affects those on low incomes and in poor health, mainly women who are widowed, single and/or childless. The researcher emphasises how important resources are in fostering reciprocity and ensuring a later life that is rich in emotional connections.

Meanwhile, Nora Dasoki identifies a difference between memories of happiness and vulnerability. She argues that these two processes use different mechanisms, highlighting the importance of social norms and historical representations. Her thesis confirms that memories of happiness remain longer than recollections of difficult times. It also teaches that memories of vulnerability are very significantly associated with collective experiences such as war. Younger people, who can scarcely remember this period, record it as a time of vulnerability, but state that they experienced other moments which were just as difficult thereafter. Older people, who were entering adulthood in the 1940s, have never again been through such a difficult time in the rest of their lives.

There are many other aspects to be explored in these two wonderful theses, especially their contributions to socioemotional selectivity theory, which states that towards the end of their lives, individuals focus on positive emotions, sorting through their various memories and relationships. But given that space is limited here, we will simply underline how impressed the thesis committees were with these pieces of research and encourage those interested to read them to fully benefit from their insight.

>> Nora Dasoki (2017). Mémoire autobiographique et vieillissement: représentation des périodes de bonheur et de vulnérabilité. Under the supervision of Dario Spini. University of Lausanne.

>> Myriam Girardin (2017). Les configurations familales aux dernières étapes de la vie. Under the supervision of Eric Widmer. University of Geneva.

What does vulnerability mean? Life course research seen through the prism of television series

What does vulnerability mean? Life course research seen through the prism of television series

The concept of vulnerability has become increasingly important in social sciences to explain different phenomena of fragility in the face of new social risks. The National Centre of Competence in Research LIVES has made important contributions to this theoretical reflection through its interdisciplinary approach. This has just resulted in a major publication and several important scientific collaborative projects about life course paradigms. For a better understanding of these developments, a detour via entertainment can be quite revealing. Scriptwriters of the most popular series have intuitively understood what the studies demonstrate: danger is most stressful when it combines both professional and private life. The individual must fight threats at different levels, including threats to his bodily integrity, as well as his relationships, identity and values. Finally, temporality is essential, both to the pace of a good story and in the course of real life.

People have been readily fascinated by series, with their dose of suspense and surprises, for as long as newspapers have existed. In the 20th century, television series replaced printed stories. With the third millennium and the digital revolution, their importance has grown with an increase in the choice and accessibility of shows. One of the most emblematic series of the 2000s was 24, which recounted, in almost real time, the daily life of Jack Bauer, a federal agent in the Counter Terrorist Unit. During the first season the hero was responsible for the protection of a candidate for the presidential election. At the same time his own family was under threat: his wife and daughter had been kidnapped. Excitement guaranteed for viewers who quickly became addicted to the story, thanks to the gripping pace and desperate energy emanating from the main character who, without his emotional bonds, would have been a ‘simple’ superman devoid of human complexity.

In the years since, countless series have used the recipe combining professional with private ingredients as a guarantee of success. This tension across different life domains – relationships, place of living, activities, health – is also the first line of investigation by the National Centre of Competence in Research LIVES – Overcoming vulnerability: Life course perspectives (NCCR LIVES). This scientific programme based at the University of Lausanne and the University of Geneva, with collaboration in Zurich, Berne, Fribourg, Basel, Lucerne, etc. has just published a special issue of the prestigious American journal Research in Human Development. This is an important stage in the theorisation of the concept of vulnerability, considered to be the most likely to federate multiple disciplines of social sciences involved in life course research.

Diffusion of stress

According to Dario Spini, Laura Bernardi and Michel Oris, the editors of the publication, “vulnerability is a lack of resources in one or more life domains that, in specific contexts, exposes individuals or groups to (1) negative consequences related to sources of stress; (2) an inability to cope effectively with stressors; and (3) an inability to recover from stressors or to take advantage of opportunities by a given deadline.” The authors appeal for a “systemic and dynamic” vision of vulnerability in the life course, and propose three orientations for research. Firstly, they consider that the process of diffusion of stress and the mobilization of resources is multidimensional, that it crosses different domains of life, as Jack Bauer’s situation illustrates. The three researchers go on to propose that the process is multilevel in nature, from the micro to the macro. This means that when observing vulnerable people, their social and normative environment must also be taken into consideration. Lastly, they underline that the analysis of vulnerability in the life course must be multidirectional: Vulnerability evolves over time, is subject to variations for which causes are rarely simple to identify, and escapes neither retrospective interpretation nor corrective anticipation.

The best example produced by an American studio to illustrate the three above-mentioned perspectives is Breaking Bad. The series won several awards and garnered acclaim from critics and viewers alike between 2008 and 2013. Five seasons tell the story of a man simple in appearance, a chemistry teacher in a suburban high school. He turns to producing drugs to provide for his family when he learns he has cancer. The intrigue skilfully combines Walter White’s two occupations – one legal, the other illegal – with his family’s financial and health problems – a pregnant wife, a disabled son, his almost paternal relationship with his accomplice, a police officer as brother-in-law, and his chemotherapy treatment which he must undergo and finance. His production of methamphetamine brings about a devastating chain of events which drag him further and further down the road to immorality.

Conflicting norms

If the series was such a success, other than for its cinematographic qualities, it is due to a main character each of us can identify with: a perfect representative of the middle class who is drawn into an unknown world, haunted by his conscience, but relishing the crimes he is led to commit. This example shows to what degree our referential norms can be brought into confrontation: do I have the right to do wrong to take care of my family? Is respect for the law simply a cowardly front, whereas the adrenaline generated by illegality makes a sick man finally feel truly alive? Do society’s expectations – be a good parent, earn an honest living, accept our lot – equip us for the unforeseen if the welfare State is defective?

This is, in part, the theme of the multilevel orientation proposed by the NCCR LIVES. In the special edition dedicated to vulnerability, Eric Widmer and Dario Spini publish a slightly provocative article establishing the notion of “misleading norms”. These are codes of conduct which are taken for granted but over time may lead to unfavourable developments. The two researchers take the example of parent couples with preschool children whereby the mother withdraws from professional life to conform to the predominant expectations of Swiss society. With the increase in the number of divorces, this norm of the stay-at-home mother leads to a high risk of vulnerability for those who look for a job later. To a lesser extent, the norm of the bread-winner father can prevent certain men from developing adequate relationships with their children, a situation that might make them suffer after a separation.

Little tales in the great history

The third approach, the multidirectional aspect, is easily explained using the British series, Downton Abbey. This saga, which covers the period from 1912 to the middle of the 1920s, evokes different historical events (the sinking of the Titanic, the First World War, the Spanish Flu, the Irish War of Independence, etc.) which have an impact on all the characters. The temporal dimension is not merely a background to create a context. Following the same characters over several years, and observing the evolution of successive generations, makes it possible to understand a highly-debated principle central to life course research: the accumulation of advantages and disadvantages, which is not always as mechanical as determinist approaches may lead us to think. Downton Abbey accentuates the relationships between and within social classes – aristocrats and servants, observing their practices and opinions, a reminder of the multilevel approach. And as in any good series, the multidimensional approach adds to the intrigue and gives the characters more depth.

It is noteworthy that in both the articles forming the special issue of Research in Human Development, and the three series referred to, inequality between men and women is patent. In 24, the hero’s wife and daughter are just sidekicks cast as victims. In Breaking Bad the main character’s wife is a stay-at-home mother about to give birth, despondent about her frustrated literary ambitions. And in Downton Abbey, the daughters cannot inherit, and this is the essential starting point for the narrative.

Higher risks for women

The gender theme is indeed central to the articles in the special edition about vulnerability published by the NCCR LIVES. The article focusing on the multidimensional theme, by Laura Bernardi, Grégoire Bollmann, Gina Potarca and Jérôme Rossier, demonstrates that the transition to parenthood affects women’s well-being much more than that of men, in their efforts to reconcile family, work and leisure; whereas personality differences have only limited impact. The article by Eric Widmer and Dario Spini about the multilevel theme effectively shows, as explained above, that women pay a higher price for respecting gender norms and staying at home to bring up their children. Finally, the article about the multidirectional aspect by Michel Oris, Rainer Gabriel, Gilbert Ritschard and Matthias Kliegel examines poverty in old age in Switzerland. The article illustrates that the most vulnerable are, once again, predominantly women: A part of the population which did not accumulate the necessary capital resources, in economic, social, cultural and institutional terms, before their retirement.

Television series may not represent real life, but research about life courses attempts to grasp it, to have a better understanding of the mechanisms. The common point between entertainment and scientific studies is the interest in the darker side of our existence, where human beings feel vulnerable. The difference is that research also attempts to understand what may help overcome the difficulties, whereas series take a perverse pleasure in making their characters suffer. “Happy endings” are becoming less and less fashionable because they generate less anticipation for a possible future season. Research on the other hand, has everything to gain from examining why some fare better than others. Understanding agency – in other words, the capacity for action which is vital to resilience – is the real challenge for future life course research, conclude Kenneth Ferraro and Markus H. Schafer, the American researchers asked to comment on this special edition: A publication which definitively positions LIVES as an academic standard internationally.

>> Dario Spini, Laura Bernardi, Michel Oris (2017). Vulnerability across the Life Course. Research in Human Development. Vol. 14, Issue 1.

>> A webinar will take place on February 24 at 5:00 pm, Geneva time (= 4:00 pm GMT, 11:00 am EST). Click here for more information.

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"Joint welfare and self-interest in families": Call for papers for a workshop at the SSA Congress

The workshop "Joint welfare and self-interest in families: Striking a balance between the individual, the family, and the community" is organised by a team from the Swiss Centre of Expertise in the Social Sciences FORS and the NCCR LIVES at the University of Lausanne in the framework of the Congress of the Swiss Sociological Association, which will take place from 21 to 23 June 2017 in Zurich. Deadline for submission is extended to March 6.

Western Countries have experienced complex changes in partnership and parenthood patterns in the last several decades. The share of partnerships accounted for by heterogamous married unions has declined. The pathways to family formation have become increasingly multifaceted, often characterized by a postponement or decline in childbearing within marriage, a rise in the proportion of children born within cohabitation, an increase in homosexual parenthood, and in step-parenthood as a consequence of the instability of unions. Family trajectories are more heterogeneous both in terms of events and in terms of their sequencing.

Joint welfare and self-interest in families

Increasing diversity in families may impact the alignment of individual self-interest and family wellbeing, which has implications for the practice of social support and solidarity within families and for the perceived and legal obligations among different family members. Solidarity towards former spouses or their children may compete with solidarity towards new partners and their offspring. Vice versa, the extent to which children support aging parents depends on their own as well as their parents’ partnership history, which may feature multiple sets of parents and parents-in-law, also potentially complicating intergenerational solidarity between grandparents and grandchildren.

The tension between self-interest and family wellbeing is also present in the division of work and care in families. Both paid work and care tasks have become an integral part of most individuals’ life course, producing coordination problems within and across families. This in turn may lead to trade-offs between individual wellbeing and wellbeing of family members, which has the potential to reinforce existing inequalities.

Moreover, these developments affect the way families are embedded in society. In the private sphere of the family, individuals learn about important aspects of social cohesion, such as exchange, cooperation, and trust, which constitute the basis for participation in the community, like volunteering, voting, or providing informal support. Changes in families may affect the family’s integrative function for society.

Family diversity and the welfare state

Whereas many social policies were developed to cover well-defined risks such as financial difficulties in childhood or old age, departures from the “standardized” family life course require a re-evaluation of social policy. Certain family constellations, for example divorced individuals and lone parents, are more at risk of poverty and deprivation than others and may not be able to rely on similar levels of support from their social networks.

Also, important differences exist as to which family forms have access to certain social provisions. Laws and policies in Europe have progressively included alternative living arrangements, but important differences remain regarding entitlements of cohabiting unions and the acknowledgement of “family rights” for same-sex partnerships (e.g., access to marriage or registered partnerships, adoption and assisted reproductive technology) or for step-parents in blended families. Such differences bring to the surface how social policies promote opportunities for certain family forms while denying them to others.


We welcome contributions focusing on various aspects of family diversity and change: demographic trends, legal arrangements and social policy, and their consequences. Contributions may address outcomes for individuals or families such as vulnerability, relationship quality, well-being, social networks, social support, civic and political participation, labour market participation or social trust.

We particularly welcome research papers that take a comparative approach (placing Switzerland in the context of Europe, or comparing Swiss cantons), a life course approach, or are based on longitudinal data, whether with a qualitative or quantitative approach or both.

English is the preferred language for abstracts and presentations. Please send your propopsal until February 25 to the organisers.


>> Call for papers in printable version

>> Congress website