Models of the Family in Modern Society: Ideals and Realities, by Catherine Hakim

Ashgate, Aldershot, 2003, 282 pp., hb 0 7546 3728 X, £45. Paper back £20. Order this book

In her new book the sociologist Catherine Hakim continues her research into women’s choices and opportunities in the labour market and the family through the lens of preference theory, a model of lifestyle choices that puts the heterogeneity of work and family orientations amongst men and women at its heart. More specifically, preference theory takes issue with the assumption that policy should strive for a unified model of the family, which in turn corresponds to a single pattern of gender roles in both the family and the labour market. According to Hakim, this assumption underscores the lack of support for heterogeneous orientations and divergent family models at both national and European level (e.g. the European Commission’s promotion of the Swedish model of the family across Europe), with significant negative effects. Contrary to the imposition of a single ideal model, Hakim argues that policy should reflect the fact that women (and men) fall within one of three broad categories: 1. a life centred on career opportunities, 2. a life centred on family obligations, and 3. a role in which women adapt or compromise at various stages in their life-cycle depending on the options available. Adopting a single framework – even if it is the Swedish, egalitarian one – means that at least some lifestyle choices are discriminated against, and that those women again need to subject their wants and needs to some externally imposed view of what is their proper role in society.

Hakim’s general framework has been presented in a number of publications over the past couple of years (see in particular her Work-Lifestyle Choices in the 21st Century, OUP: 2000). This book aims to develop further some aspects of the general picture, partially in response to challenges raised by her critics. The book employs survey material pertaining to women’s life-style choices in Britain and Spain. Britain is considered a country that has been through a number of social and demographic revolutions that characterize a full-blown post-industrial (for want of a better term) society, while Spain due to its turbulent post-War past has experienced some but not others resulting in markedly different markets for female employment. For instance, in Spain part-time employment constitutes but a small share of employment on offer, compared to half the British female workforce occupying a part-time job. Likewise, there are significant differences in how women treat their wages: in Britain a woman’s wage forms part of the household budget (in the case of black women, regularly the main part), while in Spain a woman treats her wage as personal money to spend as she wishes. Comparing the survey evidence of both countries, Hakim claims, vindicates her principal claim that in the future previously significant distinctions between gender, class or education level will become less salient ways of predicting behavioural patterns and will be replaced by genuine distinctions in lifestyle choices. In the final analysis, once the black box of a ‘work/family orientation’ has been opened, it is preferences that determine what choices individuals make with respect to their work and family.

No doubt many sociologists or economists will disagree with Hakim. The fact that life-style preferences matter does not in any way exclude the impact of gender, class or education, and the present study does not offer the sort of empirical evidence that might allow us to decide one way or another. Hakim’s research does show that we need to take preferences seriously in a mid-level analysis of women’s behavioural patterns, treating it as a social mechanism. What Hakim shows, and shows convincingly it must be said, is that insofar as the three work/family orientations (1. a life centred on career opportunities, 2. a life centred on family obligations, and 3. a role in which women adapt or compromise at various stages in their life-cycle depending on the options available) respond differently to background opportunities and constraints, each ideal also requires a different type of institutional backing. Again, policy-makers must ask themselves whether imposing one family model upon a population with heterogeneous preferences for work and family life, in particular taking into account how countries across Europe diverge in terms of their particular mix of work orientations and related family models. Reading Hakim’s book in this light suggests it conveys an argument against convergence of family policy across Europe that fits well with the burgeoning literature by G’sta Esping-Andersen, Paul Pierson and many others about the different policy responses to common pressures.

There are at least two problems with the anti-convergence argument. First, if preference theory is indeed a mid-level theory it only tells us half the story, the other half being about what if anything determines women’s preferences. It may be the case that it is not simply political ideology or class or whatever, but Hakim says preciously little about what it could be. Until that question is answered many policy-makers might be reluctant to take women’s preferences at face value. If we can learn anything from decades of feminist research, it is that domestication is a very real social process with deep impact on the value systems and preference structures of both women and men.

A second point brings us directly to basic income policy. Suppose we adopt Hakim’s claim that the heterogeneity of work and family orientations should be the starting point of family policy. What sort of policy mix does this entail? One way of taking this is to adopt a complicated process of many different policies that interact in such a way that hopefully they provide something for each group. The other way, of course, is to adopt a single policy that remains neutral between the different conceptions of the good life. Basic income supporters have always suggested that basic income was good for women precisely because it actively supports attempts at getting into the labour market as well as subsidizing ways of staying at home. Whether this neutrality is a good thing depends on how basic income interacts with other policies already in place, as well as things such as prevailing cultural norms or ideologies, but in principle at least basic income is as preference-neutral a policy as one is likely to find. If and when Catherine Hakim decides to pursue the policy angle a bit further, taking a decent look at the variety of basic income proposals currently on offer would make a lot of sense. In the mean time, as Hakim’s views gain credence within the academic community basic income supporters should definitely be ready to take this research on board.

Jürgen De Wispelaere