Daily Archives: December 18, 2008

‘Family and Social Network’ by Elizabeth Bott


Elizabeth Bott Spillius

The historian I admire most, Inga Clendinnen,  once said that

“history requires no special training other than curiosity, sharp wits and scrupulous attention to detail- plus a determination to honour the mysteriousness of the people you are studying”

I like that.  I particularly draw comfort from the worthiness of curiosity, and claim ‘curiosity immunity’ when I am being particularly observant (i.e. nosy) about other people around me.  And I think that ‘Family and Social Network’ by Elizabeth Bott satisfied my [prurient? scholarly?] curiosity about family interactions and networks with the wider community.

The book itself was written in the 1950s and has now taken on a historical edge that it certainly didn’t at the time.  It describes a team-based study undertaken by an anthropologist and psychologist and a team of researchers who aimed to interview twenty ‘ordinary’ families with young children.

It was refreshingly honest about the methodological problems they faced: making contact with their 20 families;  reconciling the different disciplinary perspectives of the two lead researchers;  resolving issues about researcher role and the formality and comparability of the research process.   You don’t often read an admission that methodology that

The anthropological method basically consists of messing about with a lot of variables and bits of information in a condition of acute uncertainty, in the hope that eventually one will see relationships one had not thought of before (p309)

Only one of the case studies was written up in great detail, but it was a fascinating one of a working class family with very strong family roots in a particular street in London.  The wife did not work, and saw her mother on a daily basis, and was thoroughly enmeshed in her kin relationships in a way that her husband was not.  The husband and wife had completely different networks, with no joint friendships or social activities.  This was contrasted with a middle class, more mobile family with weaker kin ties and shared friendship patterns.

In the acknowledgments Bott quoted Dr John Bowlby as remarking “It has the merit of being obvious once one has thought of it.  One wonders why one hadn’t…”, and this is very much true of this book too.  For  instance, she observes (and I find myself thinking I knew that… without actually knowing it) that there are ‘connecting’ people in families who bring together other more separated family members; that if there are two or three generations of mothers living in the same place in the same time, a matrilinear stress is more common; that friendships (especially friendships of men) are ‘trimmed” when a couple marries so that they can be joint friendships; that intense identity-forming friends tend to be absent after marriage so that they do not threaten conjugal loyalty and new friendships tend to be join and diminished in identity.  All the stuff of a million soap operas and novels.

At the end of the 2nd edition of the book is a lengthy chapter called ‘Reconsiderations’ where she returns, decades later, to the original study.  She talks about how her categories and opinions have been challenged, changed or firmed, and the relationship of later research to her original work.

At one level, the book seems far removed from Port Phillip in the 1840s but it’s stimulated my awareness of the effects of migration on kin and friendship networks, and how this might be described.