Part One: Why Grandfathers? An introduction to my research

It has occurred to me that while I have been deeply invested in blogging about my academic skills and experiences, as nurtured by my role as Managing Editor for PhD2Published, I have written very little on my blog about my research. In my post as Research Associate at the Open University I am currently working on funding bids and a new ESRC funded project Beyond Male Role Models, but I have also been busy publishing material from my PhD thesis. The list of my publications is available here but in this short series of posts, I have decided to share some of the findings from the research and to reflect on them. In Part One of this series, I outline the context to my research on grandfathering and it’s importance as a topic of interest.

But first: Who do you think about when you think grandparent? Is it your grandmother on your mothers side? Your grandfather on your fathers side? Do you think of a grandparent who has been there for you or one who has been present in your life only through stories and the memories passed down by your parents? Did your grandparent care for you on a short-term basis? Perhaps they even raised you?

I pose these questions because grandparents are important and most people today will have known their grandparents or have some memory of them. ; According to sociologists Sara Arber and Virpi Timonen (2012) they are more important in family life than ever before. This is because the twenty-first century is a period of marked social and demographic change; change that has influenced relationships between grandparents and their grandchildren, as well as the extent to which they can know, love and care for one another. Very broadly (and it is highly complex), improvements in health and technology and increasing longevity mean that grandparents are more likely to know their grandchildren and to be able to maintain relationships with them. Changes within families have more complicated outcomes. Divorce, lone-parenthood and re-marriage for example can result in the requirement for grandparents to play much more significant roles in family life. These changes have varying implications in different countries and contexts as well. In the UK, there is evidence that grandparents play a significant role in looking after children for parents on an informal basis, especially when both parents are working. In America, the incidence of grandparents raising grandchildren without parental involvement is much more significant.

Much of the existing sociological knowledge we have about grandparents, knowledge that also informs the policy that affects people’s lives, is about women. Grandparent is often synonymous with grandmother and there are good reasons for this. Women are still predominantly considered society’s carers (although the roles of men who provide care should not be ignored) and it is women who are most likely to experience age and gender based discrimination in the balancing of work and care responsibilities (see the IPPR‘s report on the Sandwich Generation, 2012). The result of this however is that men’s roles, and their significance in the lives of their grandchildren, have been frequently over looked. In response to this gap in knowledge, my research therefore examined men’s roles and identities as grandfathers. I decided to explore what men did as grandfathers, where they conduct grandfathering, how they feel about being a grandfather and what kind of relationships they had with their children and grandchildren.

While this might seem like an arbitrary topic, the research indicated important differences in the ways in which men and women experience and conduct grandparenting. Assumptions about what men and women do are relational and are often constructed in opposition. So, if we assume that grandmothers are always the main carers, this can actually have implications for the value placed on men and their abilities to care. Previous research for example indicates that they can actually play significant roles in lone parent families where fathers are absent (Harper et al 2004). If we construct grandfathers as incapable of care as a society however, we are less likely to support them and facilitate their needs.

Researching grandfathers then, alerts us to the impacts of social and demographic change, to questions about men and their ability to care and to questions about gender and age and the ways in which they shape people’s lives and experiences and our expectations of them.

In Part Two, I outline the research methods I used to explore contemporary grandfathering…

References

Arber, S. and Timonen, V. (2012) Contemporary Grandparenting: Changing Family Relationships in Global Contexts, Bristol: Policy Press

Harper, S., Smith, T., Lechtman, Z., Ruicheva, I and Zeilig, H. (2004) Grandmother Care in Lone Parent Families, Oxford: Oxford Institute of Ageing.

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