UK United Kingdom

Research won’t settle debates about marriage and family life

How would you react if you opened tomorrow’s newspaper and were met with the headline, “Children of sole parents more likely to be abused”? If you’re socially conservative, you may feel affirmed in your…

Debates over family and marriage would be improved if researchers relaxed the search for scientific truth. paloetic

How would you react if you opened tomorrow’s newspaper and were met with the headline, “Children of sole parents more likely to be abused”?

If you’re socially conservative, you may feel affirmed in your view that marriage is hands down the best form of relationship in which to raise children. Risk of harm to children is one of the arguments most commonly used by those who support traditional conceptions of marriage and the family.

Alternatively, if you hold progressive social views, you could find in this headline more proof that our society doesn’t offer enough support for single parents— that children would be safer if we provided better and cheaper childcare, or if employers were more accommodating of single mothers, and so on.

One headline. Different interpretations. And a neat illustration of the fact that many of the debates over family life in Australia cannot be settled by appeals to empirical evidence alone.

The familial is the political

I recently co-authored a review of the research that has investigated whether some family structures (e.g., married, cohabiting, single-parent, step) expose children to a higher risk of child maltreatment than others. In general, the limited rigorous research in this area has produced ambiguous and at times conflicting results.

But it’s clear that much of the perceived relationship between family structure and child maltreatment can be explained by mediating factors, such as poverty, substance misuse and domestic violence. For example, single parents are more likely to face serious financial hardship, and this goes a long way in accounting for any increased risk of abuse their children face.

As I give this example, I can hear different voices disagreeing over how this mediating relationship should be interpreted:

The social conservative: “The association between sole parenthood and poverty is a regrettable fact of life. Family is the bedrock, the fundamental social unit, and when it breaks down, or differs too much from the nuclear ideal, hardship will be the inevitable outcome in a proportion of cases.”

The progressive: “I don’t want live in a country where life is harsh if you don’t fit the happily-married, nuclear family mold. Let’s look to Scandinavia; at least there a mother who removes herself from a loveless or abusive marriage isn’t punished for her bravery with poverty.”

The libertarian: “People have to be free to make their own choices. But that includes not forcing taxpayers to bail out the single parent whose decisions lead to the wrong side of the tracks. Any reduction in the association between single parenthood and poverty would necessitate substantial social spending and an expansion of bureaucracy.”

The moral of my hypothetical argument? Matters of the family are unavoidably linked to questions about the good society and the good life. The familial is the political.

A conflict of visions

Our reactions to the headlines about sole parents, or our interpretations of the connection between certain family structures and poverty, will be underpinned by specific visions about how society should be ordered, and the role that families play in this order. This may be a trite point, but it seems necessary in light of the circular, endless debates over marriage and family life in Australia.

So often, commentators claim that the facts are on their side. That “hundreds of studies show…” or that “decades of research support my view”. And yet we don’t get any closer to agreement.

The problem isn’t simply that the different sides are cherry-picking data, as is regularly argued. The problem is that they’re attempting to answer political and philosophical questions with empirical methods.

On this particular battlefield, the culture wars have been reduced to the lobbing of empirical facts from trenches separated by a vast ideological no-man’s land.

It’s important we remain aware of the limits of empirical knowledge. Research findings can be a powerful support to clear and consistent arguments. And they can be a great clarifier, helping to identify where the real fault lines of a problem lie. But it’s unlikely that any finding is going to deliver a knock-down blow in disputes over the appropriate shape and texture of family life in Australia. It’s naïve to assume that social science on its own can distinguish right from wrong or good from bad.

Our debates over family, marriage and intimate life would be much improved if all sides relaxed their search for social scientific truth, and got on with the more difficult and revealing job of justifying why their particular vision for society and the family is preferable to others.

Articles also by This Author

Sign in to Favourite

Join the conversation

14 Comments sorted by

  1. James Jenkin

    EFL Teacher Trainer

    Great article Rhys.

    Our political leaders seem scared to make a moral or ideological argument. They hide behind evidence-based policy - 'we must do X because scientific/economic experts tell us so'.

    Maybe they're bereft of ideas. Maybe they're being sneaky. Either way it's pretty uninspiring.

  2. Luc Brien

    logged in via Facebook

    Excellent piece. In my experience, the socially conservative mob who push the 1950s 'Leave it to Beaver' style nuclear family tend to be Christian, and declare marriage as the "correct" family structure self-evident. But what would Jesus have done if faced by a single mother with two kids? Is compassion for our fellow humans being discarded over the need to make the world fit some acceptable cookie-cutter mould of family?

  3. Jason Bryce

    logged in via Twitter

    Breaking News - Policy debates are shaped by ideology and personal beliefs.

    While you play with your vision for a better civil debating society single parents face pay cuts of $140/fortnight from Jan1 - from a Labor govt with a female PM.

    Reality doesn't rate a mention in this first year sociology essay.

    1. Patrick Stokes

      Lecturer in Philosophy at Deakin University

      In reply to Jason Bryce

      Jason: so "policy debates are shaped by ideology and personal beliefs" is so obvious it doesn't need to be said, and yet ideology and personal beliefs are not part of 'reality'?

      Actually, the article isn't about either of those things anyway. It's about ethics (or morality, if you prefer; the terms are basically interchangeable in most contexts), which isn't simply ideology and isn't simply a matter of personal belief either (unless you're a complete relativist I guess). You raise what is, I think, an important point about the Gillard government's welfare policies, but *why* it is important and what flows from it is an ethico-political question. In other words you've fallen into precisely the trap the article is talking about: you're assuming that policy responses are immediately obvious from descriptive facts. That we should be doing more to support single parents is a moral position, not an obviously empirical one.

  4. Dianna Arthur
    Dianna Arthur is a Friend of The Conversation.


    Or we can stop pretending that humans are easily herded into a single paradigm.

    Accept that there will always be single parents be that from divorce, death or incompatibility, mistake or even (quelle horreur) by choice.

    Along with this acceptance of reality, do our best to care for all members of society and stop blaming people for being born in the wrong place at the wrong time. Cheaper to provide support for all than punishing all and dealing with the results. Also less idealistic than expecting the entire population to convert to orthodox religion and remain married till death to them part (in healthy old age of course).

    Absolutely appalled at Gillard government's attitude to single parents (creating poverty ghettos?), however if voters think an Abbott led government would reinstate single parent pension - you're dreaming.

  5. Patrick Stokes

    Lecturer in Philosophy at Deakin University

    Great article, thanks Rhys. A few things I've seen in the discussions on The Conversation (particularly on animal experimentation) and in other places recently have made me start to realise just how many people don't understand the fact/value distinction. I think you've made it helpfully clear here.

    1. Jason Bryce

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Patrick Stokes

      The Conversation has recently made me realise how many academics naively want to tell the world that morals and values influence public debate and the research that is often used to back it up.

      There is nothing in this article that is new or innovative thinking. Single parents are constantly bombarded with the values and moral judgements of everyone else in society and have been forever.

      Maybe every new academic or member of the chattering classes has to be told this but single parents know it.

    2. Patrick Stokes

      Lecturer in Philosophy at Deakin University

      In reply to Patrick Stokes

      Jason said: "The Conversation has recently made me realise how many academics naively want to tell the world that morals and values influence public debate and the research that is often used to back it up."

      And yet you're arguing - and again I totally agree with you about this - that we shouldn't be cutting benefits for single parents. But that's not a morally neutral stament: it's a statement about what the right thing to do is, and in fact is also a statement about the right way to distribute…

      Read more
  6. Comment removed by moderator.

  7. Tania Lee Searle

    logged in via Facebook

    As a social scientist, I agree that the attitudes which shape beliefs and policy need discussing. Like the way two out of three of the examples of different views Rhys has used to highlight the variations of opinion explicitly place the responsibility of single parenthood with the person who has landed with the care of the children, most usually the mother.
    He says, 'As I give this example, I can hear different voices . . .The social conservative . . . The progressive . . . The libertarian . . . ". Ironically, only the social conservative uses the term 'family break-down'. The other two are framed in terms of single-parenthood being a choice. Often, being a single parent is not a choice and I think this is an important view, which underpins policy, that needs to be challenged.
    Otherwise, good article Rhys.

  8. Adam Suess

    logged in via Twitter

    Interpretivism rules positivism drools

  9. Dale Bloom


    “It’s naïve to assume that social science on its own can distinguish right from wrong or good from bad.”

    That is my opinion also. Social science wants to call itself a “science”, but has never been able to develop one scientific law.

    Moreover, it cannot be used to recommend anything, or encourage people to follow a particular course of action, because it cannot “distinguish right from wrong or good from bad.”

    Social science is completely useless as a so-called “science”.

    However, I am…

    Read more
    1. Dennis Alexander

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      Again with this call for some amoral isomorphism between "physical science" and "social science". If social scientists could use the social equivalent of CERN, one might get a few social science "laws" but I don't think anyone (including Dale Bloom) would give the ethics approval. And "laws" in the physical sciences are few and far between - many at the quantum level are probablilistic and contingent. Given the increase in relative complexity from physical to psychological to sociological, the advent of a Hari Seldon like set of laws of psychohistory is unlikely in the foreseeable future and it should be. As the article states, empirical results are not morally decisive but open to interpretation through various lenses: or in classical philosophical terms, "an 'is' does not make an 'ought'.

  10. Matt Stevens

    Senior Research Fellow/Statistician/PhD

    Sorry but one could argue that philosophy transformed into science because of empirical investigation. Sure as Dale Bloom states the social sciences have not been able to come up with hard universal truths, but i would say this is because they are tracking an ever moving set of facts.

    Australian has a particular form of feminism, one where women take the attitude anything they, the men can do i can do. Something that is plainly not true. Men and women bring their own sets of skills and deficiencies…

    Read more