Research won’t settle debates about marriage and family life

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.