Increased acceptance for new family forms

Cohabitation, gay marriage and single parents, "bonus children" and "bonus parents". New modern ways of living together do not indicate that the family is about to disintegrate. The family lives on in the best of health, but in new ways, claim the editors of a new book.
There has been an increase in accepted family forms over the last few decades. (Illustration photo:

"Those who believed that the family would disintegrate from the changes that have taken place over the past four decades were in many ways mistaken", says Professor Anne Lise Ellingsæter. Together with Professor Karin Widerberg she is editor of the new anthology Velferdstatens familier – Nye sosiologiske perspektiver ("Families of the welfare state – New sociological perspectives").

What sorts of families are formed in a welfare state such as Norway? And in what ways have these families transformed the welfare state? What is a family? Who provides for the family? Do the various ways of being a family today lead to its disintegration? These are some of the questions that have been addressed by the contributors to this new anthology.

"There have been some dramatic changes over the past decades. Not only in terms of legislation and regulations, but also in terms of how people live together as families. Our aim is to present new up-to-date research and to describe the changes which have taken place. These are changes which may be measured statistically, such as responsibilities at home and income as well as changes in terms of how we understand these changes," says Widerberg.

Financial rights

Ellingsæter says that one of the main ambitions with the book has been to throw light on the historical lines concerning the changes in how we live as families.

"A number of the articles provide historical perspectives, as for instance the contribution by Jorun Solheim. She has examined the particular type of family which has been characteristic for Northwestern Europe since pre-modern times. The woman’s right to inherit from her husband was a central right. This is the foundation of some of the family patterns we see today, but its dimension has been underestimated."

Solheim shows that the family structure which is particular for northwestern Europe - the nuclear family – in which the spouses are central, is characteristic for this part of the world. In other parts, the extended family is the organising principle for family structures. Women from northwestern Europe had from early on legal rights concerning the family’s financial resources and properties. This was uncommon in most other cultures, claims Solheim. The family’s resources and properties have been regarded as common between the spouses. Thus women have been able to enjoy financial security and stability both within the marriage and in cases of widowhood or divorce. However, these judicial rights concerning the family are now changing in benefit of individual rights, says Solheim.

Professor Anne Lise Ellingsæter (foto: Anita Haslie)

Children of divorced parents become divorcees

"Another aim with the book has been to dig deeper into contemporary issues. We are trying to conceptualise our new observations and address some of the common perceptions of what is going on today. This may be seen in the chapters on family and immigration and in Karin’s article on divorce," says Ellingsæter.

Widerberg adds that "this is the first era in our part of the world where many of the young couples who are now in processes of divorce themselves experienced their own parents’ divorce as children. Will those who experienced divorce as children manage their own divorce process differently from those who didn’t experience their parents’ divorce in childhood? This is a new phenomenon. What sorts of consequences can be expected? How do they organise their divorce, and how do they organise their families?"

We see an increase in shared custody of the children among divorced parents, says Widerberg and Tone Kummen in their article. They have also found in their research that many fathers become more actively involved as parents following a divorce. Moreover, they emphasise that shared custody is more common among people with higher education and people in employment than among those without. The way people organise their families after a divorce is class related, says Widerberg and Kummen.

The family remains

"Although the book addresses the changes and transformations which have taken place in the modern family, a number of the articles show that many factors remain stable. Can you tell us what you’ve found?"

"People are still establishing their lives together in family-like ways, but they do it differently now than before," says Widerberg.

"There are more family forms which are generally accepted. This has been shown by Turid Noack and Torkild Lyngstad in their contribution on transformations in relationships and families over the last fifty years. The most important change is the emergence of cohabitation in Norway. Another significant change is that more couples split up now."

"Some scholars claim that the increase in accepted family forms is a source of instability. Those who oppose the political changes that have taken place concerning family life fear that this increase will cause the dissolution of the Family. I think they are mistaken. I believe that a higher degree of equality and the recognition of several family forms may be a source of stability in the long run," claims Ellingsæter and adds that

"The new Marriage Act which includes gay couples is a good example. These people embrace the traditional family institution. They have fought for the right to be treated equally to the majority. This is indicative of how highly the family is valued. Family and children are extremely significant in Norwegian society."

See also: «You'll regret it later»

The economy prevails

“In what ways is the welfare state significant for transformations in the family?”

"The nuclear family is financially facilitated by the welfare state. I was recently a guest researcher at the European University Institute in Florence. I met a Spanish researcher there who told me that as a result of the financial crisis people in Spain increasingly live together as extended families rather than as nuclear families. People move together in order to share resources and split expenses," says Ellingsæter.

Professor Karin Widerberg (photo: Anita Haslie)

The editors emphasise that within sociology the family has often been studied as an arena for the interaction of emotions and culture, not so much in terms of law and economics. Thus it is significant that a number of the contributions in the book examine the financial aspects of the family.

For instance, Kari Skrede and Kenneth Aarskaug Wiik show in their article that the domestic labour is often more equally divided between men and women in families where the woman’s income is equal to or higher than that of her partner. In families where the man has the highest income the partners tend to divide the household responsibilities according to more traditional patterns, where the woman does a larger share of the work.

"This proves the importance of equalisation of income. It is an underlying principle of economic rationality," says Ellingsæter.

Moreover, Ellingsæter shows in her article that economical equalisation is closely connected to the family policy of the welfare state.

"Normally it has been claimed that the family policy contributed to the conservation of class distinctions, but I would claim that the family policy has contributed to the equalisation of class distinction in the Northern countries. Women of all social classes are in employment. This is peculiar to the Nordic model."

"A significant distinction between the Nordic countries and countries in southern Europe is that women from all social classes in the north have income-producing work. Women with higher education are in employment in all countries regardless of the country’s family policy. But in the Northern countries, the majority of mothers without higher education are also in employment," explains Ellingsæter.

"In this regard, I think that the emphasis of daycare availability comes into play. Since it is not too expensive to have children in daycare in Norway, this practice has spread throughout all social classes. Among all children between three and five years of age 97 per cent are in daycare, and 90 per cent among those between one and five."

Daycare places followed

"The recipients of the Norwegian "cash-for-care benefits have decreased from 75 to 25 per cent in ten years. Interestingly, however, we have only seen a very small increase in maternal employment over the same period. It seems that the mothers have been working all the time, but there was a shortfall of daycare places," says Ellingsæter.

"Women have entered the job market and daycare availability has slowly followed. When the Kindergarten Act was implemented in 1975, there was a general agreement that everyone who wished to do so should be able to place their children in daycare. But it took nearly forty years until we had full daycare coverage. Arnlaug Leira addressed this problem as early as in 1992, and she is also contributing in this new book. The social welfare system did not force women out on the job market. Rather, women wanted to work and demanded the benefits that we have today which makes it possible for them to do so."

"It is important to realise that the families are significant actors in creating the changes that have occurred. It is not the case that families are exposed to external forces and simply adjust to these. The families are also creating changes in society," says Ellingsæter.

Translated by Cathinka Hambro.


The researchers

Anne Lise Ellingsæter is Professor at the Department of Sociology and Human Geography at the University of Oslo.

Karin Widerberg is Professor at the Department of Sociology and Human Geography at the University of Oslo.

Aktuelle lenker

Latest news


News Magazine

Our news magazine is an independent online newspaper and a member of the Norwegian Specialised Press Association Fagpressen.