ACSPRI Conferences, ACSPRI Social Science Methodology Conference 2010

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Researching family work-life-education balance: orchestrating priorities and compromises

Catherine Ann Doherty

Building: Holme Building
Room: Cullen Room
Date: 2010-12-02 01:30 PM – 03:00 PM
Last modified: 2010-11-17


This paper will demonstrate a data visualisation device developed as a way to operationalise a theorisation of ‘family’ as the unit of study and to methodologically map the complexity of contemporary family life over time and space. A pilot study using this device investigated how mobile Australian Defence Force families reconcile competing demands of member’s career opportunities and educational strategy for children across a history of household relocations. The qualitative research design used a narrative mode of interviewing, scaffolded and summarised through the co-construction of an ‘orchestral score’ mapping career phases, educational progress, relocations and ADF member absences. The paper will firstly develop a process frame on family, then offer a methodological argument for narrative interviewing as a way to empirically access and account for the multiple actors, motives and mutually impinging life projects that make families a cohesive but complex and dynamic social unit. It will then demonstrate how the construction of a visual ‘orchestration’ of family members’ projects can serve to scaffold the interview, capture intricate grounded detail and elicit accounts of families’ deliberative processes, such as reconciling priorities and making compromises around relocation decisions.


Family as a core sociological concept and institution is becoming increasingly slippery to define because of radical but uneven change in normative scripts around fertility and marriage, and differences between what people think it should be, and how it is actually lived (Evans and Gray 2005; Hodgson 2008). There is both a proliferation of family types and a theoretical thinning of the concept to commonsensical terms. New social practices have prompted enquiry into ‘work-life’ balance and strain (Baxter and Alexander 2008) interpreted and measured through time use. However, the dimension of space is typically not explored, even though the ‘togetherness’ of family members is perhaps the social unit’s defining characteristic and core motive at some phases. Mobility is attracting more attention as a life circumstance (Sheller and Urry 2006) and the visual orchestration helps capture spatial arrangements over time as part of the family’s achievement of being together.


Using the concept of ‘reflexive projects’ (Archer 2007), and ‘family projects’ (Connell 2003) (p.239).  being ‘coherent and persisting patterns of action which link the present with some imagined future’ families could be understood to be the social unit that integrates a number of individual life projects in work, care, education, health and lifestyle.  The family as a unit is achieved through the effort to ‘harmonise’ (Beck & Willms, 2004, p.67) members’ projects by negotiating priorities and compromises.  Bonnet, Collet and Maurines (2008, p.156) offer the concept of ‘family career’ to encapsulate the trajectory achieved over the historical series of such negotiations and mutual investments around projects. The orchestral score of family members’ progress through relocations, career moves, educational phases, care arrangements, can make evident the multiple projects and their harmonisation (or discord) within the family unit. 


Narrative, the ‘irrepressible genre’(Rosen, 1988), is a habitual way of making personal sense of the sequence, links and consequences between experiences or events involving people over places and time, through their motives, complications that arise and their resolutions. Narrative inquiry understands experiences to be ‘relational, temporal and continuous’ (Clandinin & Murphy, 2009, p.599) and can capture how meanings taken from past experiences are processed to inform future actions. Narrative data could be considered a second order account - a re-telling fashioned to suit the interview occasion.  However its advantage for the social scientist lies in the fact that narrative interviewing allows the research participant to make the causal links and choose what is relevant or significant (Riessman, 1993), then offer interpretations and evaluations. Bruner (2002) argues that such self-telling is part of the process of self-making, that the stories we tell of and to ourselves are of interest not as specious fictions, but as constitutive textual truths on which lives are premised and lived. They help ‘construct coherence’ (Gubrium & Holstein, 1998, p. 164).


Building on the musical metaphor of ‘harmonising’ family projects, the participants and I produced a visual artefact, being a visual ‘score’ of the ‘orchestration’ of family members’ educational/career/care projects over time and place. These scores helped to organise the chronological details and visualise how the projects of family members (each represented on a horizontal line, reading chronologically left to right) had to ‘harmonise’ with the others’ projects (as represented in the parallel congruence of lines, and vertical intersections marking major shared events such as births, or relocations). This ‘orchestration’ representation worked with the narrative interview to make evident the weaving of complexities and their resolutions in family units, and capture the particularities of moments in family histories where competing priorities had to be weighed up and acted on in career relocation decisions.



Archer, M. (2007). Making our way through the world: Human reflexivity and social mobility. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Baxter, J. and M. Alexander (2008). "Mothers’ work–to–family strain in single and couple parent families: The role of job characteristics and supports." Australian Journal of Social Issues 43(2): 195-214.

Connell, R. (2003). "Working-class families and the new secondary education." Australian Journal of Education 47(3): 235-250.

Evans, A. and E. Gray (2005). What makes an Australian family? Australian social attitudes: The first report S. Wilson, G. Meagher, R. Gibson, D. Denemark and M. Western. Sydney, UNSW Press: 12-29.

Hodgson, H. (2008). "More than Just DNA – Tax, Welfare and the Family. An examination of the concept of family in the Tax Transfer system, with particular reference to family benefits." Australian Journal of Social Issues 43(4): 601 - 641.

Sheller, M. and J. Urry (2006). "The new mobilities paradigm." Environment and Planning A 38: 207-226.