Researching families

Previous research into families and their lives has drawn upon a variety of different theories and theoretical frameworks. Similarly, this study was informed by work from within a number of different disciplines, including theories of literacy and family literacy practices, theories of socialisation and family practice and display. This was critical, as it meant that we were conceptualising shared reading as one of the many family practices that could be taking place in homes, rather than researching whether a specific literacy practice (shared reading) was taking place or not. This was a subtle but important step. As we have already seen, reading is not value-free - it is surrounded by constructs of judgement and is attached to issues of identity and worth. Therefore, we knew that if we really wanted to understand shared reading practices within a socially and culturally mixed sample, we had to design a study that allowed participants to talk freely about their lives, their families and their everyday activities. While participants were made aware of our interest in shared reading, we knew that reading activity, and shared reading in particular, had to be explored within the context of everyday family practices in order to encourage the production of meaningful data within a study that was also ethically sound. How this was achieved is discussed in detail a little later in this chapter.

Given the discussion about family practice and display presented in Chapter 2, we were aware that a first step in our research design was to recognise that the construct of ‘family’ is complex. We have already shown that there is little value in trying to define what ‘a family’ is, especially given that some have argued that, historically at least, the term ‘family’ has tended to evoke a notion of ‘the white, middle class, heterosexual family’ (Smart 2007: 30). Rather, we adopted Morgan’s (2011) conceptualisation of the family as a unit that is defined by what they ‘do’ rather than who they ‘are’. This brought us to Gabb’s (2008) work, who asserts that these theorisations can be encapsulated as the ‘post familial family’, which acknowledges that relationships are not merely dictated by structure, but increasingly take into account the self-fulfilment of kinship, which moves beyond the boundaries of duty and obligation.

This further suggests that the term ‘family’ is also a fluid construct; as Morgan (2011) points out, factors such as cohabitation, divorce and single parenthood, as well as trends in perceptions of who constitutes family, may mean that membership changes over time. As a result we were led by our participants as to who constituted their family, and the analysis was informed by this notion that ‘family’ can mean different things to different people. We were aware that ‘being family’ may point towards kinship, residence or some other connection. For example, a parent may be biologically or legally related to a child but not reside with them, or conversely, an individual may occupy a parenting role, residing with a child and yet not be biologically or legally connected (Smart, 2007). What is more we were aware that constructs of ‘family’ can change over time, which again underlined a need for the participants to take the lead in defining who belonged to their own family.

Emphasising the notion of what families do, rather than who they are, sat very comfortably with our aim to focus on family practices. Drawing on the words of Phoenix and Brannen (2014: 12), we recognised that families offer ‘an opportunity and context for understanding everyday habitual practices within wider social structures and at the intersection of time and space as they produce and reproduce identities’. In other words, we were aware that a carefully designed interview, which allowed us to understand shared reading as part of the everyday fabric of family practices, was not only methodologically appropriate but would help us to understand a phenomenon that is currently poorly understood.

However, research of this nature, which aims to understand not only a family practice, but the ‘story’ behind the practice, demands a particular kind of research design. This can be seen in a number of research studies including Pahl and Rowsell’s (2010) work with children, adolescents and university students, which showed how objects can hold important meanings for individuals, families and communities, and can be linked to a sense of identity. By focusing on artefacts that were meaningful to the participants, Pahl and Rowsell conducted an in-depth study which demonstrated that objects are often significant ‘because of the relationships or events with which they are associated’ (Walsh, 2011: 501). Pahl and Rowsell’s study shows that ‘understanding families’ is a complex endeavour but it can be achieved.

While it was clear that interviews would allow us, in this present study, to talk to families about their experiences and beliefs about shared reading, we were aware that these interviews would have to be very carefully constructed so as to ensure that data pertaining to the wider context of these activities was allowed to emerge.

In our quest to understand the wider context within which shared reading was embedded, we also drew on the work of Cole (1996), a cultural psychologist who focused on the link between culture and thought processes. In particular, his work examined the concept of prolepsis, where he argued that caregivers (usually mothers) look back into their own past in order to consider their children’s futures. This sat firmly with our concern to understand the wider socio-cultural context of family reading, as it suggests that concerns for a child’s education may be deeply embedded in the cultural and historical background of the parent. This was an important consideration for our study, as we realised that we needed to not only talk to parents about the reading practices that they shared with their children, but explore the parents’ own relationship with reading, including any shared reading activity they may have been involved in when they were children.

Together this drove the decision to employ a narrative approach within the design of this study. Narrative approaches are well practiced in the fields of social and educational research, resulting in what has become known as the ‘narrative turn’ (Goodson et al., 2016). Given that narrative approaches are useful for exploring that which might be taken for granted (Phoenix & Brannen, 2013), this further supported our decision. There is a substantial body of literature that demonstrates how narrative inquiry has the potential to facilitate accounts of generation, culture, the life course, identity and everyday practices (Gabb, 2008), through the stories people tell. This might include the presentation of ‘grand narratives’ or ‘big’ stories, as seen in Thomas and Znacecki’s (1918) stories on Polish peasants, or they might include profound personal experiences, as demonstrated in Ken Plummer’s (2002) work Telling Sexual Stories, which is about individual’s experience of ‘coming out’ sexually. However a narrative approach can also bring to light the smaller, everyday occurrences, which might at first appear mundane; for example, narrative studies have reported on events such as washing dishes (Martens, 2012) and showering (Shove, 2012).

As discussed in Chapter 2, shared reading can be perceived as an everyday family practice, to the point that it may even be ‘taken for granted’ by some. We were aware that important factors may have been deeply embedded in the minutia of everyday life, or ‘hidden’ within the social, cultural and historical background of individuals. It was therefore our job to make sure that we designed a study that allowed participants to talk about these details, because, as Jamieson et al. (2011:5) point out, ‘aspects of families’ lives may be hidden simply because of their apparent mundaneness to those involved .... indeed shared traditions and practices may be so taken for granted that they are unremarkable to participants themselves’. Given that, as Riessman (1993: 2-3) suggests, ‘narratives of personal experience ... are ubiquitous in everyday life’ and that ‘telling stories about past events seems to be a universal human activity’, we were confident that a narrative approach would allow us the best opportunity to not only access this data, but ‘authorize the stories’ (Fraser, 2004: 181), that would lead to new understandings about these practices.