Family lives and the environment: Narratives across countries

NCRM news
Kaisa Puustinen

Article by Janet Boddy, NOVELLA node, University of Sussex. This article also appears in the Spring 2013 issue of MethodsNews newsletter (opens a .pdf file).

In a time of global concern about the impact of climate change on our everyday lives and environments, governments and international organisations often make policies about the environment which emphasise what individuals and families should do to help, but without accounting for the complexity of our social worlds.

Researchers in the NOVELLA node of NCRM are grappling with these concerns, to improve understanding of the negotiated complexity of families' lives in relationship with their environments. As with other studies in the NOVELLA node, Family Lives and the Environment is applying narrative methods and linked approaches to the study of varied everyday lives. Family Lives and the Environment is also a cross-national study, involving collaboration between NOVELLA researchers at the Institute of Education and University of Sussex, and researchers on Young Lives (core funded by DFID) at the University of Oxford and Sri Padmavathi Mahila Viswavidyalayam University in India.


Learning from difference: India and the UK

Policy makers often seek to learn from countries which are seen to be similar in population or in economic approach. This approach can, however, neglect important differences between apparently similar countries, whilst missing opportunities for shared learning between north and south. Globally, understandings and responses to climate change are likely to intersect with affluence, urban/rural location, and family members' individual and collective understandings of the (dis)connections between environment and everyday lives.

The Family Lives and Environment study explores the potential to 'learn from difference' not through direct comparison of very different country contexts, but through parallel family case studies. The study seeks to exemplify the variety of families' lived experiences within and between countries, rather than to be representative of family life in India or the UK. The research began with a narrative re-analysis of eight family case studies from Young Lives qualitative research in Andhra Pradesh, examining ways in which environmental concerns were woven into daily lives, and informing methodological development for new fieldwork in India and the UK, with 24 families of young people in their seventh year of formal schooling (usually aged 11-12 years). Families include boys and girls, living in rural and urban areas, and those who are relatively affluent or poor, or of middle income, within their country context.

Understanding the complexity of everyday lives

The fieldwork team have completed six urban case studies in India, and the team have just moved to a rural area to continue their work. They are combining individual, family and school-based interviews with joint mapping of key places in families' lives, photography (parent, child and family), a participant led mobile interview in the local area. The mix of methods and perspectives, along with repeated visits to the family over a period of 10 days, is generating a rich, layered understanding of family lives and practices.

One challenge in researching the habitual is that most things we do regularly are taken for granted - given little thought and not readily remembered. Mixing methods can help to address that challenge. The local walk, for example, highlights places that do not feature on families' maps, places used habitually but infrequently, such as a shop used only if necessary between weekly supermarket trips. The walk to the shop, along a fast-moving noisy urban road, showed why this was not a favoured choice. 'Big' environmental concerns also intersect with 'small', quotidian and local environmental concerns within families' narratives and practices - both more distantly, in terms of social responsibility and normative discourses, and more immediately, in aspects of everyday life such as shopping, travel and play.

For further information about NOVELLA node of NCRM, please visit NOVELLA website.