Interview with Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim on Individualization

individualization coverIn this interview with Tine Ravn and Mads P. Sørensen, Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim discusses family structures, reproductive technologies and individualization in second modernity.

How is the family being reinvented? How do people manage to live together, separated culturally or geographically? How has motherhood, partnership and gender relations been transformed in recent years? And what are the driving forces behind these changes, which are now taking place?

Through an expansive body of empirical and theoretical work, Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim has sought to answer these questions, along with many more related to the broad question of how individuals find their place and manage often conflictual identities in second modernity, thus finding “biographical solutions to systemic contradictions”. She has published a range of influential books and articles on topics related to social change, individual and structural consequences of individualization, and the changed conditions of the institution of the family, including themes related to work life, love, motherhood and biotechnologies. In recent years Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim has also conducted research in the fields of intermarriage or mixed marriages, international migration, and ethnic identities.

In this interview, which took place in January 2012 in connection with the Yearly Danish Conference of Sociology at Aarhus University, Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim provides an accessible introduction to some of her key reflections and perceptions on family structures and family life in second modernity.


The pluralization of family types and the ‘post-familial family’                                                                                       

Interviewers: Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim, during the last many years, you have studied trends and developments in family structures and family life in Germany and the western world. How would you describe the development in family structures in the western world in the last 40-50 years, in general?

Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim (EBG): In the 1950s and 1960s – the so-called “golden age” of marriage and the family – there was a standard model of family life. It consisted of a heterosexual couple (no gay or lesbian couples), a man and a woman who were married (no cohabition) and remained so until they died (no divorce). They had children (women were meant to be mothers, such were the laws of God and of nature); and of course, it was their biological children (no adopted ones from Peru, or produced by a surrogate mother in India). Such was the model, the norm, and also the way of life of most people. Of course there were some people who did not, or could not, follow the norm. If so, these men and women usually would try to keep up appearances, so as not to let their “deviant ways” be known in public.  For instance, if you were an unmarried couple, or a gay or lesbian couple, you would not show it openly, and very few people (if any) would know.  In Germany, up till 1973 it was against the law to rent out a flat to an unmarried couple (who were living “in sin”, so the terminology of former times). Even more difficult was the situation of those not complying with the norm of heterosexuality. Gays and lesbians were thought to be subnormal, deficient, a disgrace to their families. It was in the public interest to punish, suppress, ban such behavior – not to accept it, and even honour it, by allowing such people to join into the sacred institution of marriage. Last but not least, single mothers: They were stigmatized, social outcasts, and their children called “bastards”.

Since then, a fundamental transformation of personal lives and lifestyles has taken place. In the Scandinavian countries today more than fifty percent of children are born outside of marriage. In most European countries cohabitation has become common, and so has divorce, among royals, presidents, pop stars and also among the so-called ordinary people. This is not to say that the standard family described above has disappeared. Yet, there is a much greater diversity of family forms and arrangements today, and above all: The standard model has lost its normative force. In recent decades changes both in family behaviour and in the normative understanding of the family have taken place, and now different forms co-exist with one another, each one of which claims equal standing. This is indeed the crucial point: The standard family form has lost its former monopoly position; in its place, now there are different and competing ideas of normality, and ever more ways are considered  legitimate options. It is not only the rise and increase of “deviations” that marks our situation today. Even more important is, formerly “deviant” ways have become one of the many varieties of the normal – and thus are socially accepted.

Interviewers: What are the consequences of this growing pluralization of family types?

EBG: First of all, a much better life for those who, for one reason or another, live outside the standard family. Whether single woman in her late forties, or gay couple with two kids, or divorced career woman – such people, who in the 1950s either did not exist, or were subject to derogatory remarks, personal insults or physical attacks, today will mostly be met with the civilized indifference of urban society. They are not a marginal group any more. They are part of mainstream society.

So much for the good news. The bad news is a growing risk for couples to be of different opinion in respect to this or that choice, and therefore a growing pressure to discuss, explain, consider, and negotiate their preferences. Otherwise confrontation, conflict, clash. Simply speaking: The individual has more choice but there is no guarantee that two individuals come out with the same choice. Think of cohabitation for instance. If after some time one partner thinks cohabitation is fine and sees no reason to change anything, whereas the other partner thinks it is time to move on to marriage, what then? Who is right and who is wrong? There is no right and wrong anymore. It is just two people and two ideas of their life together. In the old days you did not have that choice, either you had to get married or stay away from each other. Nowadays you have the choice but with it the potential of differing ideas, contrasting priorities and plans, in a nutshell: The potential for fighting and disputes.

So choice is a great bliss – but only up to a limit. And beyond that limit, it may turn into a burden or even a curse. Take parenthood for an example. In the old days no one thought of a “choice” to have or not to have a baby. It was simply expected to have children (provided you were married), and in peasant families you actually needed them as helpers in the rural economy. By-gone times. Today we have choice in that matter– and not too rarely, conflicting ideas. The long and tiresome road of decision-making may come to nor result in the end. In his novel “Kopfgeburten”, German Nobel Prize winner Günter Grass writes of such a couple and their predicament. Whenever the woman feels like having a baby her partner is against it. And whenever the man feels ready to becoming a father she cannot stand the idea of becoming a mother. There is never the right time, the right moment for both. Instead they continue switching positions. And instead of having a baby they end up with a cat.


Interviewers: Individualization seems to be the a key to understanding the increase of options and choice. So to take a step back, how would you define individualization?

EBG: With the transition to modernity a fundamental transformation of both institutions and ways of life has begun that is characterized by two movements. On the one hand, the closer we come to the present the more traditional social relations, bonds, and beliefs decline in importance which in earlier times had narrowly defined people’s lives. Whether extended family, village community, religion, rank, gender – affiliations and ties that once provided a stable framework have meanwhile crumbled. The individual gains freedoms, options, and choices unknown before. He or she can and should, he or she may or must now decide themselves, design their lives themselves – within certain limits at least.

These limits point to the other side of the individualization dynamic. While people are becoming detached from traditional norms and rules they are simultaneously bound by the demands, constraints, and prerequisites produced by the institutions that have spread with modern society (e.g. labour market, welfare state, education, legislation, bureaucracy etc.). From pension rights to insurance policies, from student grants and loans to tax rates: Such is the institutional framework within which men and women today have to steer their life course, from one stage to the next, as best they can.

Interviewers: You also talk about institutionalized individualism …

EBG: Individualization in this sense does not mean mere subjectivity or juggling in an empty space. On the contrary, the space within which modern subjects plan, act, weigh their options is in many ways socially defined. The density of regulations is well-known, even notorious (from the MOT test and the tax return to the legislation regulating the sorting of refuse) and they accompany us literally from the cradle to the grave.

Some people think that individualization just means free options to do whatever you want to do. This is a major misunderstanding. Time and again I told my students if they wanted to fail their exams they should just say this: “Individualization is free options to anyone, do whatever you like.” To make them see this point I asked them “What about university, would you like to be here for another twenty years?”. Taken back, most of them exclaimed: “Oh no we would like to finish our studies and start having a job and earn some money”. And I said “Well then why don’t you do this immediately, tomorrow or even better today?” With some irritation they replied: “But you know, before getting a diploma we have to go to seminars first and write some seminar papers and pass some tests”. To this I simply answered: “Oh so you cannot do it. Even in the age of individualization, you are not free to do whatever you want whenever you want. Isn’t this amazing!” At that moment they realized that there are rules, rules that limit your options, albeit in different ways than in former times.

Interviewers: In terms of the main features of individualization how would you characterize the new possibilities and constraints for the construction of individual biographies? And how is this related to “finding biographical solutions to systemic contradictions”?

EBG: The individual now has to learn how to deal with the networks of such regulations. Otherwise he or she has to bear the consequences. So one has to know the score, plan, weigh up, have an eye to one’s own best interests – and whoever can’t keep up, whether through lack of time or practice or talent, is seen as a failure. Because that is the creed of the new institutions and their conditions, that they foster and demand an active and self-directed way of life. Put simply: One was born into traditional society and its provisions (such as rank and religion). On the other hand, when it comes to the  provisions inherent to modern society, one has to do something, make an effort. Here one has to conquer, to keep up and succeed in the competition for limited resources – and not just once, but day after day.

One of the key features of individualization processes, then, is that they not only permit but demand an active contribution by individuals. Individualization is a compulsion, albeit a paradoxical one, to create, to stage manage, not only one’s own biography but the bonds and networks surrounding it and to do this amid changing preferences and at successive stages of life. The more the range of options widens and the necessity of deciding between them grows, the more individuals have to  perform tasks of biographical adjustment, co-ordination, integration. If they are not to fail, men and women must be able to plan for the long term and adapt to change. They must organise and improvise, set goals, recognise obstacles, accept defeats and attempt new starts.

And the less stable the ground, the more insistent the imperative – from school to sports, from job performance to house hunting to finding the cheapest loans: Make your own way! Keep going, try harder! Keep pushing or you’ll never get to the top!

So beyond the new options and opportunities, there are also new demands, compulsions, constrains inherent in the process of individualization. And with advancing globalisation the latter are growing ever more powerful. The demands coming up now do not only affect the biography of the individual but also reach deep into our social lives, producing new standards for relationships, the desire for children, everyday family life.


Interviewers: It is clear from what you have said here that individualization plays an enormous role in the transformation of family structures and family life, but what about globalization? It seems that second modern individuals find themselves living in a kind of suspended animation between individualization and globalization; how do you understand globalization and how does globalization influence family structures and family life today?

EBG: Living at the beginning of the 21th century, we are confronted with the forces of accelerated globalisation. Globalisation does not only mean economic exchange and opening up of markets but, linked to that, also more competition, faster pace, greater pressure to innovate. And the more the labour market is shaped by the laws and pressures of a globalised market, the less room remains for social regards, such as finding a balance between the needs of the workplace and the needs of  family life. This becomes clear if we compare the present situation with that of the 1950’s, 1960’s, 1970’s. At that time poverty was widespread in large areas of southern Europe, and even in Central Europe wage levels were low, prosperity relatively modest. Yet on the other hand, in Central Europe stable employment contracts and working hours were the norm; because of a labour shortage, jobs were plenty and easy to find; and even when unemployment slowly began to increase, it  remained at a comparatively low level for quite some time. Hence economic conditions for earning a livelihood were stable,  favourable to long-term planning and to the role of man-the-breadwinner. In other words, they provided a solid framework which allowed couples to marry and start a family.

In contrast, flexibilisation and deregulation are the demands penetrating the labour market today. The traditional form of employment is losing ground, and in its place comes a whole set of the most diverse forms of employment which are more open and mobile, but at the same time more unstable, vulnerable, risky. And while the “job for life” is fading away, the financial security it once offered is also disappearing.

Furthermore, the workplace for life has also gone. Whereas in the past employees usually stayed with the same company for many years, if not decades, now the “temporary life” is becoming the prevalent pattern. And in most cases this change is not a result of free choice, or at any rate: Not a choice made by the employees. In many western countries unemployment has risen sharply. And many of the people who have a job today, don’t know if they will still have it tomorrow.

While this structural transformation affects all areas of the labour market, it hits younger workers in a particularly drastic way. While older employees, if they are lucky, still have some protection through standard negotiated wages and rules against wrongful dismissal, the position for younger employees has worsened dramatically. Anyone wanting to make a start in professional life, is frequently only offered traineeships (in plain words: one has to work regular hours for very little money). Even at the next stage permanent jobs are ever more rare; instead there are short term contracts; so no long term security, only a cheque for this week and next. In growing numbers, young men and women are financially dependent on their parents well into their 20s or even 30s. Precarious material conditions spread into the middle classes, and even more so: “Precarious” becomes the catch-word and label for the generation of young adults today.

But how is one supposed to found a family on such meagre, such shaky grounds? How assume responsibility for a child? Increasingly, globalisation and growing uncertainty translate into such questions.

And even if one is lucky enough eventually to find a job, then new obstacles loom up, counteracting the compatibility of job and family: Place of work and hours worked become a problem. In the brave new world of work, continuity is out; instead, the individual must be willing and ready for constant changes. In an ever larger number of professional fields geographical mobility is a requirement (traineeship abroad, business trip to another town). And once ones contract has come to an end, then another has to be found – perhaps necessitating a move from London to Lancaster, from Oslo to Brussels (or to Brazil or Russia or Kenya). In ever more professions it is also imperative to work flexible hours (evening course, night shift, weekend seminar). In recent years, a number of empirical studies have shown this disappearing of “standard working hours”: The marked increase in Sunday working, part-time working, flexi-time, overtime, working time accounts.

Obviously, this flexibility is useful from the company point of view. But how does it agree with the demands of family life, such as roots, availability, continuity, closeness? Even for a couple staying close and together may  be difficult if they are geographically apart. But the difficulties multiply once there are children. Unfortunately, kids cannot be stowed away in the deep freeze compartment and taken out again when the weekend seminar or the business trip is over. No wonder that in this context, faced with permanent pressures to be mobile and flexible, young men and women have difficulties to keep up a stable relationship, and often feel not ready to start a family.

The risk of getting divorced

Interviewers: In your book The Normal Chaos of Love you describe how a “status struggle” is taking place within relationships, reflecting “contradictions between family demands and personal freedoms” while effecting gender roles and making individuals “the legislators of their own ways of life”, among other things. What do you mean by this?

EBG: The law is one of the institutions which defines rules. In the old days the laws in respect to daily family life often were very strict, explicit and unashamedly patriarchal. In contrast, in many Western countries these laws have become more egalitarian and give much space to the individual couple and their individual preferences and wishes. Take the German Code of Civil Law for an example. In the old version of 1900, § 1356 ruled, “The wife is entitled and obliged to run the family household”. In contrast, the new version of 1977 rules, “The spouses manage the tasks of the family household by mutual consent”. Certainly the fact that both partners are free to choose how to run their mutual home is far more compatible with the norm of gender equality. Both she and he can bring their own rights and interests to bear. Yet on the other hand, the two simple words “mutual consent” often prove to be anything but simple in real life. Instead of consent, there may be a battlefield, with two people and their differing ideas, plans and preferences struggling to find a common approach.

Interviewers: Is this also connected to the fact that the risk of divorce is much more present today than before?

EBG: That is one of the reasons. More options, more risks of divorce. But there are other reasons as well.

Interviewers: What sort of reasons?

EBG: When marriage turns from being the highly rigid and arranged union of pre-industrial society to being a voluntary union between to individuals, this transformation has its own potential for misunderstandings, conflicts and risk of dissolution.

With the breakdown of the old order it looked as though we had come closer and closer to a great victory in gender relations: Personal happiness untrammeled by outside duties or obligations. Marriage was no longer a union between a man and a woman arranged by others according to fixed external criteria. Instead, it had turned into an intimate and personal encounter between two committed individuals, defying the narrow lines of class and status and obeying to one authority only – to the language of the heart.

Yet this victory comes at a price: The marital bond becomes more fragile and vulnerable. In times of crisis (and all relationships experience such times) this bond has little outside support to fall back on because it is no more deeply embedded in a social context of relevant others, like parents or family networks, village or parish community. In many ways, the couple has become an island of its own. In this constellation, it is up to the couple to keep their relationship stable and going. It is the task they have to face on their own, and this task is the more difficult the further apart their social and cultural backgrounds are. While during the early stages of a new relationship differences usually fade into the background, and all that counts is being in love and being close to each other, at later stages we usually find a characteristic turn: Gradually differences of social background and cultural heritage come to the surface and have to be negotiated. As time goes on, the dividing lines which seemed to have been wiped away regain some of their strength, and have to be accepted and coped with by both partners.

In modern marriage it is their feelings for one another that links the two partners. The common ground is almost exclusively emotional. Consequently, when the warm emotions evaporate, this is the beginning of the end. The marriage is now seen as a mistake, in need of correction. Divorce is the therapy.

Interviewers: Does this mean then that you perceive these negative side-effects of individualization such as increased insecurity and new risks as causing a dissolution of long-term relationships? Does increased independence come at the expense of the maintenance of close relationships?

EBG: When our ways of love and marriage change, when they cease to be a union supported by relevant others – held together by the expectations of fathers, mothers, uncles, brothers, by the social control of family networks and neighbourhood – then they become our personal affair and our personal responsibility. When marriage becomes a union of two lovers, love turns into a permanent task. In the modern age love is not an inner state that, once it has arrived, will stay with us for the rest of our days. Instead, it is a state to be fought for anew every day, in good times and in bad times. Love has become a task, a permanent challenge, driving us to the limits of our tolerance and patience (and sometimes beyond, to rage and despair).

Reproductive technologies

Interviewers: Let us end this interview by a couple of questions on reproductive technologies. How do you perceive advances in reproductive technologies according to developments related to motherhood, parenthood and new family constellations?

EBG: Basically, reproductive technologies involve several parties. As minimum a male and his sperm, a female and her egg cells; in some constellations also a surrogate mother, or a so-called social mother and/or social father; last but not least the desired outcome, that is: The future child. Of these people, the child-to-be is the person most directly affected, it is life being shaped or even created by the options offered by reproductive technologies. Yet at the same time, the child can in no way take part in the process of decision-making (for the simple reason that it doesn’t exist yet). The social mother-to-be may decide on hiring a surrogate or using a sperm donor if she has no partner of her own. In contrast, you cannot ask for the baby’s opinion, and whether he/she wanted an anonymous sperm donor for a father, or to grow in the womb of an Indian surrogate. While the adults have an active part, are in some way or another subjects in the process of decision-making, the child-to-be is their object, formed by their preferences and wishes.

Seen like this, it is an odd constellation indeed. The adult parties have the monopoly in respect to power and influence, they can choose between options, deciding this way or that. Yet, we have no way to know how one day, some twenty or thirty years into the future, the children will feel. Perhaps such children will be quite comfortable with the idea that their father was an Danish sperm donor or their biological mother a Spanish egg cell. Perhaps this is enough information to them. Yet from what I know from psychology and family sociology, my guess is rather to the contrary. I guess that many would wish to know more about the persons who produced the biological basics of their lives. Some may even feel deprived of their origins, of a history and places to connect with.

In the public debate on reproductive technologies, their risks and benefits, we always hear the voices of adults. We listen to men and women who speak of their wish for a child, their long years of futile waiting and deep suffering, of the roller-caster between hopes and disappointment. But we do not hear the voice of the child who, some twenty years later, may want to know about his origins; who for instance wonders about the woman in far-away India or Ukraine whose body was his home and nourishment during his prenatal life: Is she still alive? What does she look like? Why did she give her body to such a task?

Interviewers: What are your main concerns here?

EBG: While listening to the voices of adults we forget the interests of the third party involved, who is the weakest and most vulnerable. Young children, and youth in the various stages of puberty, need many kinds of support – from material support (food, clothes etc.) to teaching and advice, to hugging and loving and protection. For this very reason, having two parents is better than having one: If at times one parent is not capable of such support then there is another person who can take over. In this sense, the child in a one-parent family is more at risk than that in a two-parent family.

Take a gay man, single, who has a child with the help of an egg donor and surrogate mother. If he falls seriously ill, who will feel responsible for this child, care for it, look after it, love it? Or what if a woman goes for egg freezing and decades later, after she has finished her career and starts retirement, decides to have some of her eggs defrosted, fertilized and implanted into her womb? Is a post-career Mom in her late 60s physically up to the activity level of a 5-year old? How, when in here late 70s, will she handle a rebellious youngster fighting the battles of puberty? Will she have the physical strength, the stamina, the nerves to bear this? Frankly, I doubt it. There may be some superwoman, gifted with excellent health and never-ending energy who will master such challenges. Yet what about all those women who are not superwomen but normal human beings, of average health and energy? Take for example a story that recently made the news: In Switzerland a 66-year old woman, retired and single, gave birth to twin boys. These kids will grow up in a family constellation characterized by major voids: No father; no grandparents from the father’s side; and on the mother’s side grandparents who, if yet alive (most probably not) suffer from some kind of chronic disease, early dementia and diminishing strength. Will the mother in her late 60s, early 70s run and sing and swim and play games with her young ones? Will she enjoy doing this? Or will she often feel exhausted and long for some rest?

Interviewers: Some have expressed concern over the consequences of reproductive technologies in terms of, for instance, a possible dissolution of the nuclear family and women’s lack of self-determination, and your answer indicates that you tend to agree? What is your position in these matters? Can you see the possibilities of these reproductive technologies in a liberating way for women?

EBG: Indeed, in some ways these technologies are liberating, and that is the way the American feminists usually see it. By egg cell freezing or egg donation you may be relieved from the permanent stress that comes with trying to combine career and motherhood, both at the same time. Instead, by starting with the career and having a child much later, you can avoid the so-called rush hour in life. Similarly, with the help of these technologies you can go for a child without having a man at your side.  If you had several tries at relationships and they just did not work out, well then go your own way and have your baby and get some sperm and forget about the man. And you are also liberated from being in a heterosexual relationship. Now a lesbian or gay couple can raise children together. Two lesbians or two gays can have a child together. So in this way reproductive technologies may indeed bring more reproductive freedom to women. But at the same time they bring new risks for women …

Interviewers: In your book The social implications of bioengineering, you speak of “risky opportunities” with regards to reproductive technologies. What do you mean by this?

 EBG: Technologies such as ultrasound or IVF can be used for sex selection – sometimes called “family balancing”, to make it sound gender neutral – a practice that is widespread in Asian countries, especially China and India, and also spreading in the communities of Asian migrants in the West. Yet though gender neutral in theory, in real life it is definitely not.  In most cases, it is used for having sons and “avoiding” daughters (either by not implanting female fetuses or aborting them): An option we could hardly see as liberating for women.

Or take egg freezing. This option offers “Late, later, latest” as motto for the future of motherhood, allowing women to have their cake and eat it, make fast progress on the road to success and enjoy the joys of motherhood. At first sight, this may seem the feminist dream come true, or maybe the post-feminist version of the feminist dream. But when looking closer we find a series of side-effects: First the physical toll on women’s bodies, produced by hormone stimulation. Second, low success rates, at least for the time being. Third, the physical and mental strain on the mother: Serving the needs of an infant is a round-the-clock job, its demands easier to cope with at age 28 than three decades later. Fourth, the costs in terms of money. Neither egg freezing nor any of the other options offered by reproductive technology come free. On the contrary, they  require medication, tests, laboratory apparatus,  medical staff (in varying degrees, depending on the nature of treatments). While in some cases the costs will be moderate, in others they may rise to staggering heights, especially so in case of repeated IVF attempts, multiple births (often a result of IVF) or surrogacy. Again, I doubt whether this is liberating for women. If we think in terms of women’s rights, women’s bodies, women’s lives we should rather look for political solutions than for medical interventions with a high potential of side-effects. Implementing policies to fight the “rush hour” in life, to better combine family and careers: This is more liberating for women than offering them the option of becoming a mother at the biological age of a grandmother.

Bibliographical references:

Beck, U. & Beck-Gernsheim, E. (2011)’ Fernliebe – Lebensformen im globalen Zeitalter ‘[Love at a Distance – The chaos of global relationships]. Berlin: Suhrkamp Verlag.

Beck-Gernsheim, Elisabeth (2002) Reinventing the Family: In Search of New Lifestyles. Cambridge: Polity.

Beck, U. &Beck-Gernsheim, E. (2002) Individualization: Institutionalized individualismand its social and political consequences. London: Sage.

Beck-Gernsheim, E. (1998): On the Way to a Post-Familial Family. From a Community of Need to Elective Affinities, Theory, Culture & Society, 15(3): 53-70.

Beck-Gernsheim, E. (1995) The Social Implications of Bioengineering. New Jersey: Humanities Press.

Beck, U. & Beck-Gernsheim, E. (1995): The normal chaos of love. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Dr. Mads P. Sørensen is senior researcher and head of studies at the Danish Centre for Studies in Research and Research Policy, Aarhus University. He is author and co-author of several books, book chapters and journal articles on Ulrich Beck, subpolitics, political consumerism, Karl Marx, Adam Smith etc. His latest book is: Ulrich Beck. An Introduction to the Theory of Second Modernity and the Risk Society (Routledge, 2012):

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Tine Ravn is a PhD student at the Danish Centre for Studies in Research and Research Policy, Business and Social Sciences, Aarhus University. The main objective of her PhD project is to examine the impacts of assisted reproductive technologies (ARTs) on individual, social and political conduct, with the intention to illuminate contemporary transformations in the intersection between science and society, by delineating the consequences of ARTs for solo mothers and the understanding of social relations and family constellations, along with political regulation and technological developments in the field.

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