Family background and everyday lives

This was one of the research projects in 'Real Life Methods', part of the National Centre for Research Methods.

About the project

Participants made videos showing us their traditions on special occasions, like Christmas.

This project explored the role of family background and the way ‘backgrounds’ are imagined and described. In the inheritance, creation, and maintenance of family and interpersonal relationships.

The focus is on life trajectories and experiences of couples who see themselves as having different family backgrounds.

Research methods

We took a multi-method approach to this project, using:

  • qualitative interviews;
  • home visits;
  • photo-elicitation;
  • analysis and discussion of participant-filmed and narrated special occasions eg Christmas;
  • commissioning questions in a national omnibus survey.


  • The idea of ‘family background’ figures prominently in how people understand and experience their everyday personal relationships.
  • Memories of how and where we were brought up, and what your family is ‘like’, can have a vivid presence in the present, and play an active role in interpersonal relationships. Even those parts of the past that have been consciously ‘buried’ or discarded can inform current family negotiations and family politics.
  • Supposed similarities or differences in background are important. They are part of how couples negotiate relationships with each other and with their wider families.
  • Family background rarely translated straightforwardly into discrete sociological variables like social class or ethnicity.
  • Instead, when reflecting on differences or similarities between their own and their partner’s backgrounds, people bring into play a number of factors and multi-sensory experiences. Such as cultural tastes, emotional, interpersonal and inter-physical styles, order and disorder, interests and politics, family size, and relative comfort and happiness.
  • Memory, identity, and the multi-sensory experience of difference are often most salient, and most noticeable, in everyday practices. For many couples, what they eat, where they go on holiday, how they clean their house, their spending habits, how organised they are, whether they are ebullient or quiet and contemplative in the company of others, and how well they get on with extended family, are cause for reflection and ongoing negotiation. As such, these practices can be a source of tension within relationships as well as axes around which people create a sense of being a couple, of being similar or strong despite differences.
  • Celebratory occasions such as Christmas frequently bring differences in the family background into sharp relief. These occasions may involve the physical co-presence of family members who ‘represent’ differences in background, but also entail and engender stories and narratives of what different parts of families are like, as well as what the occasions are meant to symbolise, and how they should proceed.


Muir, S. and Mason, J. (2012) 'Capturing Christmas: the sensory potential of data from participant produced the video'Sociological Research Online 17 (1) 15.

Research team

  • Prof Jennifer Mason (Project Leader)
  • Dr Stewart Muir (Researcher)
  • Prof Carol Smart (Co-investigator)


1 October 2005 to 30 September 2008. Part of Real Life Methods, a node of the National Centre for Research Methods.


We are grateful for the support of the Economic and Social Research Council in funding this project.