Shirley Hsiao-Li Sun, a PhD (Sociology) from the New York University, is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore. Her research interests include family, citizenship and immigration, social inequalities, public policy, population studies, and science and technology. She is the author of Population policy and reproduction in Singapore: Making future citizens (Routledge, 2012), and currently serves as the principal investigator for the project “Ethical and Social Implications of Prominent Human Genetic Studies in Asia.” Her articles in international peer-reviewed journals can be downloaded here.

Things are not what they seem — even in the family

Sociology fascinates me; and as Peter Berger put it, famously, “the first wisdom of sociology is this — things are not what they seem.” As is often the case, my research focus has evolved with time and space; however, it has always been intimately concerned with the subject of the family in a globalized world. So in the next few paragraphs, I would like to share some stories along the line of the first wisdom of Sociology…

To begin, most sociological theory about family structure and roles has evolved with Western societies as models. My doctoral thesis was an attempt to re-frame and to understand the processes by which gender role conflict and transformation are most likely to occur within various family structures (i.e. nuclear, patrilocal, and matrilocal households), partly by conducting in-depth interviews with Taiwanese/Chinese immigrants in Canada. As Yi et al. (2006:1063) pointed out, “lineage distinction is an important aspect in most paternal societies. Comparison between paternal versus maternal generational relations will allow us to delineate lineage effects within the family”. I found that, in patrilocal households, a wife’s first reaction to “share the household chores” was between her coresident mother-in-law and herself, rather than between her husband and herself. In matrilocal households, the mother of the married women would offer help to her daughter. Thus, the generational relation is maintained at the cost of gender equality — while the relationships between women in different extended households vary, housework and childcare is rarely, if ever, done by men. Nuclear households are in some ways facilitating more egalitarian relations in the family. But then there is more, I also found that married couples in nuclear households were more likely than their counterparts in extended households to keep women at home to meet the childrearing needs, even when fathers also devoted more time to “the second shift” (Hochschild, 1989).

Theoretically, this body of work highlights the centrality of intergenerational relations and the complexity of gender relations in Asia. Moreover, as Bengston (2001) suggested, “family multigenerational relations will be more important in the 21st century.” While the “intersectionality” paradigm (Crenshaw, 1989) tends to emphasize the interactional effects of race, gender and class inequalities, it seems important to me to incorporate intergenerational relations to better understand the vocabularies of motives and cross-cutting lines of authorities in shaping family lives in non-Western societies, and in immigrant families.

The family has also been the key social institution responsible for ensuring social reproduction. Nonetheless, low-fertility has become a national security issue for many countries and governments are trying to raise fertility to prevent population decline and preclude rapidly ageing societies; indeed, almost half of the world’s population lives in low-fertility countries (United Nations, 2011). Singapore — with a population of 5.18 million and a per capita GDP of S$63,050 (approximately US$47,918) in 2011, exceeding that of Japan — is a significant research site for investigating the relationship between state population policies and individual childbearing decisions for three primary reasons. Singapore was the first country in the Pacific Asia region to reverse earlier anti-natalist policies (Jones et al., 2009). Moreover, pronatalist concerns have consistently remained a top priority in Singapore’s public policy making since 1987, with the use of a well-endowed and multi-pronged approach that the government revisits and fine-tunes on a regular basis. Furthermore, “there is universal free education to pre-university, a subsidized health system, and subsidized public housing” (Wijeysingha, 2005). The total fertility rate (TFR), however, declined from 1.60 in 2000 [when pronatalist cash benefits were introduced] to 1.15 in 2010.

Singapore’s experience may be of interest throughout Asia and, quite possibly, in Southern Europe (from Portugal to the Balkans) where low fertility and population decline are looming problems. So what might explain the gap between the aim of raising the TFR and the reality of persistent low fertility? Most studies of low fertility are conducted with large scale probability sampling. My book, Population Policy and Reproduction in Singapore: Making Future Citizens (Routledge, 2012), draws on in-depth personal interviews and focus groups to provide a much fuller context for fertility decisions. I argue that the (in)effectiveness of these policy initiatives is a function of competing notions of citizenship, which has nothing to do with the family size at first glance. The data also reveals a gap between seemingly neutral policy incentives and their perceived and experienced disparate effects. For instance, while the financial incentives are for everyone on paper, only those with substantial disposable income can really benefit from the Children Development Account matching funds and the tax rebates. While extended 16-week maternity leave was intended to give mothers more family time, in reality women could not make full use of such provisions for fear of losing their jobs. In short, as it turns out, generous and comprehensive pronatalist incentives are insufficient in themselves; I suggest that a more egalitarian education system, more affordable public housing and healthcare, better social security net, and a greater degree of gender equality and legal protection of individuals’ family responsibilities should help increase the effectiveness of such initiatives.

Having completed a major study of population policies, now questions about human genome studies, population, family, and medicine keep me awake at night. For instance, in some parts of the world, it is fairly routine for patients who see a physician for the first time to fill out forms asking about medical and health problems of family members. This is obviously a strategy to see if certain illnesses or diseases “run in families” — and thus might be suggestive of genetic predispositions. Given that we are now in an era of increased genetic testing, what is the relationship between traditional and new ways of practicing medicine? Will medicine really be “personalized” or will we see more “population-based” medical interventions? Will it really benefit the patients, and if so, how and with what unintended social consequences? I look forward to exploring the answers below the surface!