Misconceptions or fruitful misconceptions or import and export of social problems

By Marja Keränen

One of the many consequences of European integration is that Finns, too, have become part of the booming industry of comparative research. And while integration may bring about actual homogenisation of our countries - due to policy recommendations of the EC, the OECD, the World Bank, or whoever - social scientists may have reason to reflect upon their own activities. Are we in the business of importing and exporting social problems?

Faced with a table comparing numbers of single mothers and divorce rates in different European countries, I found myself wondering why the table was incomprehensible to me. Why did I not understand it? It wasn't the result - the answer - which caused my problems: Finland and Britain were very close to each other in the table. It was the question. It would not have occurred to a Finnish researcher to ask the question embedded in this table.

While Britain and Finland were so much "alike" in the figures, the meanings attached to the issue seemed to be worlds apart. With the same figures at hand the British family is said to be in crisis whereas the Finnish family is not. While single mothers are considered a social problem in Britain, in Finland they are not targeted as the cause of all evil. While there is moral panic about family values in Britain, in Finland it is business as usual.

What requires explanation is not the statistics but their context.

In Finland, women's lives are "normally" considered in terms of paid employment, whereas in Britain, it is "lack of family" that makes single motherhood problematic: the problem of the single mother is not described as poverty, lack of child care or lack of paid employment.

However, in comparative studies, research questions easily become problematic as transportable items: they turn out to reflect the context of the one who is asking the question. While we thought that our questions were neutral and had an "objective" quality, we focused on checking the quality of our data in the context of different countries. Now it turns out that measures relevant for one place may be relevant for another. The consequence is that the question of single motherhood would be imported - even into Finland - with some help from social scientists eager to participate in comparative research. If, instead, we can consider living without the moral hype, we might draw another conclusion. We would then have to engage in a dialogue on not only the answers but the questions too.

Dr Marja Keränen is a researcher of politics at the University of Helsinki. She talked about Policy Export in the international seminar "The Changing Welfare State: Citizenship, Gender and the Family - Experiences of Northern and Southern Europe", held in June at the London School of Economics and the Finnish Institute (organised jointly by the LSE Gender Institute, the Italian Cultural Institute and the Finnish Institute).

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