Photo Hugues Siegenthaler © LIVES

Eric Widmer, new co-director of NCCR LIVES: "I grew up with interdisciplinarity"

Following Professor Michel Oris' appointment as Vice-Rector of the University of Geneva, Professor Eric Widmer will take over the co-leadership of the NCCR LIVES for Geneva from July 2015. Along with Professor Jean-Michel Bonvin, he will be responsible for the doctoral programme and will continue leading the "Family configurations and the life course" (IP208) project, with the support of Professor Clémentine Rossier. Interview.

First of all, a few words to mark the departure of Michel Oris…

Of course! Michel Oris has done an absolutely wonderful job in building and structuring the centre, along with Dario Spini and Laura Bernardi. He organised the work in Geneva very efficiently. He was always up to speed with all the records and knew all the LIVES PhD students by their first names. All the work Michel has done in these last few years has made my new role easier.

What will you do differently?

I think my new role is essentially about continuing the work that was done in the first phase. But now it will be a case of deepening the work on cross-cutting issues (CCI). I have the impression that in the first four years, the teams have made their mark on quite specific questioning relating to their discipline. But I think we are still at the beginning of the interdisciplinary work. In the coming years, there needs to be more collaboration between developmental and social psychologists, sociologists, demographers, statisticians and economists to develop a coherent and original interdisciplinary perspective, which will produce new results on life trajectories and vulnerability. I intend to focus on this aim, from a leadership perspective.

What is your experience of interdisciplinarity?

I grew up with interdisciplinarity, as the "family" aspect, on which I've been working for twenty years, is at the intersection of demographics, psychology and sociology. It is not pure sociology like the sociology which deals with social stratification, and in which you can really remain within the confines of your discipline. From the time I did my PhD, I was exposed to lectures and contacts with the psychology of interpersonal relations, developmental psychology, etc. Then, during my post-doctoral research in the United States, I was involved in interdisciplinary programmes with psychologists, demographers and anthropologists. When I came back to Switzerland, I quite quickly became involved in the PAVIE Centre, which in a way was the predecessor to LIVES. Its objective was to develop interdisciplinary research into life trajectories which materialised as several publications and the "Devenir parent" ("becoming a parent") research project, something we are still working on today. I also completed a certain number of research projects with legal experts and economists; these interdisciplinary experiences were positive ones. But the major experiment is what we are doing now with LIVES!

One of the purposes of the NCCR LIVES is to act as a window on society. What is your aim in this regard?

One of the aims of such a National Centre of Competence in Research is indeed to have an impact on civil society, and enable political leaders, association leaders and the general public to benefit from the knowledge accumulated by the research. As such, the LIVES leadership values relations with social actors. Furthermore, these links are very useful to fundamental research, as they give us easier access to areas which otherwise would be difficult to access and study. It is impossible to launch a research project on a vulnerable population if there are no existing links (ideally, institutional ones) with partners. It is the role of universities and national programmes to help promote more applied knowledge, particularly in social sciences, which must have a good hold on social problems.

Do you have any examples of this kind of project?

Yes! The sociology department of the University of Geneva, with the support of the NCCR LIVES, joined forces with Pro Juventute Genève and the OPCCF (Protestant Office for Couple and Family Counselling) to create the "Avenir Famille" ("Family Future") association. Our project has three pillars. First of all, the operation of a network of family professionals in Geneva – associations, services, foundations, etc. Such a network provides a wide range of services, but they are not very coordinated. The aim here is to try to encourage partnerships, dialogue and communication between professionals to help them produce something more integrated. The second aim: provide individuals with a "one-stop shop" for all the information they may need regarding family issues in the canton. The third point, and it is here that LIVES and the University of Geneva are particularly involved, is the establishment this autumn of a family monitoring centre (observatoire de la famille) which will be responsible for applied family research, in response to explicit requests from professionals via the family conferences which will be held each year, and the concerns of families and individuals. Contacts are also being made on the Vaud side. Ultimately we would like to develop something across French-speaking Switzerland. There is a social need which is being very clearly expressed and which requires the knowledge acquired in LIVES to be applied to civil society.

Is it linked to the current shift in family structures?

It is mainly linked to the absence of an explicit family policy in our country, at both the canton and federal level, which is even more damaging as, in the last five decades, family structures have become much more complex, not only in terms of divorce and blended families, but also in terms of increased life expectancy and migration. We recently obtained a mandate from a commune in the canton of Geneva where there are a large number of working-class families. There is great job instability, childcare problems when both parents work and major housing problems, in situations where family networks are relatively weak as a result of relocation through migration and when the generations live far away from each other. The commune authorities are asking themselves: what can be done to help these families, which have become vulnerable through a combination of factors, both economic and demographic? What are their needs, and what kind of services should be in place to respond to vulnerable families in precarious situations? I think that LIVES has all the skills to respond to this type of questioning.

Another priority of the NCCR LIVES is to develop internationally, this time from an academic point of view. How can this be done?

The first way to develop scientifically and gain better international recognition is to have original research results with a solid empirical grounding. A way to make LIVES more visible, in my opinion, would be to increase collaborative work on cross-cutting issues and on the interdisciplinary dimension, as that is what sets our work apart. The paradox is that this makes publication more complicated, because unfortunately, we are evaluated by colleagues who belong to specific disciplines. Typically, sociology experts will have very strict requirements in terms of sampling and will soon become critical of the small, non-representative samples which may be acceptable in psychology; at the same time, psychology experts will pay much more attention to the validity of the measurements and replication of results than sociologists. When these two sets of expectations are come up against one another, it is harder to publish interdisciplinary articles. But when they are balanced, something very valuable is achieved!

You will be mainly in charge of directing the third cross-cutting issue (CCI 3) concerning the multidirectional approach, i.e. over time. What are the features of this?

As this has been described in our proposal to the Swiss National Science Foundation, we are interested, for example, in the effects of the first years of life over the long term: is everything decided before the age of five or not? Although we have no studies on children, a retrospective assessment can be made. There is also this fundamental hypothesis of the cumulative effects throughout the life course, which in my opinion, should be explored even more than they have been up to now. Finally, the third important point is the "biographisation" of life trajectories, this idea that individuals participate quite actively, via the recomposition of their projects, in conducting their life course over the long term. I would like to add something that has been very widely discussed in the international literature: the idea of opening the black box of "agency", i.e. the actor's ability to act, to have an influence on their trajectories, via their preferences, orientations and their aims in life. It is a classic theme in life course analysis, but we need to know more about how this action-oriented dimension is expressed over the medium- and long-term of life trajectories, in different structural situations which are at first glance negative: single-parent families, health problems, work problems, unemployment, disability, etc. I believe that the interplay between structure and agency over the long term is an important point.
I am also involved, more marginally, with Dario Spini and Oriane Sarrasin, in the CCI 2 on social interactions, and here, I think we have succeeded in promoting this strong idea of "misleading norms", social norms which push individuals to take paths which prove counter-productive for them over the medium or long term. For example, in a country such as Switzerland, where 50% of marriages end in divorce, this norm, which pushes women to stay at home or greatly reduce their involvement in the labour market. We can build the hypothesis that each generation sets out in life with the norms set in place by the previous generation.

Within the IP208, you also want to investigate the issue of family ambivalence. What does this mean?

Ambivalence, as it is defined in sociology, mainly by Kurt Lüscher, is the oscillation between contradictory social norms. Typically, the social imperative to be professionally active and to breastfeed your child until the age of two, or the obligation to actively help ageing parents and the obligation to lead a very independent life, to pursue a career which requires social and geographical remoteness. From Kurt Lüscher's point of view, this ambivalence can generate innovation and personal development, as it requires individuals to come up with new solutions. My hypothesis is that this form of agency is possible only if people have significant reserves of financial, cultural and social resources. When more disadvantaged individuals are affected by these contradictory normative forces, they can become stress factors and thus lead to the weakening of personal identity and the ability to act. But this remains to be seen! Essentially, sociology views the family as a place of rejuvenation, support and solidarity, while the IP208 postulates that the family itself is a source of stress, due to the many conflicts it generates in the allocation of different resources – money, affection, time… What is given to a child in time, to a partner or an ageing parent, cannot be given to another person, in families where links are much more individualised than before. Hence the benefit of seeing these family links as generators of resources, but also as links which generate vulnerability. And up to now, this has not really been done.