1.2 Core questions
The idea of ‘family’ is thus very powerful, at least in the contemporary cultures of Europe and the New World. At the same time, family lives have been under constant scrutiny from all sides – from family members themselves, politicians, professionals, and media pundits. And this scrutiny does not seem to be abating, as people and governments struggle to deal with anxieties about the complexities and uncertainties of changing and diverse communities in a globalising world. How does this debate and anxiety impact upon, but also reflect, people's everyday experiences? How does it relate to professional and policy developments? And how can the academic study of family lives progress within the context of such ongoing and widespread debates?
In this course we will approach these questions by taking a step back from these anxious debates, to focus on family meanings as the key feature for academic study. Thus we will not be seeking to observe family as a structure about which we can develop objective knowledge from a position of total detachment. Rather, our concern will be to explore the ways in which ‘family’, as an idea, forms a key construct through which people develop meanings in a whole variety of social settings. Further, we will demonstrate how ‘meanings’ come to have practical consequences, contesting and complicating our everyday assumptions around family lives. In this regard, some ‘family’ meanings may develop into systematic and enduring sets of meanings, while other meanings may be more changeable and idiosyncratic. Meanings may become more systematised because they are embedded in institutions and legal systems, which also give these meanings some power in society. Or meanings may be systematised in the sense that they are regularly exchanged and drawn upon between networks of people over time, and thus become widely used and established. But, at other times, ‘family’ may represent more fluid and contingent meanings as individuals develop their own understandings of their everyday lives and interactions in varied contexts. But, in either case, ‘family’ can serve as a symbol around which many features of personal and social lives intertwine and coalesce. This course, then, centralises the question, what is ‘family’ – what do we mean by it?