What do we mean by 'family'?
What do we mean by 'family'?

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What do we mean by 'family'?

2.3 What's so difficult?

Morgan's discussion helps us to think about how we can develop research, policies and interventions around ‘family’ when the key term is so problematic. But we also need to explore further just what is so difficult about this endeavour. There are also some clues to this in Morgan's discussion, in which he points out that:

  • there is a close linkage between everyday and academic language of family

  • there is a whole variety of agendas and interests at stake

  • the word ‘family’ involves a great range of emotional and moral investments that work at individual, psychological, and social levels

  • there are also political and practical issues at stake.

Despite such discussions, it is common to find references to ‘the family’ as a definite object in both academic and policy debates. However, many academic writers now consciously avoid using this term, referring instead to ‘families’ in the plural, or ‘family lives’ (using ‘family’ as an adjective). Jon Bernardes (1993, 2003[1985]), however, argues that it is not enough to recognise diversity and change around contemporary family lives in Europe and New World countries, or to talk about ‘families’ in the plural. He suggests that the conceptual problem of ‘family’ goes much deeper than this, to the point that academics should avoid defining ‘family’ at all. Instead, he suggests the focus of study should shift to explore ‘how, why and when actors define particular aspects of their lives as “family life”’ (Bernardes, 1987, p. 882). By attempting to pin down the meaning of ‘family’, academics risk contributing to a situation where particular understandings and versions of ‘family’ become more powerful than others. This may result in people thinking about their own or others’ lives in ways that are really unhelpful and which create evaluations and judgements; this undermines the ability to ‘hear’ and ‘see’ how people's family lives make sense on their own terms.

Bernardes further argues that the persistent tendency to revert to discussions of ‘the family’ as if ‘it’ exists is not simply due to the intellectual deficiencies of social scientists. Rather, there are many questions that social scientists wish to ask about social life that seem to require the concept of ‘the family’ as an object that exists and can be studied. Questions such as: How does the family function for society? Does the family change in response to industrialisation? Is the family converging towards a common form around the world? Similarly, social policy-makers and professional practitioners may also feel the need for a clear model of what family is, in order to develop legislation, general procedures, and guidelines in relation to people's family lives and relationships. And yet, as the quote from Bernardes suggests, such models may be pernicious.

So far we have seen, then, that ‘family’ is so difficult to define that academic writers have sought various ways to shift the language that we use to study families and relationships, with some writers suggesting that it is not even useful to try to pin down the concept, and any attempt may indeed be harmful.

In line with such debates, this course seeks to go beyond the important insights of family change and diversity, to consider much more fundamentally what we mean by ‘family’ at all. How far, and in what circumstances, is it a useful concept, for either social science or for professional practice? What are the different facets of using this concept, and in what ways can we use it effectively in research and in practice? Can it be modified or adapted to make it work better, or do we need other concepts altogether? In what ways can it help to illuminate social lives, yet marginalise others, and whose interests are served in these processes?


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