4.4 Family meanings matter in family studies
Researchers and students of family studies need to pay attention to family meanings because it is not possible to stand outside of such meanings. Thus, it is important to be able to reflect upon the ways in which these meanings shape and impinge upon research, and, in the process, come to be reconstructed and reproduced. Such reflection is relevant whether we are considering the interpretations of people's lives undertaken within qualitative research or the categories of households and relationships underpinning statistical surveys and censuses.
Research cannot stand outside of social life as it is always founded upon particular conceptual ideas, and different theoretical frameworks may bring variable understandings and ideas of how to identify and interpret family meanings. Academics who study families and relationships have struggled to know how to deal with these conceptual difficulties, especially when the language of ‘family’ is so emotionally and morally loaded. Consequently, research and academic writings may themselves contribute their own moral and evaluative charge, whether or not this is the authors' intention. This may result in people feeling excluded if they don't conform to the dominant models that emerge from research that goes on to shape wider policies and representations concerning families. In grappling with these dilemmas, academics have tried to find ways of modifying the language of ‘family’, or moving beyond it.
Additionally, family meanings matter to family studies, and to social sciences in general, because they shape the lives and actions of individuals, and, at the same time, they are a core feature in their own right of the social worlds we want to understand.