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

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What do we mean by 'family'?

1.3 Exploring values and assumptions

As you progress through this course, we would like you to consider how values and moral assumptions are deeply embedded in family meanings. A central argument of the book is that ‘family’ is a notion which is suffused with values, desires and fears. This results in ‘family’ being a powerful ideal to which we may all react strongly, with regard to both our own lives and the lives of others. It is therefore very rare for people to discuss families without making judgements. Sometimes such evaluations are embedded in the assumptions which underpin the language being used – for example, in the medicalised language of what is healthy or unhealthy, functional or dysfunctional. Furthermore, family lives may be one of the most difficult areas for academic study, as they are literally so ‘close to home’ and ‘familiar’ that it's hard for us to step outside of ourselves to see what is happening, or even to realise what assumptions we are bringing to our observations. Indeed, such ‘stepping outside’ may be an impossible endeavour to achieve in any absolute sense.

Nevertheless, as you read, we ask you to attempt to set aside presumptions of what is right or wrong, and focus instead on listening to the ways in which people express and live out family meanings in their own lives and in their interactions with others in varied contexts. As you progress through these chapters you should carefully and continually reflect on your own assumptions and values. Rather than trying to work out what is good or bad about family lives, then, in this course you will explore how people themselves, as well as researchers and professionals, make sense of the circumstances and contexts in which they find themselves, and work out their lives through variable meanings of family.

While this approach is rooted in a strong academic social science tradition that stresses the importance of understanding the meanings by which people frame their lives, this is not a common way to approach discussion of families outside of academic contexts. Instead, we generally encounter debates and discussions in the media, and in our own everyday conversations, that launch into what is going wrong or right about families, and how we think people should conduct their relationships.

You may find yourself, then, reacting with such judgements to what you read here – perhaps towards your own life, as well as the lives of others. It may be that you find yourself thinking about how your life compares, and how you might judge yourself and feel judged by others. You may at times feel that we, as the writers of this book, have ourselves implicitly – if unintentionally – conveyed such judgements, or you may become aware of the values through which you yourself view other people's families. We invite you to watch out for such moments in your reading, and to note them and ponder upon them as part of your learning process. Sometimes these judgements may be obvious to you, and sometimes they may be more subtle – apparent, perhaps, through a sense of unease or disapproval rather than through any explicit and conscious evaluative thought-process. But, most subtly of all, it can occur through taken-for-granted assumptions of what is ‘normal’, and what ‘makes sense’ to us, or, alternatively, what seems incomprehensible or even ‘exotic’ to our general way of thinking about families.

Another key way in which moral judgements may occur implicitly is through the language of what is ‘natural’. As you saw with the opening quote from Fred, families are often discussed as being ‘natural’ – an inevitable part of the flow of ‘normal’ life. Yet, at the same time, there may often be moral disapproval of those who don't live up to this image of the ‘natural’ and ‘normal’ family. But, from a social science perspective, what may appear in social life to be ‘natural’, and a matter of ‘commonsense’, needs to be opened up for scrutiny, since these terms are often used to describe what are actually matters of culture and history. Thus our assumptions about families and relationships may be taken as quite unremarkable, and taken-for-granted, but to an outsider they might appear strange and reprehensible. As social scientists, then, we seek to make the familiar strange in order to see what is happening more clearly.

Figure 1 Family life is often portrayed as going wrong
Figure 1 Family life is often portrayed as going wrong

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