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

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What do we mean by 'family'?

1.4 Structures of power & inequalities

At the same time, such judgements and responses are not just personal matters: they are also embedded in all sorts of wider and interpersonal processes of power and inequality. These processes shape social policies, professional interventions, and representations in the media, as well as underpinning everyday social interactions in family lives and relationships. If we focus on family meanings, we may not always put issues of power, material inequalities, and moral evaluations at the centre of our analysis. But they will be important to meanings of family and the ways in which we think about our lives. Such issues as gender, class, ethnicity, or sexuality form features of wider social structure, in the sense that they form major and regular social patterns that can be seen to occur in people's lives, reflecting and revealing significant dimensions of power and the distribution of resources. Structural issues can then fundamentally shape the contexts in which people live, and it is by reference to these contexts that people work out how to make sense of their families and relationships. An attention to meanings may, then, not centralise issues of power and inequality as such, but it is important to understand the significance of meanings-in-contexts. As mentioned earlier, meanings don't just appear from nowhere, but can be seen to represent the ways in which people try to make sense of their lives, and understand their situations, in relation to the contexts and circumstances in which they find themselves. People experience such contexts in all sorts of ways – in terms of direct interactions with others, physical and material phenomena, media representations, and legal and institutional structures which set the parameters of much of life in developed societies. Most of this will be taken completely for granted as people get on with their daily lives, but, as they do so, they will be developing and drawing on meanings that help them to make sense of their lives as these occur in the particular contexts they experience.

Families also carry a widespread expectation of privacy and freedom from ‘outside’ interference, perhaps making a ‘world of their own’. Nevertheless, families are equally a major focus for both professional interventions and policy developments as there is so much at stake if things are thought to be ‘going wrong’ in family lives – both for vulnerable individuals and for society at large. But relying on commonsense assumptions, or unexamined ideas about the ‘naturalness’ and fundamental desirability of ‘the traditional family’, limits our ability to understand what is happening. Academic study is necessary to bring into focus the fluid and dynamic nature of contemporary families and to consider how we can study and ‘know’ them.

In this section we will begin our exploration by raising this question: what is ‘family’ ? Starting from, but then moving beyond, various attempts to pin down the concept and define it, you will be invited to consider the question afresh through the eyes of Borg, an extraterrestrial, androgynous cyborg (whom you will meet later in the course). Borg sets out on the apparently straightforward quest to locate families, but ends up with the view that we have to listen in order to see. And, in many ways, this is the view that frames this course.


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