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

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What do we mean by 'family'?

2.2 Responding to the problems

Consequently, some academics have increasingly voiced concerns about whether it is possible to define family satisfactorily at all – or, indeed, whether it serves any useful purpose even to try. The extract you will look at in the following activity is taken from an Introduction to a four-volume collection of readings on Family: Critical Concepts in Sociology. In this Introduction, the author seeks to find a way of defining family that will work across the four volumes of readings on aspects of family lives across the world.

Activity 2

As you read the following extract, consider these key questions:

  1. Why do definitions matter, and what do they need to achieve?

  2. What different approaches does David Morgan identify in response to the difficulties of defining ‘family’ ?

Reading 1: David Morgan, ‘Defining “family”’

Definitions are always important in all areas of social enquiry and not just in terms of the more immediate concerns and projects of the scholars themselves. In the case of family, these issues come to be of particular importance, partly because the terms used overlap with several everyday usages and partly because, in certain parts of the world, these words – family, marriage, parents etc. – have come to take on an ideological or political significance. A critical examination of family and family practices must be aware of some common themes and concerns across different cultures (if only to make some kind of cross-cultural comparison possible) while remaining sensitive to the culturally embedded character of these key concerns. Put another way there must be an awareness of the different ways in which family terms are deployed not only between cultures but also within a single society. Thus demographers, constructors of family policy and informal carers (to indicate just three sets of interested social actors) have different concerns and different practices. A critical sociology of family must be ever alive to these different usages.

We may examine these usages in a variety of ways. One common usage is as a noun where one talks about ‘the’ family. The dangers of this approach have been well-rehearsed …; it gives the family a fixed, reified, quality which runs the danger of losing sight of the wider context and of obscuring more fluid or more everyday understandings. Nevertheless, it might be argued that this usage does have some value in comparative research … and to talk about ‘the family’ can itself be of some critical use when it opens up a gap between ‘my’ family, the immediate and taken-for-granted family world which I inhabit, and some sense of ‘the family in general’.

However, it could be argued that there has been a shift within the sociological literature to using the word as an adjective, as something that gives a particular quality or character to some other, overlapping, sets of practices. Thus, in this present collection, we have references to ‘family policy’ … or ‘politics’ …, ‘family caregiving’ …, ‘family time’ … and ‘family power’ … My own discussion of ‘family practices’ attempts to explore what is entailed when scholars attempt to use the word ‘family’ in this way (Morgan, 1996). This character is partly provided by the range of practices signified by the use of the term ‘family’ (roughly, those practices to do with marriage or partnering and with parenting and generations) but also by the particular emotional significance that seems to accompany this usage of the word ‘family’. Thus, ‘family time’ is not just part of the broader patterns of time use within social settings but is frequently invested with further emotional or, indeed, moral significance.

Another usage, which is entering into the literature (at least by implication) is to treat the word as a verb or in terms of some verb-like usages. In the English language ‘to family’ still seems awkward, as does the associated idea of ‘doing family’. Nevertheless, the usage has considerable potential in reminding the reader of a more active and variable understanding of the word ‘family’. Thus step-parents may have to ‘do family’ more explicitly and more vigorously than some other parents partly because of some assumed suspicion that stepparents are not ‘proper’ families … To talk in a more active sense of ‘doing family’ is to point to the interchanges between families and significant others, whether these be other families or households, professionals of various kinds or representatives of state agencies. …

[This means] we are talking about the active presentation of family in everyday life.



In this discussion, Morgan makes a number of key points:

  1. Family definitions matter, not just for academic reasons, but because there are several overlapping usages at stake, constituting a serious risk of confusion and misunderstandings around the term. Moreover, these various usages invoke political and ideological issues. Thus, the ways in which definitions of family matter may depend to quite a large extent on the purposes we have in mind when we use the word. At the same time, there are a number of different interests and agendas at stake in discussions around family, depending on who is involved in the discussion. Some of these different agendas may be associated with ideological, political, emotional and moral dimensions, which may be attached to, and evoked by, ‘family’.

  2. In discussing these various conundrums, Morgan suggests two possible ways forward, both of which involve moving away from ‘the family’ (or even ‘families’) as an object or structure. The first possibility is to use ‘family’ as a descriptive word – an adjective – to refer to features we take to be present in another object or facet of social life. The second possibility is to use it as an action word – a verb – in which case it informs us of the social practices that involve ‘doing family’ as a presentation to others. Note also that Morgan himself doesn't see it as too problematic to know how to identify ‘family’, whether as an adjective or a verb, which he defines in terms of partnering, parenting and generations.


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