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

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What do we mean by 'family'?

2.4 The slippery language of ‘family’

Most fundamentally, however, we need to understand how language is used, and what ‘work’ it does as we interact with others in our everyday lives. As the sociologist and philosopher, Alfred Schutz (1954) argued, it is important to pay careful attention to the relationship between sociological and everyday concepts, since everyday concepts express the meanings by which social interactions are framed. So how do people themselves understand, encounter, interpret and evoke the very slippery concept of ‘family’ in their everyday lives? As mentioned above, social theorists, policy-makers and professionals may raise questions that seem to require them to discuss ‘the family’ as a definite object or structure, but in everyday life the word may work effectively for people precisely because it can't be pinned down.

The slipperiness of ‘family’ may occur in many different directions, ranging from quite concrete issues of who ‘belongs’, or who should be invited to a ‘family’ event such as a wedding, to more emotional and value-laden issues of how we feel about (our) families and how we evaluate them. The historian John Gillis (1997) distinguishes between ‘the families we live with’, and ‘the families we live by’, with the former referring to our daily experience of family life, and the latter referring to idealised images of what we think family life ought to be like. Bernardes (1993, 2003[1985]) also suggests that people can hold several different meanings of ‘family’ at once, which are mutually contradictory, but can coexist in ways that are very useful in holding together some of the tensions in their relationships and daily activities. Bernardes thus argues that, despite such ambiguities, most people in their everyday lives need to carry an assumption that there is something general or common about how family occurs. Furthermore, he suggests, sociologists have been similarly seduced into confusing such an assumed generality with the concrete existence of something that can be called ‘the family’.

The position taken here is to suggest that everyday actors, as a matter of course, hold at least two distinct concepts of ‘the Family’. These will be called the ‘specific’, that is personal or individual and the ‘general’ that is a concept used in relation to society at large …

… individuals feel no discomfort about describing their own family life as ‘unusual’ and yet believing that they are seen by other people as having a ‘usual family life’, and finally asserting that most families ‘conform to a pattern or type’.

Individuals are able to, indeed must, simultaneously accommodate both ‘general’ and ‘specific’ concepts of ‘the Family’. Individuals are able to, first, assume that there is a single uniform type of ‘the Family’; second, believe that their own family life is divergent from this model, and third, remain unaware that all families may diverge from a single dominant type.

(Bernardes, 2003[1985], pp. 87– 96)


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