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

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What do we mean by 'family'?

3 So what is ‘family’?

3.1 Studying families

However, if the concept is so tremendously complex, how then can we study family?

Activity 3

Please read the following piece from Jaber Gubrium and James Holstein (1990), where you are introduced to Borg, the extraterrestrial cyborg. This extract is central to the themes of this course, so read it thoughtfully and in detail.

As you read, you may like to write some notes in answer to the following questions:

  1. What did Professor Caswell hope to demonstrate to his students by introducing Borg?

  2. What did Professor Caswell hope to demonstrate in the analogy of the table and the family? On what grounds did Borg object to this analogy?

  3. What advice did Professor Caswell give Borg in her search for ‘family’ ?

  4. What were some of the difficulties that Borg encountered in identifying ‘family’ ?

Figure 2 Humpty Dumpty and Alice
Figure 2 Humpty Dumpty and Alice

Reading 2: Jaber Gubrium and James Holstein, ‘What is family?’

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone,

‘it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.’

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master – that's all.’

(Lewis Carroll, Alice Through the Looking Glass)

Professor Caswell, a renowned scholar of the family, quoted from Lewis Carroll whenever he had the opportunity to make a point about human nature. As he once concluded, ‘Alas, friends, big brass, and pedestrians, words are what we make of them.’ Nevertheless, Caswell expected more from the language of serious scholarship. Family studies was a science, and he believed that science harboured clear thinking and precise meanings.

… [O]ne day … Caswell turned to a favored classroom technique for prodding students out of their taken-for-granted view of things. ‘I shall assume the perspective of an extraterrestrial visitor,’ he told his students, ‘and you will see how your familiar world must look to a stranger.’ Caswell instructed them to imagine him as an androgynous cyborg – a cybernetically operated organism named ‘Borg.’

Attempting to show his class how to sort through the variety of ties that have been called family, Caswell asked the students to put themselves in Borg's place. ‘Pretend that you don't know what words mean at all, that you don't know to what or how words should be applied. Now let's try to figure out what the family really is.’ Caswell wanted to show the students how the word ‘family,’ while highly variable in its historical and cultural meanings, nonetheless could be used to designate a concrete form of life, one he had studied for the greater part of his scholarly career.

Caswell started by talking about tables rather than households or homes. Using the classroom table next to him, he noted that, like the table, the family had parts and at the same time was a whole. …

… Caswell indicated how tables come in as many sizes and shapes as the family. ‘Some are big, some small, some do certain things – just as some tables hold dishes and others hold saws, different families do altogether different things.’ He cautioned that, nonetheless, they are all families, Caswell described structure and function as something common to all, even while he carefully denoted family's human variations. …

Now Borg – that curmudgeon in Caswell's mind – emerged to speak in her own voice. Like Humpty Dumpty, she asked in a scornful tone, ‘But, Professor Caswell, I see the table, the students see the table, but I don't recall having seen the family, any family. …’ Borg added that, in her casual wanderings on Earth, she hadn't actually seen a family, only people.

Caswell picked up the assigned family textbook. Like most such textbooks, it included colorful pictures of diverse families and households, showing a variety of cultural and historical origins. Caswell opened the book to the appropriate pages and told Borg that the pictures would be her guide to a mission: to locate family in its many forms.

Before Borg left, she repeated that all she could see in the pictures were people and houses, just as she could see people in the classroom and people out in the street. Borg wondered how she would be able to distinguish just any collection of people from the collection that constituted a family; in particular, she wondered whether housing could help distinguish what these humans called ‘family.’ She asked Caswell how she could differentiate a collection that looked just like the people in one of the textbook pictures from what, on an earlier trip around Earth, she had heard called a ‘gang.’ Caswell responded that she had found the key; namely, that Borg had to combine looking with listening. He explained that she needed to discover how collections of people referred to themselves before she could locate families.

As Borg set out, she understood that this mission was going to be more difficult than finding more tables after seeing a table. What if people disagreed? What if they claimed to be family in one place and disclaimed it in another? Tables didn't talk to, or about, themselves. …

Several weeks later Professor Caswell announced to the class that Borg had returned from her search. He asked her what she had found. To begin with, Borg had found many collections of people whom other people referred to as families, but whose alleged members did not. She found that when she revisited the members of the gang she had mentioned earlier and paid close attention to what they said about themselves, she heard the members not only refer to themselves as family, but also call each other brothers and claim filial responsibility for their actions. Yet this ‘family’ wasn't a household. She added, ‘And what about Laura, a teenage girl who shrieked that she didn't have a sister when her twin spilled grape juice on Laura's brand new cashmere sweater?’

Borg wondered how … experts could possibly study the family if there was so little consensus about what it was. How did they create a scientific literature on the family if they didn't define it in a common way? Could these experts have been looking at the same thing? Who did know what the family was and what it was like? …

Borg took delight in the confusion that seemed to rule the experts’ search for the family. She teased Caswell that they were no better at it than she was. She enjoyed recounting the ways humans connected words and things; in general, it seemed to have no universal rhyme or reason. Yet everyone seemed to understand one another. She'd been keeping track of what people said when she asked about families, and it was clear that she had actually heard much more about the thing she was searching for – family – than legal status or biological kinship implied. What seemed most evident, she noted, was that people seemed to use family in ways that legal or biological definitions could not capture. She wondered aloud, ‘Could it be that what family is to people is how family is used by them?’ Borg was beginning to sound like Humpty Dumpty.

Caswell was both surprised and annoyed by the question. Was Borg implying that family was nothing more than a human construct and that people applied family imagery and familial categories like brother, sister, and cousin to all sorts of human relations, in and out of homes? … Was Borg saying that family was not so much a thing, but a way of interpreting interpersonal ties?

Caswell calmed himself and asked hastily, ‘Well, then, my sceptical alien sidekick, if that's all the family is – just words – then it's not much of anything! What are we to do? Study words?’ …

Borg explained that no one she had talked with, or whom she had heard talk with others, acted as if family were just a word. She added, in a curious turn of phrase, that all the words she heard about family were words about ‘it’ or some form of ‘it,’ something concretely part of experience. The people she heard were making statements about something either real, not real enough, or too real to them, and were not just uttering words. ‘It’ seemed to link words to concrete aspects of life.

Borg pointed out that … [i]n order to ‘see’ what people were referring to, one had to listen to the way they used words and described their social relations, paying particular attention to the factors that affected their descriptions. Looking straight at Caswell, Borg blurted out, ‘You have to listen in order to see, Caswell!’

… [Caswell] hadn't intended the listening business to become so central to locating the familial; he had meant it only as a handy guide. Yet, now intrigued by Borg's reasoning, Caswell was bent on learning more about Borg's thoughts on seeing and hearing. He turned toward her and asked warmly, ‘Well, then, my friend, what is family?’



  1. By introducing Borg to his students, Caswell hoped to help them make the familiar strange, but he was still expecting to be able to work out a precise guideline which defined ‘family’ for academic study.

  2. In likening the family to the table, Professor Caswell was drawing attention to the ways in which families seem to be composed of various parts that together create a whole. There can be varieties of sorts of families, but, nevertheless, they may share certain ‘functions’ (a word which we encountered in Calhoun's definition of family earlier). Borg's objection, however, centred on the impossibility of identifying family when you see it, even in pictures. Knowing that families are diverse doesn't actually solve the problem of knowing when one is, or is not, looking at a ‘family’ grouping.

  3. Professor Caswell advised Borg that maybe we have to listen in order to be able to know how to look, in order to know how people refer to families and identify families in their lives. By listening as well as looking it may then be possible to identify the meanings of ‘family’.

  4. But attending to meanings did not provide any easy answers for Borg to know how to identify families, as meanings have to be interpreted. This is what Borg found out when she set out on a major exploration to discover how people use and develop the language of family, along with its associated meanings in their lives. All of these might vary in very subtle ways, as interpretations vary among speakers and listeners, according to their purposes, and the local and broader cultural contexts.

Figure 3 Do we need to listen in order to know how to look?
Figure 3 Do we need to listen in order to know how to look?

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