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

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What do we mean by 'family'?

4.3 Family meanings matter in social policies and professional practices

In the studies by Walkover and Ribbens we can see individuals caught between a generalised cultural ideal and the messiness and ambivalences of everyday lives. This tension between the generality of ‘family’ as an idealised model, and the fluidity of individual lives in everyday contexts, is also a key difficulty for the development of social policies, and for the procedures and administrative structures of professional practices. This takes us back to Bernardes' question: how is it possible to develop social policy and professional practice without having some sort of model or structure in mind of what family actually is? And yet, any generalisation or model of family – even if there is an attempt to incorporate diversity – will have the effect of creating potentially harmful stereotypes and generalisations. Attention to family meanings may help us to see how such harmful effects occur, which may be a crucial step towards avoiding the pitfalls of stereotyping, stigmatising, and misunderstanding people's family lives and relationships.

In the following activity look at a couple of definitions of family. These give an example of how law and welfare bureaucracies may attempt to accommodate fluid and diverse meanings of family, on the one hand, and set out categorical rules about them, on the other. Example A concerns written guidelines provided for services dealing with emergency humanitarian crises that require them to liaise with ‘family members’. Example B concerns guidance given to local-authority social workers about who counts as a ‘relative’ in terms of private fostering arrangements (which are made, or are intended to be in place, for twenty-eight days or more).

Figure 4 Responding to needs in emergency situations
Figure 4 Responding to needs in emergency situations

Activity 4

As you read the following two examples:

  1. Compare and contrast the wording used in each one to describe ‘family’.

  2. See if you can identify issues that might arise about how to apply the guidelines in practice.

  3. Consider what might account for the differences between them.

Example A

In the context of these guidelines [for humanitarian assistance centres] the term family includes: partners, parents, siblings, children, guardians, carers, friends, and others who might have a direct, close relationship with the missing, injured or deceased person. The identification of what makes up an individual's family is extremely important in the context of these guidelines. It is important to recognise the potentially wide variations of the ‘family’, which can be influenced by culture, lifestyle and by preference. Care should be taken to establish the wishes of the family at all times with sensitivity and understanding exercised around families with diverse lifestyles. Some people interpret ‘family’ to just mean their close relatives. As a result, care should taken in using the term ‘family’ – ‘family and friends’ is a useful phrase.

(Humanitarian Assistance in Emergencies: Non-Statutory Guidance on Establishing Humanitarian Assistance Centres, Department of Culture, Media and Sport and the Association of Chief Police Officers, p. 13)

Example B

Private fostering: … [A private foster carer is] anyone who … is neither a LA [Local Authority] foster carer, nor a relative within the meaning of s.105 CA [Children Act 1989] i.e. not a grandparent, sibling, aunt or uncle (half or full blood or by affinity) or step-parent (including civil partners).

(quoted in Bridget Lindley, 2007, Family Rights Group handout)



  1. What is notable about Example A is its flexibility in the face of what could be very variable individual situations caught up in a general crisis, with a recommendation to use the phrase ‘family and friends’. Nevertheless, there is still an underlying assumption that there is something that the professionals can try to identify as ‘the family’. Example B, by contrast, seeks to draw up a tight definition that will be very clear about who does or does not ‘count’ as a relative, which it does by reference to who is not included in legal definitions used in the Children Act. This also includes references to half-blood relatives.

  2. While the phrase ‘direct, close relationship’ (in Example A) provides quite an open point of reference, what is not included here is any guidance about how to prioritise different individuals in terms of who to contact, who needs information, or whose wishes or needs should take precedence if there is a dispute among these ‘family and friends’ about what needs to be done for the deceased, missing or injured person. Whose wishes or views should be given greatest weight? There is much scope left to the professional, then, to work out family meanings on the ground. And, while Example B seeks to be more directive, there is still scope for ambiguity about who to count in or out of the definition, e.g. would it include an auntie ‘by affinity’ who has no biological connection with the child but has a relationship based on cultural ideas of ‘fictive kin’ ?

  3. In relation to the situation of humanitarian crisis discussed in Example A, there are no immediate bureaucratic issues at stake, and the guidelines seek to allow room for fluidity and openness about who counts as ‘family and friends’. In Example B, however, it is important for bureaucracy to demarcate family members from nonfamily, in order to draw a firm line between private fostering and public foster-care arrangements, since different funding and supervision arrangements apply to each of these.

These examples point to key dilemmas about how family meanings may come to be defined and redefined through different social processes around policy and professional practices. On the one hand, clear-cut definitions may be limiting and unhelpful and difficult to work with in practice. But, on the other hand, fluid and open-ended definitions require professionals to be make contingent decisions in particular cases. This points to the need for professionals to be aware of their own assumptions, and to have the ability to cope with the variety of family meanings that may occur between different family members themselves.


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