Friday, November 6, 2009

What is family?

Our critical thinking reading course has spent the last three weeks engaging with a handful of articles that examine a key sociological concept - the family. As with most key concepts there seems to be much contention as to what the term refers to, let alone what theoretical lens to examine it through (e.g., feminism, Marxism, postmodernism, poststructuralism). As a result, it seems as if much of the disagreement between social scientists studying family and its importance in social relations is definitional, with the effect that researchers are studying highly related but subtly different relations. To add my two pence in, it seems to me based on the articles and our discussion, that sociologists think of family in at least 15 ways:

1) Genealogically - who one is related to
2) Biologically - as a foundational unit of parents plus children
3) Legally - defined by legal contracts (e.g., marriage, custodianship)
4) Economically - as a mode of production for making capital
5) Institutionally - defined by the institutions that regulate social relations
6) Organisationally - as a set of organisational rules
7) Culturally - based on established, historical norms
8) Functionally - what purpose the family serves
9) Household - who lives within the same premises
10) A set of practices - family is what family does
11) Ideologically - family is a set of interlocking ideas
12) Morally - as a moral set of familial relations, natural law
13) Normatively - what should a family consist of
14) Lifestyle choice - a desirable set of relations that we pick and consume
15) Affectively - as a set of emotional relationships

And they're just the ones I came up with from a few minutes reflection. Of course, how you conceive and study families is dependent on which one (or set) of these definitions you subscribe to. Add into the mix theoretical lens and its no wonder that those working in the field seem to clash or talk past each other!


Margot Kinberg said...

What a fascinating post, Rob! You're right that the concept of "what is family" may seem, on the surface, quite self-explanatory, but it's really not. It's complex, multilayered, and culturally-contextualized. I'm going to have to read this post a few times and share it with the class I'm currently teaching; the maiin theme of the course is culture and language and their interactions, and it will be real "food for thought" when we discuss what words mean in different cultural contexts.

Dorte H said...

As someone who has been married to the same person for more than 25 years, I probably have very old-fashioned ideas of family. For some of the younger generation it seems to change quite often and mean something like ´the people I currently live with´.

Rob Kitchin said...

Sounds like you see family as a combination of 2, 9 and 12, Dorte.

Margot, culture is part of what's going on here, but this is really an ontological question that's mostly philosophical and political in nature.