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The Policy Press 2012 ISSN 2046 7435

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Farewell to family? Notes on an argument for retaining the concept


Rosalind Edwards and Val Gillies

Recent conceptual and in-depth research discussions have seen a shift away from use of the term family, towards ideas focusing on personal life, intimacy and kinship. In this article we argue for retention of the concept. We consider the implications of this conceptual withdrawal in terms of family researchers ability to engage with how families are invoked in ever-intensifying ways in the public political, and the importance of being able to address how this interacts with and shapes everyday family lives and experiences.

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Our argument
Over recent years in academic discussion there has been a shift away from use of the term family, particularly in conceptual discussions and qualitative-based research that focuses on how family members understand their relationships, activities together and so on, within and across households. There is a move to decentre, subordinate and reorient the concept of family within broader ideas, with a focus on personal life, intimacy and kinship. A good example of this shift away from addressing family in in-depth academic work is James and Curtis (2010) discussion of parents and childrens narratives of eating practices in families as display work, which they anchor firmly in the new sociology of personal life, rather than family studies. One reason for this seems to lie in their argument that, rather than being private, the displays illuminate the powerful intrusion of wider cultural discourses into the personal everyday lives of families (2010: 1168, emphasis added), specifically for them in the form of the current, high-profile policy agenda of healthy eating and obesity. By implied contrast, then, family studies deals with separate, unintruded upon, unpoliticised, private matters while the concept of personal life is able to encompass such incursions. In our view, however, as is clear from our arguments below, it would be hard to find any aspects of family life and relationships that stand outside of culture and are not political in some shape or form. In these brief and deliberately somewhat provocative notes on an argument for retaining the concept, we reflect on why family has been slipping from view in work conceptualising a range of intra- and intergenerational ties and relationships and domestic and residential lifestyles, and consider the consequences for qualitative researchers ability to engage with major issues in the political policy field especially. We are not the only family researchers to raise issues about the direction of theorising in relation to family. Gilding (2010) has recently argued that what he calls the new
Key words

family personal life intimacy kinship family policy

Families, Relationships and Societies vol 1 no 1 2012 639 http://dx.doi.org/10.1332/204674312X633162

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orthodoxy of the sociology of personal life overstates open-ended reflexivity at the expense of institutionalised convention, and cedes important areas of the study of family that could be informed by sociology, such as paternity uncertainty, family inheritance and family businesses, to evolutionary psychology and behavioural economics. For example, family business studies are shaped largely by economic theories that are concerned with competitive advantage and collective utility, but leave aside the interesting sociological issue of the endurance of primogeniture. According to Gilding, this means that prevalent understandings of family in the fields that sociology leaves untilled are imbued with ideas about biologistic competition and neoliberal economic rationality, at the same time that theories of open-ended intimacy overlook the continuity of normative familial conventions. Chiming with the continuing relevance of the concept of family as a social institution, Morgan (2011: 3353, 1727) gently points out that family remains of importance to people as a distinct, designated aspect of their everyday activities and experiences, although not necessarily as superior to or more important than other relationships. He argues that both intimacy and personal life may overlap with family, conceptually and empirically, but they do not equate to it. Ribbens McCarthy (2012: forthcoming) has elaborated the ways that the notion of family enables analytic attention to a sense of connected close-knit selves that is hard to grasp through theoretical and methodological frameworks that emphasise the relational individual. Further to this discussion, ideas about personal life and kinship affinities trap a consideration of familial generational connections across time in a combination of past present and future present (Adam and Groves, 2007), with past and future generations of family all pivoting around a present individual self, however relationally conceived. Elsewhere, one of us has argued that notions of intimacy may obscure and fail to capture many aspects of the range and nature of relations raised through the lens of family (Gillies, 2003). Further, while the circumvention of the concept of family has generated important insights, it inevitably (however unintentionally) buys into the therapeutic turn in Western society that finds voice in the policy concern with intervention to ensure that family members make the correct (socially desirable) choices in their everyday interactions (Gillies, 2011). Yet, at the same time as the language of personal life and intimacy chimes implicitly with strong contemporary policy drives, it tends towards a retreat from and evacuation of the public political at the very moment when, it seems to us, engagement is all the more important, as we note below.

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Decentring or retaining the concept of family


One reason why there has been a conceptual withdrawal, away from focusing on families to decentre and subsume them within a broader term, is the limits and problems identified with the normative and functionalist idea of the family.As Smart (2007) points out in her call for a new direction that takes the idea of personal life as its starting point, the strong second-wave feminist critique of the family as an ideological stereotype of a heterosexual, two-parent nuclear family with a breadwinning husband
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and father, and a home-making wife and mother, is a reason why researchers may avoid using the term.This normalised benchmark of family as institutionalised within economic, employment and educational systems, and as repressive for women and children, has had longstanding effects that need to be avoided, in this view. The turn away from family has been bolstered by ideas associated with individualisation theses. A qualitative change in the nature of commitment and relationships, away from the traditional obligations and gendered and generational hierarchies associated with family, and towards autonomy and equality, is evidenced by reference to rising rates of divorce and cohabitation, and growing diversity in family forms. Giddens (1999) and Beck and Beck-Gernsheim (2002) have referred to the family as, respectively, a shell institution in which the form has changed and opened up, and a zombie category that is dead and still alive. In this context, the concept of intimacy raised by Giddens in particular, and referring to a mutually disclosing quality to relationships, is posed as a replacement focus for addressing the contingency and diversity of contemporary personal relationships,1 while the notion of kinship is said to be able to capture contemporary fluidity in ties and residence (eg, Finch, 2006). But equally there have been other conceptual reactions to feminist critiques and ideas about individualisation (discussed in Ribbens McCarthy and Edwards, 2011: 12). Rather than stepping away from or reorienting family within broader concepts, such responses retain and work with the notion of family. These include adoption of the term families to acknowledge the diversity of lifestyles and relationships that might be referred to as family (a widely accepted usage), and/or using the word family as an adjective as in family lives or family practices, or as a verb as in doing family rather than as a noun (also extensively used). Another example of debate around whether or not to use the term family relates to sexuality. Some argue that not only is the concept of family unable to contain the sheer diversity of practices around intimate and caring relationships, but also it is inherently heteronormative and exclusionary. For them, using the term family at all invokes an imitation of traditional nuclear families, takes blood family as a basic point of reference and risks confusing sets of relationships built on different values (eg, Bersani, 1995; Budgeon and Roseneil, 2004). In contrast, others, such as Weeks et al (2001), have advocated a continuing engagement with the language of family as a political, emotional, social, material and practical project, using the term families of choice in particular to affirm a range and mix of blood, partner and friendship ties and commitments that stretch beyond the conventional couple. Thus, family can be summoned up as much in political debate and agenda that are challenging oppression and tradition, as it is used to shore up stultifying and repressive norms. Indeed, the second-wave feminist critique of the family that forms a basis for Smarts (2007) call for a new direction was challenged by black feminists who argued that, while white middle- and upper-class women may experience family as a source of stultification or oppression, for minority ethnic and working-class women it can be a place of refuge and resistance in a racist and unequal society (eg hooks, 1982; Bryan et al, 1985). There is of course a political core to families themselves too. Power is exercised in families through the process associated with social divisions and institutionalisations
Families, Relationships and Societies vol 1 no 1 2012 639 http://dx.doi.org/10.1332/204674312X633162

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of gender and generation. Inequalities and exploitation in the division of labour, hierarchies and discrimination in the distribution of resources, and oppression and subordination through domestic violence and abuse, are features of families and family life alongside or indeed even as part of relations of care, obligation, commitment and togetherness (eg, Luseke et al, 2005; Jacobsen, 2007). Such a double-edged politics to everyday living is a part and parcel of the concept of family that is not easily accessed through intimacy, kinship and personal life, which points to the importance of retaining and using the term. Our main focus in this article, however, is on how families are invoked in the public political and the importance of being able to address how this interacts with and shapes everyday family lives and experiences.

The implications of moving away from family


The idea of family has long been a focus for wider social anxieties and concerns. Rose (1987) has elaborated the familialising projects of the past two centuries, whereby societies govern their citizens through discursively constructing family relationships and meanings in particular ways, which includes through institutional politics. Nonetheless, in our view, the boundary between private families and public concerns has shifted recently. Family and the minutiae of everyday domestic life were previously, at least rhetorically, regarded as separate and protected from public intrusion, or at least only subject to broad-brush policies and state intervention in extreme cases. Latterly, however, the state has posed family as a site of uncertainty and ignorance, especially in relation to rearing and caring for children (Suissa and Ramaekers, 2011). The recent intellectual move away from the concept of family has occurred at the same time as family life and parenting especially have been under an ever-intensifying spotlight in political discussion, subject to judgement, and explicitly focused on as a designated area of policy intervention and sanction.This runs from the New Labour governments Green Paper, Supporting families (Home Office, 1998), and its ideas about supporting families to help themselves; through New Labours championing of parenting advice and skills classes via Sure Start and their compulsory imposition on parents of young offenders alongside Parenting Orders; to The Centre for Social Justice (2010) Green Paper on the family and its concern with the link between family breakdown and broken Britain (a nascent guide for current coalition governments policy), and the 2011 independent report to HM Government, Early intervention: The next steps (Allen, 2011), recommending preventive intervention with parents. The nature of family relationships and how parents bring up their children has been posed as the bedrock that ensures the good parents and good society of the future. Importantly, latterly this has included a focus on how different family upbringings are supposed to stunt brain size and inhibit brain capacity, resulting in the inability to feel and behave prosocially through empathy and altruism (eg,Allen, 2011; RSA, nd); and a shift to understanding parenting through parental relationships with children and with each other posed as central to overcoming the problem of dysfunctional families (The Centre for Social Justice, 2010).

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Families, Relationships and Societies vol 1 no 1 2012 639 http://dx.doi.org/10.1332/204674312X633162

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Research involving statistical analysis seems to remain more wedded to the term family, albeit that it usually equates this with household. Change, as decline or increase in particular family forms or structures, is demarcated and tracked, for example (eg, www.statistics.gov.uk/focuson/families/). In part, this facts and figures retention of the concept of family relates to governance: to the need for political statements and policy analyses to refer to family as a defined benchmark institution in legislation, procedures and guidelines, and as the potential site of the professional intervention advocated in the policy documents noted above. Within and through these policy documents and the initiatives and service developments that they spawn, families as a whole are constructed and acted on. Murray and Barnes (2010) review the trend towards whole-family approaches in intervention and prevention strategies, embracing and encompassing all members of a family inter- and intragenerationally, rather than addressing any individual causing concern.They trace the troubling use of whole-family discourses across a number of interrelated social policy streams, where the collective social excluded family and antisocial family are set up as a contrast to the responsible family and resourceful and risk-managing family. Reorientating analysis to intimacy, personal life or kinship would not have allowed such a useful analysis of the direction and drivers of policy. As noted earlier, we and others have argued elsewhere that the direction of theorising in relation to or rather away from family risks becoming trapped in the pivot around a reflexive, responsibilised individual self, disconnecting from other meanings and significances captured through the term family. And as we are concerned with here, it sets out on a road that bypasses social inequalities and differential positioning through familialisation in and through the public political.The idea that personal life, intimacy and kinship do not, as concepts,invoke the white, middle class, heterosexual family in the way that, historically at least, the concept of the family has (Smart, 2007: 30), can mean that its invocation elsewhere disappears off the agenda. It is rarely white-middle class, heterosexual families who are subject to the explicit attentions of professional intervention on the basis that the source of their dis/advantage and marginalisation lies within their family lifestyles. Members of such families are well able to govern themselves through the discourses of familial projects, and to position themselves within the responsible and resourceful family policy discourses identified by Murray and Barnes. Indeed, middle-class mothers often immerse themselves in time- and resource-consuming, morally charged, intensive,cultivational parenting (eg, Blair, 2010). Further, they are able to act and crucially are accepted by professionals as consumers of whole-family-focused services and advice (Edwards and Gillies, 2005, 2011). In contrast, working-class and minority families, whose disadvantage sets them apart from normative models of family life, are more likely to find themselves positioned within socially excluded and antisocial family discourses. Mothers in such families may find themselves positioned and treated as clients of services (rather than consumers) who should accede to professional judgement because they lack the knowledge to diagnose their own needs (Edwards and Gillies, 2011). It seems to us that, if discussions and analyses based on concepts of personal life, intimacy and kinship are to be able to engage with an increased and explicit familialisation of policy and public political normative judgements, and focus on the
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social division of class, race/ethnicity and gender within this, then they will need to turn to and draw on work that holds family as a central focus. Otherwise, the wellintentioned move to escape the stereotypes, orthodoxies and normative benchmarks associated with the concept of family, and the desire to encompass the complexity and diversity of relationships and experiences that are represented by arguments for sidestepping or subsuming families into new concepts, may well leave itself unable to address, or at least tangential to, a significant aspect of the public political and policy shifts just when a critical sociological perspective on the context within which people live their family lives and those family lives are judged, seems so necessary. Note 1 This is as distinct from Jamiesons (1998) more nuanced discussion about forms of intimacy (itself a critique of Giddens), which does not involve moving away from the concept of family. See also the special issue of Sociological Research Online (The Sociological Review (www.socresonline.org.uk/16/4), co-edited by Jacqui Gabb and Elisabeth Silva, drawing on the symposium Rethinking Concepts: Families, Intimacies and Personal Relationships, held by the British Sociological Associations Families and Relationships Study Group, London, 6 November 2010. References Adam, B. and Groves, C. (2007) Future matters: Action, knowledge, ethics, Leiden: Brill. Allen, G. (2011) Early intervention:The next steps: An independent report to Her Majestys Government, London: Cabinet Office. Beck, U. and Beck-Gernsheim, E. (2002) Individualization, London: Sage Publications. Bersani, L. (1995) Homos, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Blair, M. (2010) Developing the right kind of child: younger and older mothers classed moral projects, in M. Klett-Davies (ed) Is parenting a class issue?, London: Family and Parenting Institute. Bryan, B., Dadzie, S. and Scafe, S. (1985) The heart of the race, London:Virago. Budgeon, S. and Roseneil, S. (2004) Editors introduction: beyond the conventional family, Current Sociology, 52 (2): 12734. Edwards, R. and Gillies,V. (2005) Resources in parenting: Access to Capitals project report, Families & Social Capital Group Working Paper No 14, London: South Bank University, www.lsbu.ac.uk/families/workingpapers/familieswp14.pdf Edwards, R. and Gillies,V. (2011) Clients or consumers, commonplace or pioneers? Navigating the contemporary class politics of family, parenting skills and education, in J. Suissa and S. Ramaekers (eds) Special Issue entitled Changing discourses of the parentchild relationship, Ethics and Education, 6 (2): 14154. Finch, J. (2006) Kinship as family in contemporary Britain, in F. Ebtehaj, B. Lindley and M. Richards (eds) Kinship matters, Oxford: Hart Publishing. Giddens, A. (1999) Runaway world: How globalisation is reshaping our lives, London: Profile Books. Gilding, M. (2010) Reflexivity over and above convention: the new orthodoxy in the sociology of personal life, formerly sociology of the family, British Journal of Sociology, 61 (4): 75777.
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Gillies, V. (2003) Families and intimate relationships: Areview of the sociological literature, Families & Social Capital ESRC Research Group Working Paper No 2, London: South Bank University, www.lsbu.ac.uk/families/workingpapers/familieswp2.pdf Gillies, V. (2011) From function to competence: engaging with the new politics of family, Sociological Research Online, (www.socresonline.org.uk/16/4/11.html). Home Office (1998) Supporting families: A consultation document, Home Office and Voluntary Community Unit, London: HMSO. hooks, b. (1982) Aint I a woman? Black women and feminism, London: Pluto Press. Jacobsen, J. (2007) The economics of gender, Malden, MA: Blackwell. James, A. and Curtis, P. (2010) Family displays and personal lives, Sociology, 44 (6): 116380. Jamieson, L. (1998) Intimacy: Personal relationships in modern societies, Cambridge: Polity Press. Luseke, D.R., Gelles, R.J. and Cavanaugh, M.M. (2005) Current controversies on family violence, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. Morgan, D.H.J. (2011) Rethinking family practices, London: Palgrave Macmillan. Murray, L. and Barnes, M. (2010) Have families been rethought? Ethic of care, family and whole family approaches, Social Policy and Society, 9 (4): 53344. Ribbens McCarthy, J. (2012: forthcoming) The powerful relational language of family: togetherness, belonging and personhood, The Sociological Review. Ribbens McCarthy, J. and Edwards, R. (2011) Key concepts in family studies, London: Sage Publications. Rose, N. (1987) Beyond the public/private division: law, power and the family, Journal of Law and Society, 14 (1): 6176. RSA (Royal Society of Arts) (nd) Social Brain: project briefing, London: RSA, www. thersa.org/projects/pro-social-behaviour/social-brain Smart, C. (2007) Personal life, Cambridge: Polity Press. Suissa, J. and Ramaekers, S. (2011) The claims of parenting: Reasons, responsibility and society, Heidelberg: Springer. The Centre for Social Justice (2010) Green Paper on the family, London: The Centre for Social Justice. Weeks, J., Heaphy, B. and Donovan, C. (2001) Same sex intimacies: Families of choice and other life experiments, London: Routledge.

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Rosalind Edwards Social Sciences, University of Southampton, UK r.s.edwards@soton.ac.uk Val Gillies Families and Social Capital Research Group, London South Bank University, UK gilliev@lsbu.ac.uk

Families, Relationships and Societies vol 1 no 1 2012 639 http://dx.doi.org/10.1332/204674312X633162