One way of studying family meanings is by approaching family as a practice. This means that family meanings emerge from what families do or what families do creates family meanings . This approach emerged as response to the theorising of the family as static and unchanging. Family meaning emerges from the aggregate of actions instead of as a state of being. Since family practices differ , there is also variance in family meanings. People do things to create an intended meaning.
Although, members of the family act as individuals, the activities done collectively with each family contributing to actions, and the regularity of these activities create and sustain meaning. Concurrently, the changes in these actions also shape and reshape family meanings. The key factors that establish family meaning is the significance that family members associate with certain actions. The emotional attachment of family members to these activities establishes meaning.
Religious celebration of birthdays and occasions with all family members present creates family meaning by reflecting the significance attached to these activities. These activities create family meaning. However, the variability of actions and the concurrent family meanings also encompass inequalities mostly in gender roles. Nevertheless, activities are fluid and changes reshape family meanings. The activities or practices embody moral aspects with actions and inaction attached with a meaning as acceptable and not acceptable practice.
These moral notions add to the dynamics of family meanings derived from fluid and varied practices. As an alternative theory and interdependent on the theory of discourse, family as practice theory has its strengths and weaknesses. These strengths support the importance of this approach in understanding family meanings as well as its limitations when considered singly. One of the strengths of this theory is its provision of an empirical explanation of family meanings as sourced from the actions and activities of families as well as the emotional attachment to the actions and activities.
Through an empirical approach, the theory is able to capture the reality of the family. Another one of the strengths is recognition of the fluidity and variability of family meanings such that the theory is able to explain historical developments in family meanings and differences in family meanings across cultures . The explanation is encompassing that it can explain the creation of family meanings amidst changes in family practices and expectations of a good family. The last strength is the explanation of family meanings as emerging from inequalities and morals reflected in family actions and activities .
Family actions and activities are the outcomes of the extent of inequalities in the family such as gender roles and notions of acceptable and non-acceptable family practices. The family as practice approach also has weaknesses. One such weakness is the focus on observable practices from which family meanings emerge but actions do not necessarily capture expectations and intentions so that actions may not reflect in full the intended family meanings. Another weakness is the loose consideration of external influences on family activities.
Although the theory considers inequalities and norms as implied external social influences on family practices, the theory discuss these external influences as a given without considering how and how much do these influence family practices, and thus family meanings. The last weakness is the limited explanation of the creation of families from individuals and the merging of families together with the negotiation of conflicts and settlement of issues that determine family meanings as much as the tangible practices.
The broad concept of the family led to the emergence of concepts seeking to explain aspects of family life that affect family meanings. One is the concept of intimacy , which is a way of deriving family meanings. A broad conceptualisation of intimacy is as the close relationship in the family expressed through various means such as care and togetherness . Staying in the same house and sharing the same things reflect intimacy. This implies that family meanings could emerge from the presence of intimacy, expressions of intimacy, the importance attached to intimacy.
Intimacy is also the existence of strong awareness and exclusive knowledge of the family . Knowledge of the family’s habits, both those considered good and bad, and awareness of the family history and its secrets as part of these experiences or an accepted observer are reflections of intimacy. This concept could also refer to closeness or emotional links built on trust . The family becomes a source of comfort, nurture, refuge and understanding. However, this concept is as fluid as the idea of the family.
The idea of intimacy evolved from its limited idea linked to romance and sex to encompass broadly certain familial relations, determined by those involved and social contexts . There is also movement from familial intimacy from the biological perspective to the social perspective . Intimacy also describes the care, closeness, trust and emotional relations among non-traditional parties such as homosexual couples or cohabitation in lieu of marriage . This changes in the concept of intimacy cause changes in the derivation of family meanings.
There are strengths and weaknesses in using intimacy in the study of family meanings. These highlight the contributions and limitations of the concept in the derivation of family meanings. One of the strengths is the ability of the concept to capture the relational aspects that create and bring the family together. Intimacy can provide an explanation of what the family is and what it means. Another related strength is the ability of intimacy to distinguish familial from other relations .
Intimacy differs across various relations and familial intimacy as distinct informs the study of family meanings. There are also weaknesses. One is the varying manifestations and different levels of intimacy so that intimacy cannot stand on its own in studying family meanings. Intimacy needs placement in the various contexts of the family to illuminate family meanings. Another weakness is its limitation by covering only an aspect of family meanings. Again, intimacy needs consideration together with other concept for a comprehensive study of family meanings.
Part 2 Despite the complexities and difficulties in understanding and studying the family as a concept, it remains a core aspect of society. It remains the foundation of an ideal and the actual society. The family is idealised through concepts of what the family should be and the roles its plays in the lives of individuals and communities. This importance emerged during the early civilisations and it will remain so in the future. The family is an inevitable aspect of social life. The family is the core around which emerged other social structures and relations.
As such, the family is a “central institution and a key trope in the cultural imaginary” . There are a number of main points or themes emerging from this idea of the family, which includes the significance of the family, its enduring and encompassing nature, its role relative to its individual members and implications on society as a whole, and multi-dimensionality in terms of meaning. The extent of significance of the family and its purpose or roles encompasses not just biological but social importance . The family takes responsibility for procreation and/or child rearing.
Although families with children are not necessarily biological children, the concept of the family extends towards non-conventional ways of having children such as artificial insemination, surrogate pregnancy, or adoption. The family takes care of its collective physical needs such as food, clothing and shelter as well as the specific physical needs of its members such as caring for a sick member. To meet its needs, the family also pools economic resources and allocates these resources to ensure the welfare of its individual members.
Based on the family as a discourse theory, civil and family legislations provide for the sharing of conjugal property and provision of child support and alimony . The family is also the primary venue for socialisation since it is through the family that children and parents first establish various relationships. Concurrent with socialisation is acculturation in the context of social norms, practice, and values . The family is a tool for learning various facets of cultural life. Part of learning in the family is the development of an ethical or moral sense to distinguish proper and improper or legal and illegal practice.
Through these roles, the family fosters identity building and development. As such, the attitudes and beliefs of children, adolescents and adults trace back to the family. Despite the difficulty of explaining what the family is, it is a core part of society. It is enduring and resonant because it can accommodate radical changes in family discourses or practices. One example of radical change is divorce . While divorce is not a new occurrence, since separations abound in historical accounts, this was a man’s privilege in the earlier times.
Men chose their brides as fathers select the husbands of their daughters so men also determine separation. Now, with the concept of equality, men and women can decide divorce and the rate of divorce is higher now more than ever. The impact of divorce is a non-conventional family, with children moving from one parent to the other, losing one parent entirely, or gaining two sets of parents when separated parents remarry. Despite these changes in the traditional family structure, the concept of the family evolved to accommodate these situations. Another example is adoption .
This extends beyond the biological conceptualisation of the family that links the family to procreation and child rearing by biological parents. With the number of abandoned and orphaned children requiring care and nurture, the concept of the family again extended its coverage of families with adopted children. The flexibility of family and its reliance to changing conditions makes the family “a resonant word” . The family is also significant to individual lives because it provides personal meaning . Personal meaning of the family is diverse.
A personal meaning of the family could be sharing the responsibility between parents as provided by legal standards of parenting according to the discourse theory. For some, the family is achieving collective physical or biological needs through the effort of parents until such time that the children are old enough to provide for their needs. Ensuring education and healthcare of the children also form part of the personal meaning of the family to parents. Sharing leisure time, especially on Sundays, also comprise a personal meaning of the family. Memories of leisure and lessons learned from these activities influence personal meaning.
For parents, being present in these leisure activities comprise good parenting sometimes even to the point of parents having to give up their personal lives to perceive themselves as good parents. The personal meaning of the family places it “at the heart of our personal lives” . Family meaning is also a matter of choice. With the family as a flexible and encompassing concept, it enables choice and yields to choice. This implies that even with external influences such as the discourse of the family or standard practices, people have a choice in the creating the family and deriving meaning from the family.
A fitting example is the choice of establishing non-heterosexual families . The greater acceptance of homosexual couples led to same-sex marriage and establishment of the family by choice. Some gay couples adopt children, engage in biotechnology to conceive, opt for surrogate birth, or take custody of children from a previous heterosexual marriage. These arrangements influence shifts in theorising for both family as a discourse and family as a practice approaches. Yet despite the non-conventionality of non-heterosexual families, the conceptualisation of the family is undergoing adjustments to accommodate these changes.
The choice made by non-heterosexual couples to establish a family was of their choice and the meaning they assign towards the family is personal to them. Since non-heterosexual couples with or without children can elect to establish a social unit and not necessarily calling it a family or attaching meaning to the relationship akin to the conventional family, these indicate the importance of the family even in cases of non-traditional conceptions. Even if it is a matter of choice, non-heterosexual couples “retain family in their concept of family of choice” .
Perhaps this is because of the strong “emotional pull” of the family that even non-conventional relations cannot do without or ignore. This owes to the intensity of family meanings. The family is capable of multi-dimensional symbolic meanings. These dimensions give the family a colourful meaning. One dimension of meaning involves tangible and intangible associations or interpretations. The family has tangible meaning such as the presence of parents and/or children, the existence of a home, fulfilling obligations or responsibilities, and doing leisure activities. Anything observable associated with the family comprises its tangible meaning.
The family also has an intangible meaning expressed through bond, care, nurture, love, respect, trust, loyalty, understanding, empathy, and other similar terms used to describe the family. Tangible and intangible meanings accommodate different familial contexts. Another dimension covers individual and collective meanings. The family is made-up of individual members likely with different personalities and preferences. The personal meaning of the family could differ even among family members. The importance accorded to having dinner together could be stronger for parents than children or one parent compared to the other.
This reflects differences accorded to the meaning of the family. For a person attaching strong importance to dining together, the personal meaning of the family could be bonding and shared experiences together with the values acquired from these experiences. For a person not keen on religiously dining together, the meaning of the family could be meeting obligations by bringing income to the family and bridging connections through these obligations. There could also be collective meaning to the family based on common expectations of the family members or even of members of society.
Care and nurture are some of the collective meaning associated with the family. The last dimension of family meanings is “social, cultural, economic and symbolic meanings” . The social meaning of the family could be belongingness and identity formation. The cultural meaning of the family includes learning and sharing a common language or practicing cultural beliefs and norms. The economic meaning of the family could be resource pooling as in the case of arranged marriages or even voluntary marriages. The symbolic meaning of the family could be the future of humanity or evolution of man.
These themes have implications to the study of family meanings. On one hand, family meanings enrich the concept or idea of the family and reinforce its resonance given the changing contexts of the family. The study of family meanings should commence from the assumption of its dynamics, flexibility and variability that requires context-based approach. On the other hand, the developments in family contexts influence the evolution of family meanings. This stresses importance on empirical studies of family meanings to capture the impact of changes in the family on family meanings.
While theoretical study of family meanings provides the foundation for understanding this area of study, application enriches family meanings.
Day-Sclater, S, ‘Chapter 5 Family discourse and family practices’ in J Ribbens-McCarthy, M Doolittle, S Day-Sclater, D Allnock, D & S Parker (eds. ), Family Meanings, D270 Course Reader Open University, Buckinghamshire, 2008, pp. 138-168. Day-Sclater, S, ‘Chapter 6 Intimacy and personal life’ in J Ribbens-McCarthy, M Doolittle, S Day-Sclater, D Allnock, D & S Parker (eds. ), Family Meanings, D270 Course Reader Open University, Buckinghamshire, 2008, pp. 172-203.