‘Families’ in Contemporary Society
Evaluating ‘Displaying Families’
In order to explain and evaluate the process and concept of ‘displaying families’ (Finch, 2007), this essay will first provide an overview of UK family life in contemporary society and discuss relevant theoretical concepts that aid in contextualising Finch’s arguments. Subsequently, the process of ‘displaying families’ will be outlined, followed by its evaluation in the final section of this essay. Whilst evaluating the concept, I will first focus on different family types (same-sex, transnational and commercial families), before engaging in a broader evaluation. I will argue that Finch’s (2007) ideas constitute a valuable starting point to understand contemporary family lives and extend on Morgan’s (1996) influential concept of ‘family practices’. However, I will also argue that relationships can exist as ‘family-like’ even if unsuccessfully displayed. Furthermore, I will argue that ‘display’ is an unequal process which is influenced by structural factors and power inequalities within families and society, and that this is more difficult for those in unconventional families, which Finch (2007) fails to acknowledge sufficiently. Overall, I do not dismiss the concept but rather endorse Finch’s call for further refinement, in order for it to become a valuable addition to the ‘sociological tool kit’.
‘Families’ in Contemporary Society
Today, family relationships are more diverse, complex and fluid than the traditional nuclear family (married couple and children living together), i.e. the formerly normative model of family life (Newman, 2009; ONS, 2014). British family sociologists have moved away from the term ‘the family’ and now commonly speak of ‘families’ (Edwards & Gillies, 2012), broader conceptions of intimacy (Jamieson, 2011; Roseneil & Budgeon, 2004), or even personal life (Smart, 2007). Contemporary changes have been explained by individualisation theorists as resultant from increased personal agencies in late modernity, as individuals reflexively create their own biographies, being less bound by social obligations (e.g. marriage) or existing structural constraints (e.g. gender inequality). Individualisation theorists argue that this has led to the negotiation of family relationships, making them increasingly unstable and fluid (Beck, 1992; Giddens, 1992; Beck & Beck-Gernsheim, 2002). Widely acknowledged trends of increased divorce rates and cohabitation (ONS, 2015) support such claims, which might make ‘families’ seem less important (Dermott & Seymour, 2011). Individualisation arguments have, however, also been critiqued, as structural factors still impact choices, and it has been argued that, despite societal changes, ‘family’ still matters greatly to people (Chambers, 2012; Carter & Duncan, 2016).
The challenge for contemporary scholars is therefore how to best capture the experience of family life, given its complexity and also its continued relevance (Dermott & Seymour, 2011). An influential concept amongst British family sociologists has been the shift from a focus on ‘family’ as an institution, i.e. structures or functions (Parson, 1951), to families constituted of ‘practices’ (Morgan, 1996, 2011; Cheal, 2002). According to Morgan (1996), ‘family’ needs to be actively created, so that people ‘do’ family by performing ‘practices’ rather than ‘being’ family (e.g. household, administrative categorisation). Family practices are everyday, mundane, taken-for-granted ways of living that are repeated/routine activities (e.g. sharing a meal). Fundamentally, these activities gain meaning as they are undertaken in relation to other family members and thus become ‘family practices’ (Morgan, 2011). Turning to people’s actual lived experiences provides a useful way to surpass problems defining ‘families’ and allows for the exploration of the complex realities of family living and wider social meaning, since ‘family’ is constantly established and re-established (Chambers, 2012; Ribbens-McCarthy & Edwards, 2011). Further, when using family practices, same-sex family relationships or other ‘families of choice’ (Weeks et al, 2001) can ‘do’ family, despite not ‘being’ family, which was particularly relevant before the legal recognition of same-sex marriage in 2013 (Jowett, 2014).
Janet Finch (2007) also recognises that nowadays families are most accurately understood by family practices rather than static structures. Thus, at the core of her concept of ‘displaying families’ is the idea of ‘doing’ family, which represents a phenomenological and micro-level approach highlighting the social nature of family relationships. Finch’s work builds on Morgan (1996) however, by arguing that ‘family’ does not only need to be ‘done’ but also ‘seen to be done’ (p.79). Fundamentally, Finch argues that certain actions also need to be recognised by relevant others as family-like in order to achieve a successful ‘display’ of family relations, which legitimises their family-like character and gives them social reality (Finch, 2007). The ‘relevant others’ or audience of such actions are family members who need to reciprocate and act within the framework of such practices, and members of society who act as observers. Resultantly, Finch (2007) has argued that relationships between individuals and within groups only exist as family relationships, if they can be successfully ‘displayed’ during and outside of social interaction (with the help of ‘display tools’, e.g. family photos) by conveying that ‘this is my family and it works’ (p.70) and by having this recognised by audiences. The process of display shifts how relationships are ‘seen’ away from individual actors to wider social meanings (Dermott & Seymour, 2011), not concerned with establishing who is part of ‘family ’ (Finch & Mason, 1993), but instead concerned with the quality of relationships and their expression within families and wider society. Additionally, it needs to be noted that different ‘degrees of intensity’ (Finch, 2007, p.72) of display are inherent to the process, for instance, when changes occur in a family relationship re-negotiation is required (e.g. long absent father reading story to his child). Notably, Finch argues that an increased need for display might be most pronounced for those in unconventional family relationships (e.g. same-sex families). Drawing on a range of empirical studies, Finch (2007), argues that ‘display’ characterizes and occurs within contemporary UK family relationships, a claim that will be evaluated in the following section.
Evaluating ‘Displaying Families’
Despite representing unconventional family relationships, same-sex couples and their children often desire to be recognised as ‘family’ (Carrington, 1999, Weeks et al. 2001). In order to achieve this, ‘displaying’ relationships often seems valuable, as, for instance, in Smart’s (2008) study on same-sex marriages, where she found that some participants planned high profile ‘demonstrative weddings’ to display their commitment and the ‘working’ nature of their relationship. Weeks et al.’s (2001) research on same-sex families also notes that this was achieved with the help of ‘display tools’, e.g. family photos. Almack (2008) also acknowledges the concept’s value in a study investigating the process of ‘coming out’ as Lesbian parents to families of origin, which involved demonstration and (re)negotiation of family relationships, highlighting the intense need for display, which Finch (2007) suggested to be applicable for unconventional families. Almack’s study, however, also raises key questions, as some participants decided not to display their family-like relationships (fears of disapproval/rejection) or failed to have them recognised. Gabb (2011) has also raised similar concerns, particularly regarding unsuccessful or unrecognised displays and the complexities and multitude of factors that can shape display (e.g. intersection of homosexuality and class). The questions that arise relate to the impact of social divisions and power inequalities (sexuality), the relevance of unsuccessful display and the role of ‘audience’ in establishing the family-like nature of relationships (e.g. difference in interpretation), which are all fairly absent in Finch’s (2007) description of the process. Conclusively, in the light of heteronormative gender and parenting roles, same-sex families find it more difficult to display the meaningfulness and family-like character of certain relationships (Gabb, 2011; Heaphy, 2011). More recently, however, increased legal recognition has led to claims of more social acceptance, which opens up the potential for less problematic execution of successful display (Roseneil et al., 2013), although, realistically, the ability to have one’s intended family-like actions recognised is still an unequal process (Heaphy, 2011; Heath et al, 2011).