Carol Smart's Personal Life begins with a glimpse of her mother's photo album and a description of the unexpected effect those hauntingly sepia- coloured pictures of carefully posed strangers-who-are-not-strangers had upon her. She wanted to know more about her forebears, to uncover their family secrets, to understand what they did and how they lived, and to acknowledge that "some (almost) invisible, intangible part of them is somewhere alive in me".
So this is an unusually personal work of sociology, and it finds a place in that discipline as an attempt to identify personal life as a new field for social research - one that would involve a move away from the flat world of one-dimensional interviews for the more challenging terrain of human emotions as these emerge in people's accounts of their personal lives.
In expressing this intellectual and ethical commitment to representing the everyday lives of ordinary people in the fullest and most nuanced ways possible, Smart makes no apology for drawing on anthropology and psychology to do so. She is not slavishly constrained by her own discipline, nor by its tendency to adopt a stereotyped political position on personal life. She remarks that sociology is interested in the family only when that interest can be linked to some grander political or social scheme, as a tool for reproducing capitalism, for example, or when caught up in global processes of individualisation. What she offers in place of this is an open-minded and challenging discussion of a range of issues including commitment, love, cohabitation, adoption and relationality.
Her own position lies between those for whom hand-wringing at the decline of the family has become part of today's cultural Zeitgeist and others for whom the same factual assumptions about the decline and potential fall of the traditional family are celebrated as signs of progress in personal relations, replacing status-bound obligations by more egalitarian attitudes.
But what is Smart's own view? There is some hesitation and ambivalence in her conclusions. She is against "grand theorising" and is tolerant of many varied understandings of "family". "Personal life," she says, "incorporates all sorts of families, all sorts of relationships and intimacies, diverse sexualities, friendships and acquaintanceships". But even while allowing that the term "family" has become more inclusive and more generous in its embrace, she is sympathetic to the retention of the core notion of family as involving close biological kin, and she is averse to collapsing notions of kinship into a "formless sludge". Her sociological concept of personal life, embodying what she describes as the "connectedness thesis", is not meant to replace that of family. And, unlike the new sociological iconoclasts of the natural family, Smart recognises generational ties and acknowledges the subtly haunting nature of the blood relationship.
This is a striking book - honest, engaging, insightful. And if, in the end, it is most directly addressed to an academic readership, it offers perceptive insights that may be rewarding even for readers who share nothing with the writer other than a common humanity.
Brenda Almond is emeritus professor of moral and social philosophy, Hull University, and the author of The Fragmenting Family , published by Oxford University Press.
Personal Life: New Directions in Sociological Thinking
Author - Carol Smart
Publisher - Polity Press
Pages - 232pp
Price - £15.99
ISBN - 9780745639161