Fragmenting Fatherhood explores how fatherhood has been understood and regulated at different moments across diverse areas of English law and social policy. Both Richard Collier and Sally Sheldon are professors of law, but their approach is interdisciplinary, drawing from sociology, politics, psychology, history and social policy in an impressive and erudite engagement with a subject of great interest and controversy.
Why fragmentation? They adopt the term because it suggests the disintegration of an ideal type of marital fatherhood in law and a consequent "subdivision", where the work of fathering is legally recognised as shared between two or more men. Moreover, they suggest that the idea of fragmentation may reflect aspects of the lived experience of many fathers today. The notion also helps preserve a sense of the diversity and fluidity of contemporary fathering practices while indicating the substantive changes that have occurred at the legal level.
Collier and Sheldon resist a linear interpretation of changes in the legal regulation of fatherhood, such as, for example, the argument that the movement from paternal rights to responsibilities involves a displacement of the figure of the father in law. They also argue against a "zero-sum approach" to the power of law, contesting suggestions that there has been a pendulum swing from a bias towards fathers to a prioritisation of the rights of mothers. However - and this may prove controversial for some of those who would nod approvingly at the previous points - they reject the assertion that the development of contemporary fathers' rights activism can simply be reduced to a backlash against a perceived maternal bias. Rather, they argue that a multilayered and contradictory father-victim discourse results from a complex set of social changes.
The importance attached to legally establishing a father figure in families emerges as a dominant theme across the areas of law relating to changes in reproduction and marital patterns. But what kind of father figure is being established? The authors note how the legal focus has shifted from a concentration on horizontal relationships (that is, between adult partners) towards vertical relationships (between adult and child).
Thus, a range of ideas has emerged about the importance of social responsibility on the part of parents. The law sets out normative expectations about how they should be discharged. These ideas are also evident across social policy, and it is a strength of the authors' interdisciplinary emphasis that they capture this with their analysis of new Labour's policies across a range of domains (for example, they note the focus in services such as Sure Start on "engaging fathers").
The emergence of a focus on vertical relationships in law and social policy is very important to interrogate, particularly for those of us concerned with gender equality. The implications continue to be gendered, although not straightforwardly so. Men and women are subject to injunctions to behave responsibly. However, in a context where men's roles as economic providers are still implicitly and explicitly supported by policymakers, there seems to be limited room for shifts in the terrain of parental responsibilities.
The authors have combined their considerable intellectual expertise to produce a comprehensive book that will be of great value to scholars in a range of disciplines. They deal thoughtfully with a subject that arouses anxiety and controversy and where the research evidence is hotly contested.
Fragmenting Fatherhood: A Socio-Legal Study
By Richard Collier and Sally Sheldon
Hart Publishing, 324pp, £30.00
Published 5 September 2008