Nuclear meltdown

Family Studies
November 14, 1997

Over the past 30 years, many elements of family life - for example, reproduction, parenting, sexuality and the division of household labour - have been extensively discussed in all social science disciplines. Yet families as families have by and large been neglected. At the same time, family life and its perceived disintegration have become the subject of renewed political and popular concern. Family Studies: An Introduction is therefore to be welcomed.

Jon Bernardes draws together feminist and non-feminist sociological studies of particular aspects of family life so as to provide a comprehensive account of how families in contemporary western societies work. He looks at debates about the concept of "the family", theoretical approaches to family life, the societal context of family living, childhood and the experience of growing up within families, partnering and departnering and parenting in all its forms.

The book is an introductory text aimed at students, the caring professions, policy-makers and lay people. Yet it is more than a synthesis of the literature, for Bernardes takes a particular political and theoretical position. He rejects the "modernist" notion that a biologically determined, universal and more-or-less fixed core to family living exists and can be given objective definition and normative idealisation as "the family". Instead he asserts the social determination and diversity of family forms, the contested, undecided and fluid character of contemporary family life and the relativity of family values. He espouses as strategies for capturing the diversity, ambivalence and fluidity of family living a post-modernist form of theorising and a focus on family practices and "pathways" (rather than on "the family").

At the same time, Bernardes maintains that the intimacy of family living - of partnering, parenting and kinship - is the single most important feature of human social existence and that its breakdown is enormously costly. He therefore seeks to establish "family studies" as a discrete discipline with the concept of "family citizenship" as its central vehicle. He proposes the idea of "family citizenship" so as to give recognition to the rights and obligations that fall to individuals as members of a family, so that families as families may be given greater importance in social and political debate and as a means of enhancing individual citizenship. Finally, he advocates the development of policies that "put families first" and that seek to prepare people for, and to support people in, partnering and parenting.

In asserting the ideological character and diversity of family life, Bernardes is not treading new ground. These notions are now well established in feminist and non-feminist sociological thought. Yet these arguments require critical examination. They tend to treat the nuclear family as monolithic and as uniformly oppressive rather than as a structure that is itself supple and may be oppressive and beneficent. At the same time, such arguments leave unchallenged contemporary ideologies of the importance of sex, the couple and parenthood, ideologies which arguably have released us from the obligation to subscribe to lifelong marriage and nuclear-family living but which may propel us into inappropriate relationships and/or inopportune parenthood, may pressurise the "infertile" into reproductive technologies and seem to rule out chastity, the single life and/or childlessness.

Interestingly, however, Bernardes couples his liberal-pluralist orthodoxy with an affirmation of the importance of the private arena. This is refreshing, cogent and valuable. His plea for "families first" policies is timely and soundly argued, though the dilemmas that surround defining "family well-being" need to be examined. His text is wide-ranging rather than meaty but it is clear and accessible. It is accompanied by suggestions for seminar discussions and projects, recommendations for further reading and an extensive and up-to-date bibliography, all of which lecturers as well as students will find useful.

Faith Elliot is senior lecturer in sociology, University of Coventry.

Family Studies: An Introduction

Author - Jon Bernardes
ISBN - 0 415 16468 0 and 16468 9
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £45.00 and £13.99
Pages - 229

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