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'Family' is a doing word

By Maggie Walter - posted Monday, 6 December 2004

Sociologist Ulrich Beck famously refers to the family as in the “zombie” class of social institutions - dead, but still alive, arguing:

Ask yourself what actually is a family nowadays? What does it mean? Of course there are children, my children, our children. But even parenthood, the core of family life is beginning to disintegrate under conditions of divorce. Families can be constellations of very different relationships.

Beck’s categorisation seems overly harsh to the majority of us who love, enjoy and centre the heart of our lives on our families: But we have to admit, he has a point. Families, these days, as perhaps they always did, come in a huge array of shapes, sizes and configurations. What exactly is a family? Where do the boundaries of family start and stop and are such boundaries fixed or can they vary according to time, circumstances and context? While few would question that a married couple and their dependent children form a family unit, others receive less uniform social acceptance. For example, do a couple without children constitute a family? If so, does this also apply to gay couples? What if they have children? Do we remain a family after the breakdown of relationships or split into multiple families? Just what is meant by the term “family” in contemporary Australia is not straightforward.


These are not new questions of course. They have been variously asked and variously answered in their recent incarnations from the 1960s onwards. The key to the ongoing nature of such questions is that the family is not a physical entity in its own right. Despite the family-centred reality of our society, a family only exists through its social recognition - a social acceptance that this particular group of individuals constitutes a family unit. Though some may consider themselves to be a family, unless this understanding is broadly shared in the society in which they live their family status will remain ambiguous at best. The socially constructed nature of family is evidenced by its changing form and definitions throughout time and across cultures.

More crucially, not only is the title of family socially allocated, the receipt of such status brings with it access to a range of benefits. Apart from the positive social returns of being a family, elements of our legal system and our welfare state contain core understandings of the rights and needs of the family. This central social role of family, however, does not mean that all Australian families are treated equally; they are not. Some, such as gay families struggle for recognition, and even within broadly accepted family types, some forms of family are more equal than others. For example, the direction of Australian family social policy of recent years has favoured the traditional, single income, two-parent family. Although single parent and dual earner families are also eligible for social support, payments such as the Family Tax Benefit B give markedly higher benefits to couples qualifying on the basis of a single income. Moreover, such policy encouragement for partnered women to prioritise motherhood turns to disapprobation if those same women become single parents. Reclassified as “non-employed adults of working age”, mutual obligation principles are applied to mandate labour market participation.

The question, “What is a family?” is reopened by the policy of the Family First Party of "Family Impact Statements" as a key legislative consideration. This initially sounds uncomplicated and positive, and indeed the proposal is clearly well intentioned. But on what definition of family will such impact statements be based? The policy document provides a very broad definition of family, however the six outlined principles associated with Family Impact Statements are far more prescriptive. These assert the value of heterosexual relationships; two parent families; division of family roles; and the institution of marriage.

Based on these criteria, the clarification of the term “family” as a necessary pre-cursor for a family impact statement will, necessarily, include some and exclude others because the interests and concerns of all families are not necessarily parallel. Indeed, leaving aside the basic conundrum as how “impact” could be assessed, with the status of family linked so firmly to social benefits, the potential for a clash of interests between family types is high. For example, legislation that supports married couple families, such as income splitting for tax purposes, might further entrench the economic disadvantage of sole parent families. A more patent case is that of separated parents, where the interests of the non-residential and resident parent around issues of child support payments, family payments and child residency arrangements are often in direct competition. This obvious conflict is currently unacknowledged in Family First policy, even in those espousing rebuttable presumptions of joint custody.

Any increase in the rigidity in the accepted forms of Australian family raises the spectre of an even steeper social hierarchy of family. Given the socially conservative guiding principles for Family Impact Statements outlined by the Family First Party, will the married couple family with a primary male breadwinner become even further established as the preferred Australian family form? If so, what about the impact of legislation on all those families who do not fit this model? These questions are more than hypothetical. Because increasingly privileging one family form in our social arrangements risks de-legitimating the needs of other families. Limited definitions of family or hierarchies of social privilege will have a very real effect on the way family is lived in Australia.

As a final word, perhaps the perennial question asked by Beck, and others “what is a family?” is a poorly conceived one. A lesser concentration of the form a family takes and more on what it does might prove more fruitful. In this I concur with the perspective of family researchers such as Carol Smart who argue that the term “family” is a verb, not a noun. Family is a doing word, it involves time and effort, and is defined by how we interact and relate with the other individuals in our family. You don’t have a family; you be a family.

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About the Author

Dr Maggie Walter is Deputy Director of the National Indigenous Researcher and Knowledges Network and Associate Professor in the School of Social Sciences at the University of Tasmania.

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