Sunday, April 22, 2012

Logics of Familial Solidarity: Structural Functionalism and the Individualization thesis.

  In contemporary Western societies, since the mid to late 20th century, there have been considerable debates around the status of the family, its perceived decline or transformation into a new historical form. Talcott Parsons’ original formulation of the nuclear family has fallen out of fashion, outmoded by contemporary social trends and criticised for teleological biases that preference one model of family and designate all other forms as deviant and dysfunctional. Ulrich Beck and Elizabeth Beck-Gernsheim have put forth their “‘individualization thesis”’ to explain shifts in contemporary society and the institution of the ‘family’ that elevate individuals to the forefront of discussion. The individualization thesis has been widely discussed and misunderstood. Jennifer Mason criticised the individuation thesis on the basis that it “creates a sense of individuals floating free of family ties and commitments”. However, Beck-Gernsheim has stressed that individualization: “does not mean mere subjectivity or juggling in an empty space. On the contrary, the space within which modern subjects plan, act and weigh their options is in many ways socially defined”. Thus, the individualization thesis does not imply that individuals have been cut-off from social commitments and regulations but that the form of solidarity between individuals have changed due to shifts in the legal and economic structures that underpin social integration. With a view to C. Wright Mills’ sociological imagination, this paper will attempt to bridge the gap between history and biography through an autoethnography of the authors own experience with family. Firstly, the sociological theories that inform discussion of family will be given greater treatment, from this discussion will be drawn three themes that will be analysed through an autoethnographic case-study that will be used in turn to reassess the current sociological theories of the family.

Debates on the institution of the family often echo strands of sociological theory. In the 1950s and 1960s, sociological thinking on the nature of the family was dominated by the structural functionalist theory of Talcott Parsons. At the time, the debate about the institution of the family centred on the place of extended family and kin networks that appeared to be declining in significance. Parsons viewed the ‘nuclear’ family as a functional unit best suited to serve the needs of industrial society; this family comprised a father and mother with a clearly defined gendered division of labour – the instrumental role and expressive role, respectfully – who supported and socialized their children. Of course, when this theory of family was formulated the nuclear family was the dominant social model and a series of legal measures were in place to ensure its continuation and privilege it over ‘deviant’ social forms. However, the legal and economic matrix that underlay the nuclear family started to break apart in the early 1970s with the women’s movement and the collapse of the post-war economic boom. It was at this point that a series of legal reforms and changes in the structure of the economy started to develop conditions favourable to processes of individualization.

The ‘individualization thesis’ was formally developed towards the end of the 20th century to conceptualize the contours of modern society and the economic and legal frameworks that have shifted the logic of solidarity from functional imperatives and communities of need towards emotional bonds and elective relationships. Beck and Beck-Gernsheim defined individualization as follows:
“[i]ndividualization means the disintegration of previously existing social forms – for example, the increasing fragility of such categories as class and social status, gender roles, family, neighbourhoods, etc.”

However, individualization does not imply complete dissolution of social forms because as Beck and Beck-Gernsheim contend, with processes of ‘disintegration’ the question then arises as to “which new modes of life are coming into being where the old ones…are breaking down?” The implication of individualization for the sociology of family is to understand the new forms of solidarity that arise as old forms are undermined. It is in this vein that Beck and Beck-Gernsheim have explored trends in contemporary familial relationships. In the 1950s, the institution of the family had a proscribed social form protected by the state and it implied a distinctive life-cycle for individuals: “love, marriage, baby carriage”. Perhaps the most salient feature of individualization is the notion of “Individually designed lives” and “do-it-yourself biographies” as this traditional life-cycle has lost its dominance and new choices open up. Beck-Gernsheim expands on this point:
“Individualisation is a compulsion, albeit a paradoxical one, to create, to stage-manage, not only one’s own biography but the bonds and networks surrounding it, and to do this amid changing preferences and at successive stages of life”

Individualization entails not only do-it-yourself biographies, but do-it-yourself familial relationships that have to be actively negotiated, pursued and chosen by individuals as the functional imperatives that bound people together in mutual dependence have declined. Therefore, the processes of individualization have produced distinctive transformations in the conduct and experience of familial relationships some of which will be outlined via the autoethnographic case-study of the author’s own experience of familial relationships.The familial relationship has to contend with the demands of modern society and this has resulted in a temporal and spatial divergence of the family. As I reflected earlier on the issue of temporal and spatial divergence:
“My family is rarely in the same location together, apart from holidays such as Christmas. My father works irregular hours as information technology consultant and my mother is currently attending tertiary education after having been a stay-at-home mother for most of her adult life. One of my sisters is an exploration geologist who spends most of her time on remote mining sites while the other sister is still in high-school. I live with my brother in a different city to the rest of our family, he has his own educational and other commitments and I have mine which means we are rarely at home together. ”

The temporal and spatial divergence exhibited in my own case is emblematic of wider socio-historical trends. In preindustrial families, economic activity was often organized in the household which meant that family life was organized around a common geographical location to a common temporal rhythm. Industrialization undermined the economic basis of this familial solidarity and the nuclear family described by Talcott Parsons eventually came to the fore, since the 1970s economic trends, technological innovations and legal reforms have contributed to the transformation of this family model yet again. Without binding mechanisms, such as economic interdependence, Individuals’ commitments, whether for employment, education or social engagements, are contributing to greater temporal and spatial dislocation within the family. Individual commitments and timetables have to be negotiated in order to stage family events. Beck-Gernsheim likened the modern family to small business, where divergent priorities have to be negotiated in order to find common time. Thus, the issue of temporal and spatial divergence implies management of familial relationships and issues of emotional labour. These issues are touched upon in the case-study:
“Not only is my immediate family not located together, but my extended family is located throughout Australia and even overseas. The majority of my immediate family resides in Newcastle, but I have relatives in Queensland, Sydney and Adelaide alongside cousins in Canada. Personally, this doesn’t mean much to me but family gatherings and reunions are a great strain upon my mother who bears the brunt of maintaining contact with branches of the family. She has complained in the past about this emotional burden and having to look after extended family members and having the responsibility to organize events to keep the family together left to her.”
The temporal and spatial divergence of families in contemporary society necessitates management of familial relationships and greater emotional labour on behalf of those undertakes the burden of this familial management. The case-study comports to this understanding of contemporary family life. Family engagements have to be organized with each member of the family individually to navigate their prior commitments. Economic trends, such as the casualization of employment and job insecurity, make these balancing acts much harder to achieve which only increases the level of management required to forge common family time. In view of this, Maria S. Rirrich argued that: “elements of rationalization and calculation are marching into private life”. Given that familial relationships require active management and emotional labour, who is a member of an individual’s family, can no longer be taken for granted:
“For my father and mother, family is very important and conflict between members of the family should be put aside because: ‘blood is thicker than water’. However, within the extended family there are cleavages as to who is a member of the family. Of course, my maternal cousins don’t regard my paternal cousins as family. But, there are cleavages between groups of cousins on my father’s side who don’t regard each other as ‘family’. By the same token, there are blood relatives who I don’t regard as family either through conflict or because of a lack of presence in childhood. Also, there are life-long friends who I and other members of my biological family will refer to as family.”
Beck-Gernsheim’s central claim is that modern families have transitioned from communities of need to elective relationships. The processes of Individualization have removed the functional imperatives that bind individuals into communities of need, as such questions of ‘relatedness’ and who constitutes family become conceivable. In the case-study there are clear divergences between members of the ‘family’ as to what constitutes the ‘family’, in this sense each member has an individually centred kin-network that differs slightly from other members of the same ‘family’. With the advent of individualization, unitary definitions of family become increasingly problematic both between members of the same ‘family’ and to what relationships constitute familial relationships. While familial relationships require management and active engagement, the reduction in functional imperatives does not signal the decline of the family but its transformation. Individualization occasions new opportunities and demands, but it often leads to the need for intimacy and emotional bonds. The themes of temporal and spatial divergence, management of familial relations and individually centred kin-networks discussed in relation to the case-study all bear upon current sociological theories of family and conceptualizations of the social structures that shape the experience of modernity.

C. Wright Mills’ concern with bridging the gap between personal troubles and public issues is no less relevant when discussing the sociology of family. The case-study demonstrated the relevance of themes derived from the individualization thesis to contemporary familial relationships and the interplay of social structure and individual experience. Current trends render Talcott Parsons’ nuclear family model quite dated and debates about the continuation and relevance of families to modern life have emerged in its wake. Ironically, Parsons’ theory was developed in the context of a moral panic over the decline of the extended family. He demonstrated the logics of solidarity that underpinned the nuclear family and how it functioned in industrial society. That legal and economic matrix has since fallen apart and individuals face new challenges in their efforts to forge new familial forms. Beck-Gernsheim’s individualization thesis attempts to ascertain the new logics of solidarity that bring people together beyond the functional imperatives of economic necessity and the legal domination of women towards elective relationships. Familial relationships are still sought, but from within the logic of individually designed-lives.


Beck, U. and Beck-Gernsheim, E. (1999),  “Individualization and “Precarious Freedoms”: Perspectives and Controversies of a Subject-Orientated Sociology”,  A.  Elliot (Ed),  The Blackwell Reader in Contemporary Social Theory, Malden; Blackwell, pp. 156-168.

Beck-Gernsheim, E. (2007) “From the ‘Family’ to ‘Families’, Soundings, Vol. 35,  pp. 105-114.

Beck-Gernsheim, E. (1998), “On The Way to a Post-Familial Family: From a Community of Need to Elective Affinities”, Theory, Cultural & Society, Vol. 15. No. 3-4, pp. 53-70.

Mason, J. (2011), “What it Means to be Related”, V. May (Ed), Sociology of Personal Life,  New York; Palgrave Macmillan, pp., 59-71.

Mills, C.W. (1959), The Sociological Imagination, New York; Oxford University Press.

Parsons, T. (1956), “The American Family: its Relations to Personality and the Social Structure”, T. Parsons and R.E. Bales (ed), Family Socialization and Interaction Process, London; Routledge & Regan Paul. 

Thompson, E.P. (1968), The Making of the English Working Class, London; Penguin Books.

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