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Theories of the Family and Policy - WP 04/02

4.6  Family pathology

4.6.1  Violence within the family

Many sociologists argue that the classic nuclear family has a dark side, which includes violence, sexual abuse and mental illness. Laing and Esterson (1982) argue that the nuclear family structure exacerbates mental illness. Barrett and McIntosh (1982) claim that the family is what they call “anti-social”, and that because we have been socialised to invest so much in it, family ties prevent us from extending caring relations to those outside our immediate family circle.

Giddens (1997) contends that family violence occurs most often towards children, followed by spousal abuse of women. Questioning the prevalence of family violence, he argues that the family fosters both emotional intensity and personal intimacy and that these elements can be a dangerous combination. Citing a history of social approval of violence between spouses, Giddens notes that while some violence is tolerated within many families (such as smacking children), strong emotions combined by intimate knowledge can spill over into assault. Giddens cites the provocative example of smacking children, arguing that while a parent smacking a child is socially legitimate, a stranger hitting a child in exactly the same manner would be classed as assault.

Radical feminist theories cite power as a key factor in family violence. Focusing on intra-familial relationships between men and women, one stream of radical feminism centres on sexuality and violence in male-female relationships as both driving and mirroring patriarchy (Rich 1980). It argues that symbolic violence perpetrated against women by men in general sexual relations leads directly to the actual physical and mental violence used by men against their wives within the nuclear family (Bilton et al 1996).

Other streams of feminism argue that men tend to associate emotional feeling with sexuality, and sexuality with power and partner submissiveness. More generally, feminist analyses seek to “expose the ways in which the widespread romanticised ideal of the family and family values is systemically skewed to empower men and disempower women and children; and the ways that this ideal informs the way that welfare and legal institutions respond to sexual violence to the detriment of women and children…” (Jagger and Wright 1999: 9).

4.6.2  Incest and child sexual abuse

Sociology interprets behaviours and attitudes as due to socialisation in human groups, and the incest taboo is no exception to this basic principle. However, while sociologists note the function of the incest taboo in preventing familial role conflict and forcing people to create relationships outside the family (thus uniting people in larger networks and leading to greater social cohesion), the functional analysis does not explain the origins of the taboo.

Despite lacking an explanation for origins of incest and sexual abuse, sociology does examine why incest and sexual abuse have entered the public realm. Giddens (1992) argues that the increase in child sexual abuse is a result of more direct attention being paid by welfare agencies and the police, and that this increased attention resulted from the erosion of taboos on talking about sexuality more generally. In addition, the feminist movement played an important role in initially drawing public attention to child sexual abuse as one element in wider campaigns against sexual harassment and exploitation. Once researchers began to probe into suspected cases of sexual abuse, many more came to light—leading to “discovery” of sexual abuse internationally.

4.7  The changing family

Sociologists tend to view changes in the modern and post-modern family as driven, in part, by industrialisation and economic change. Historical sociologists trace the origins of the “modern family” to the growth of specialised wage labour, which led to economically productive work moving beyond the reach of the family and the redefinition of kinship obligations. While the family that was engaged in farming or crafts could be expanded because extra hands could produce extra food and other products, the resources of the salaried family and the number of people who could be supported by its wage earners were fixed. Living space in the neighbourhood of factories and other specialised worksites was expensive and non-expansible. Where neighbours were strangers, the modern family became a "haven in a heartless world" (Lasch 1977).

Discussion of the changing family centres on structural changes and the loss of its functions. The structure of the modern family—the relationship of parents, children and kin—has diversified. The modern family has lost many of the functions it fulfilled in a pre-industrial age—such as school, church and work. Yet it has retained its core functions of reproduction, providing shelter, socialising children, stabilising personalities, providing affection and a sense of belonging, care of children and the old. A key concern for sociologists is whether different types of family structure lead to socialisation failures and problematic life-courses for children (Ambert 2001).

4.8  Critiques

Major critiques of the main traditions in sociological theory have come from the post-modern and post-structuralist schools. Post-modernism challenged the supposedly universalistic claims of social theory, stressing instead multiplicity, difference, particularity, locality, temporality, and the “scattered and shifting character of contemporary social processes” (Outhwaite 2002). Similarly, post-colonial theory offers a critique of sociology by asking “Who speaks?” when knowledge is associated with power and claims to be making “truthful” statements about the social world (Holmwood 2002). Post-colonialism also argues that much of the “sociological literature refer(s) to a global project of modernisation and democratisation, providing a skewed understanding of the postcolonial movements that have figured so prominently in recent world history.” (Holmwood 2002).

Postmodern theory came relatively later into sociology than in other disciplines, possibly because the theme of the ”social construction of reality” was already present in phenomenological sociology and ethnomethodology (Outhwaite 2002). Since the late 1980s, however, it has become a recognisable current of sociological thinking; other theorists argue that post-modernism need not mean the end of explanatory efforts that go beyond the immediate or specific, and that it remains possible to develop a systematic analysis useful for all levels of abstraction (Glucksmann 2000).

4.9  The family, policy and the state

Writers and theorists within sociology differ on the degree to which the actions of the state are seen as benefiting or detrimental to society and the family. Hayek (1988) argues that while the state has a crucial role in some areas such as the definition and enforcement of law, state intervention in other areas generally does more harm than good (Bartley and Hayek 1988). In contrast, some traditional theorists, such as Durkheim, see the state as more benign and a possible force for social order.

McLennan et al(2000) note that modern families have increasingly come under the purview of the state. The development of the welfare state has seen the state take on responsibilities traditionally left to families, and there is debate within the sociology of the family as to the desirability of this intervention. Feminist sociologists argue that the state has supported a patriarchal nuclear family, with a breadwinner husband and dependent wife and children, and that this support extends beyond welfare to the definition of what constitutes a family and the rights accorded to families. Marxist sociologists contend that the capitalist state has destroyed the privacy of the family through the rise of professional welfare and health experts, while noting the role of families in reproducing class structures.

Regardless of the desirability of the state, many sociologists view policy as an important mechanism for change. Because sociology places emphasis on the socially created nature of society, policy can have a potential role in changing behaviour and thus drive social change. This is the case for family policy as well as policy in other areas. For example, theorists such as Wallerstein and Chodorow might argue that changes to divorce laws or social welfare benefits targeted at parents may lead to larger social changes beyond the boundaries of the policies themselves.

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