"History of Us": Social Science, History, and the Relations of Family in Canada

By Comacchio, Cynthia | Labour/Le Travail, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview
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"History of Us": Social Science, History, and the Relations of Family in Canada


Comacchio, Cynthia, Labour/Le Travail


JUST AS THE 20TH CENTURY gasped its last, Canada's purported national newspaper pledged an "unprecedented editorial commitment" to "get inside the institution that matters the most to Canadians: the bricks themselves, our children, our families." Judging by the stories emanating weekly from "real families" in Toronto, Calgary and Montreal, commitment to "the bricks" remains strong despite unremitting bleak prophecies about the family's decline. There is much concern, however, that their mortar is disintegrating. At the dawn of a new millennium, Canadians worry about such abiding issues as the decision to have children, their number and timing; finding decent, affordable shelter; whether both parents will work for wages and how child care will be managed [and paid for] if they do; how domestic labour will be apportioned; what single parents must do to get by; and -- most pressing of all -- how to master the wizardry that might reconcile the often-conflicting pressures of getting a living with those of family.(1)

These "family matters" strike certain transhistorical chords. If we have more options than did our forebears of a hundred or even fifty years ago, most of us still have to take into account the available material support before we can make the major life decisions signified in family formation. Unromantic though these deliberations may be, they are fundamental.

For the vast majority throughout history, family relations have been intermeshed with the structures of work. The family has historically constituted the principal site of production. Even in the "advanced" western world, until as recently as a century ago, few could subsist outside some form of family setting. The welfare of most families, in its every sense, was the measure of its members' mutual assistance as constituted in labour, thus individual and collective contributions to the family economy. The labour of families is connected even more directly to capitalist development when we consider that the production of family farms allowed for the local surplus accumulation that, along with the importation of foreign capital, supported the transition to industry. Industrialization did not destroy this historic relationship of work and family, but gradually reconfigured it to accord with the new relations of production.

Nearly twenty years ago, in a path-breaking effort to unlock marxist theory to gender issues, sociologist Dorothy Smith conceptualized home and family as "integral parts of, and moments in, a mode of production." Family relations do not stand apart from, but are organized by and within capitalist economic and political relations, the most significant of which are class relations. By recognizing these relations to be mutually necessary and supportive, we:

can begin to see the social organization of class in a new way. We discover the family or forms of family work and living, as integral to the active process of constructing and reconstructing class relations, particularly as the dominant class responds to changes in the forms of property relations and changes in the organization of the capitalist enterprise and capitalist social relations.(2)

The working class, I would add, finds its own means and methods of adaptation through a domestic reorganization characterized by selectivity; that is to say, it accepts some bourgeois practices and standards of family life, rejects others, and creates still others that reflect the cultural heritage, community, and individual needs of individual families.

Smith, among others who have engaged in this integration of family into models of capitalist relations, effectively proposed a refinement of the 19th century views of Marx and Engels. Both were convinced of "the dissolution of family ties" that industry bred, while equally convinced that the survival of the working-class family meant the very survival of the working class. Marx never developed a comprehensive theory of the reproduction of labour power, all the while conceding its importance for any theory of capitalist production: "the maintenance and reproduction of the working class is, and must ever be, a necessary condition to the reproduction of capital.

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"History of Us": Social Science, History, and the Relations of Family in Canada
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