Academic journal article Canadian Review of Sociology

The Interpretive Dynamics of Filial and Collective Responsibility for Elderly People

Academic journal article Canadian Review of Sociology

The Interpretive Dynamics of Filial and Collective Responsibility for Elderly People

Article excerpt

IN CONTEMPORARY CANADIAN SOCIETY, RESPONSIBILITY FOR aging parents (filial responsibility) is topical. When adult children enter midlife, they may witness changes in their parents' health that motivate feelings and thoughts about filial responsibility, and for some, an increase in support provided. Indeed, midlife has been described as marked by "filial anxiety" about parent care (Sherrell, Buckwalter, and Morhardt 2001). Approximately 10 percent of middle age Canadians provide parent care (Stobert and Cranswick 2004); given the shift away from institutionalization in the 1980s (Cranswick 2003), it can be argued that the likelihood of providing such care has and will continue to increase (Marks, Lambert, and Jun 2001). Adults may soon be spending more time caring for aging parents than raising their children (McDaniel 2005).

Filial responsibility is often contrasted against a concept of collective responsibility for care of the elderly that emphasizes interdependency and ties between nonkin, viewing the self as "connected to [others] and bound in a larger social unit" (Gould 1999:601). As well as promoting ideals of helping nonkin older adults, collectivism is "congruent with the social-good model of public policy, which defines a good and just society as one that provides for the needs of all" (Killian and Ganong 2002:1081). In Canada, the principle of collectivism is most evident in its institutionalized form in the welfare state and universal health care, although both of these institutions are being eroded (Williams et al. 2001).

In this study, I explore, at the individual level, the interpretive dynamics of filial responsibility for aging parents in characterizations of self and other, and examine the implications of these processes for either reproducing or deviating from dominant ideological discourse regarding the relationship between filial and social responsibility. After a brief review of different approaches to the study of filial responsibility, I present findings from interview data collected with 28 adult children living in Victoria, Canada.


Filial responsibility has received considerable attention in the academic and theoretical literature on family care giving. There are two common approaches to the study of filial responsibility in this work. Within a positivist or postpositivist framework, filial responsibility is most often studied quantitatively, and conceptualized as an attitudinal motivation and predictor of care-giving behaviors in adult children. Specifically, it tends to be conceptualized as an individual attitude or belief regarding what a person should or should not do for parents (e.g., sense of familalistic obligation). The dominant (but not the only) focus here is on external pressures and nondiscretionary aspects (e.g., normative social and cultural ideals), often contrasted with discretionary, self-motivated, and internal desires (e.g., affection) as distinct motivations for parent care (Caputo 2002; Cicirelli 1993; Lyonette and Yardley 2003).

Empirical attention to filial responsibility attitudes at times stems from concerns that it is declining in the context of contemporary North American cultural and structural individualism (e.g., Nydegger 1983), an assertion which lacks strong empirical support (Blust and Scheidt 1988; Lee and Sung 1997; Pyke 1999; Silver 1998). It also stems in part from an often erroneous assumption that attitudes predict care-giving behavior. This assumption persists despite challenges to the idea that individuals hold preexisting attitudes about family and filial responsibility (Donorfio and Sheehan 2001; Finch and Mason 1993); and despite research indicating that attitudes of filial responsibility do not necessarily predict care behavior. In fact, structural factors, such as personal and family resources, gender, coresidence and household structure, the availability of siblings, and geographic proximity may be of greater or at least equal importance (Burr and Mutchler 1999; Holroyd 2003; Keefe and Fancey 2000; Lockery 1991; Mangum et al. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.