Academic journal article Health Sociology Review

Public and Private Families: A Comparative Thematic Analysis of the Intersections of Social Norms and Scrutiny

Academic journal article Health Sociology Review

Public and Private Families: A Comparative Thematic Analysis of the Intersections of Social Norms and Scrutiny

Article excerpt

Introduction

When comparing outcomes for families differentiated by mode of family formation, research suggests that there are more similarities than differences (e.g. Ceballo, Lansford, Abbey, & Stewart, 2004; Golombok et al., 2011; Shelton et al., 2009). Such research suggests that it is family practices, rather than structure or mode of formation, which determines family wellbeing. Yet despite similarities across families, it remains the case that families are differentially affected by social norms (Weigel, 2008), specifically with regard to the comparison of all families against a particular family form that is treated as the norm (i.e. the nuclear family formed through reproductive heterosex). Furthermore, it has been argued that social norms impact upon the degree to which particular families are open to public scrutiny (Fox, 1999).

In order to examine how social norms circulate with regard to differing modes of family formation, and the degree of scrutiny this engenders, the present paper reports on a comparative thematic analysis of interviews undertaken with four family cohorts differentiated by mode of family formation (reproductive heterosex, intercountry adoption, long-term foster care, and offshore commercial surrogacy). Drawing on the theoretical framework of critical kinship studies, the analysis highlights both similarities and differences in terms of how social norms appear to shape the experiences of each cohort. In order to provide some context for the findings, the paper begins by briefly outlining previous research on differences between the four modes of family formation in terms of public perceptions of, support for, and attitudes towards each family form. The findings offer insights that may inform the development of policies and practice that are better able to support all families through and following family formation.

Perceptions of diverse modes of family formation

In this first section, we provide a brief overview with regard to each of the modes of family formation under examination in this paper, focusing on currently available Australian statistics, along with Australian research that has documented how each mode of family formation is viewed by the general public. Whilst public attitudes are certainly not the only way of identifying social norms as they pertain to differing modes of family formation, it is arguably the case that such attitudes encapsulate something of the institutional norms that inform them (i.e. governmental regulations that either normalise or marginalise particular families), as well as reflecting how differing modes of family formation are represented to the general public (i.e. in media reporting).

Reproductive heterosex

The total fertility rate in Australia has decreased substantially since the 1960s, with a peak of 3.5 children per woman in 1961 to the current rate of 1.88 per woman in 2013 (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2014). Yet whilst the fertility rate has dropped, the number of babies born in Australia has increased over the past 40 years due to population growth, from approximately 175,000 births per year during the 1970s to approximately 308,000 births per year in 2013 (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2014). Only a small percentage of these births are a result of Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART), with the most recent figures indicating that only 3.8% of women who gave birth in 2011 used ART (Li, Zeki, Hilder, & Sullivan, 2013). As such, it is realistic to state that Australian figures on births primarily document children born as a product of reproductive heterosex.

It is important to note, however, that fertility rates and total birth rates do not capture pregnancy loss, and thus only tell one part of the story of reproductive heterosex as a mode of family formation. Internationally, it has been estimated that 15-20% of all known pregnancies end in miscarriage, with most occurring before the seventh week of pregnancy (Storck, 2012; Wang et al. …

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