Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

We're Decent People: Constructing and Managing Family Identity in Rural Working-Class Communities

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

We're Decent People: Constructing and Managing Family Identity in Rural Working-Class Communities

Article excerpt

Using grounded theory methodology, I establish family identity management as an important type of invisible work that connects women's household-based domestic activities with community members' perceptions and treatment of them and their family members. Detailed observations of household routines and family interactions, as well as in-depth interviews with working-class women living in two rural trailer park communities, provide insight into the meanings women assign to this labor, and their motivations for performing this work. I describe the strategies that women use to accomplish the work, examine how the work supports family life and child development, and explain how the residential environment influences the organization and accomplishment of this work.

Key Words: family labor, housework, invisible work, rural communities, working-class families.

Until the late 1960s, scholars generally ignored household work as a topic of serious academic inquiry because of its association with the private sphere of women. Pateman (1987) noted that "domestic life was assumed irrelevant to social and political theory" (p. 108), given the ideological distinction made between the public and private worlds. Over the last three decades, however, the topic of household and family labor has been legitimized in both the academic and policy arenas. By bringing the private sphere into academic work, scholars such as Oakley (1974) and Hochschild (1979) delivered women from historical and social invisibility (Armitage, 1979). Oakley's decision to examine the work conditions of housewives reflected a radical departure from the traditional definition of housework and child care for one's own family as caring actions performed solely "out of love, instinct, or devotion to some higher cause than self" (Rich, 1978, p. xiv). Instead, she conceptualized this labor as "real" work that could be studied using the same core sociological concepts that framed research on men's jobs in the public sphere.

Feminist scholars' insights into the emotion work that women perform in managing family members' psychological well-being have made the most hidden components of household labor visible. DeVault (1991) revealed that women are primarily responsible for planning and arranging tasks necessary to household management, including keeping an ongoing mental account of what needs to be done and how it will be accomplished; regulating time, funds, and attention; making countless practical decisions; and organizing and integrating family schedules. Women also perform much of the emotional labor that is essential for "symbolically creating family" (Daniels, 1987, p. 411, original emphasis)-that is, encouraging members to develop feelings of belonging to and identification with a particular family group.

This article contributes to the existing literature by revealing a previously unidentified form of family labor, family identity management. Managing family identity encompasses a range of mental, emotional, and instrumental tasks done to develop and present a particular characterization of one's family. Like the "marriage work" discussed by Oliker (1989), family identity managcmcnt involves voluntary, purposeful "reflection and action" (p. 123). Family identity is continually constructed within the household and managed in relation to others, and as both a self-definition and a public representation, family identity has important consequences for members' well-being in these communities.

Although similar to Goffman's (1959) concept of impression management, family identity management involves more than presenting oneself Io other people while engaged in direct interaction with them. It also involves anticipatory management-that is, thinking about what other people might think if they interact with you, and engaging in behavior that will minimize public scrutiny, labeling, and punishment in the event that you or your children have contact with them. …

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