Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Deprivatization and the Construction of Domestic Life

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Deprivatization and the Construction of Domestic Life

Article excerpt

Interpretations of family and domestic life are increasingly deprivatized, that is, accomplished in various sites outside the household. Addressing this situation, this article has two goals. First, it presents a constructionist approach to family studies that views family as a social object constituted through interpretive practice. Second, it documents how family images and meanings are rationalized, public accomplishments. Featuring two interpretive conditions--local culture and organizational embeddedness--we illustrate the socially situated construction of family and discuss analytic implications of the constructionist approach.

The family has long been cherished for its privacy. Its image in Western societies as an entity separate, distinct, and sheltered from other social institutions has flourished in popular culture, everyday discourse, and family studies (Demos, 1979; Gubrium & Holstein, 1987; Jeffrey, 1972; Laslett, 1973; Skolnick, 1979). In this view, the family is a "sphere" or "world" set apart from other realms, with distinct functions and discernible boundaries (Berger & Kellner, 1970; Hess & Handel, 1994; Parsons & Bales, 1955). For better or worse, domestic order is believed to exist authentically within households, the family's natural habitat. Ultimately, the inner reaches of the home are fully accessible only to household members and close associates. Family life goes on "backstage" (Goffman, 1959), behind closed doors, in an "intimate environment" (Skolnick, 1987).

Popular sentiment, traditional political interests, and professional scholarship have all--in their own fashions--placed the "private" family in opposition to the dehumanizing forces of modernity and bureaucracy, often going so far as to suggest that the family, as it is conventionally known and valued, has been besieged by forces that undermine domestic sanctity. Perhaps Christopher Lasch (1977) articulated this most succinctly and poignantly when he portrayed the family as a "haven in a heartless world." Lasch warned that the traditional domain of domestic privacy was being invaded, overrun by the myriad organizations and institutions of modern society. Adopting a version of the private image, Lasch depicted the family as an endangered "refuge from the cruel world of politics and work" (p. xxiv).

Despite its popularity, ubiquity, and persistence, however, this vision of the family has been challenged on empirical, theoretical, and political grounds. The most notable assault accompanies a call to "rethink the family" (Thorne & Yalom, 1982). With feminism as the central galvanizing force, the notion of a single, monolithic family form has come under attack. The central argument is that THE FAMILY writ large--as in the traditional family image--is more ideology than empirical reality (see Bernardes, 1985; Osmond & Thorne, 1993; Thorne, 1982).

At the same time, feminists and others have assailed the notion that the family is (or should be) insulated from external structures and forces. Family isolation, they argue, is illusory given the close connections between families' internal lives and the organization of the economy, the state, and other institutions. Matters of race, class, and gender further undermine the public-private distinction (see Baca Zinn, 1992; Collins, 1989; Kessler-Harris, 1982; Osmond & Thorne, 1993).

This suggests that, like the monolithic family, "the separation of private from public is largely an ideological construct," (Okin, 1989, p. 23)--more artificial than substantial--further "demystifying the dichotomy" between public and family spheres (Osmond & Thorne, 1993, p. 608).

The growing repudiation of the monolithic, private image has led to what some are calling a "paradigm shift" in family studies (Allen & Demo, 1995)--a trend towards more "inclusive" family theorizing and research (Baca Zinn, 1992) that increasingly recognizes family pluralism and diversity (see Baber & Allen, 1992; Thompson, 1992; Walker, 1993). …

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