Family, Marriage, and Parenthood

By Howard Becker; Reuben Hill | Go to book overview

PART I CONTEXTS OF FAMILY LIFE

Chapter One
Interpreting Family Life in Context

HOWARD BECKER


NEVER FORGET THAT THERE IS A CONTEXT

THE game of parliamentary politics frequently includes the practice of taking utterances of opponents out of context and using them to yield meanings directly opposite to those initially intended. In sectarian controversy men have been known to use texts in ways foreign to their real meaning; the context was ignored by both the controversialists and their hearers. Even scholars and scientists have been known to wrench phrases, sentences, or paragraphs from their settings and exhibit them as appalling examples of the stupidity or sheer ignorance of someone belonging to another school of thought, whereas due heed to the context might have reduced the argument to much ado about nothing.

Speaking technically: In studying the family, marriage, and parenthood, we run some risk of forgetting that these are all aspects of societies and, as such, functionally bound up with many other clusters of social actions. Societies, composed of social-action clusters, can be viewed as embodiments of systems of value. These systems provide the larger contexts within which otherwise meaningless fragments of conduct become interpretable. Convenient terms for comprehensive value-systems are "sacred" and "secular."

To make sure that these vitally important contexts are not forgotten or overlooked, it seems necessary to devote a good deal of attention to them at the very beginning of this book. Naturally, context and content are inseparably interwoven; the full context will appear only when the entire book has been read. It follows, then, that this first chapter will not be completely understood, even after several preliminary readings, by the student who has not had a good deal of work in the fields covered. Only when the detailed presentations of Martindale, Nash, Kuhn, Bain, Mowrer, Taylor, Hill, and several others have been absorbed will the remoter implications of what is here said become apparent. At the same time, these detailed presentations will not make as much sense as they might unless the broader outlines have been at least partially assimilated. Mark, the "broader outlines"! The footnotes of this chapter are primarily professional asides; the beginner can safely disregard them -- but he cannot safely disregard the main text.

The student should therefore come back to this chapter repeatedly; by thus weaving back and forth between the general and the particular he will be able successfully to interpret what he reads. Separate items will take on relevance, and the coherence so essential to genuine comprehension will gradually reveal itself.

-1-

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