From 'The Family' to 'Families'

By Beck-Gernsheim, Elisabeth | Soundings, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

From 'The Family' to 'Families'

Beck-Gernsheim, Elisabeth, Soundings

How individualisation and globalisation are changing our personal lives

Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim argues that families today have less fixed forms and are more fragile. A new spectrum of family and social arrangements is emerging in response to contemporary opportunities and pressures.

In the 1950s and 1960s a standard family model existed in Western countries that was generally accepted, and was indeed practised by most people. This so-called 'normal' family consisted of an adult couple with children; of course, the adults were of different genders, that is, man and woman; they were married and they remained so until they died; and there was also a gender-based division of labour, such that the husband held a job and was the bread-winner, while the wife was responsible for home and family.

That was the model. Of course, there were exceptions to the rule, some men and women who didn't follow the conventional path. A few brave souls indeed chose to live differently, out of their free will. But in most cases it was not because people were daring and wanted to break the rules, but rather because for some reason the conventional path was not open to them. At any rate, these non-conventional arrangements were relatively rare; and usually they were not practised openly but rather furtively, indeed frequently they were not even talked about. Above all it was commonly understood that they were 'deviations', deviations from what the majority saw as right and proper. They were 'lapses', 'mistakes', the product of unhappy circumstances and external forces, for example the turmoil of war and the resulting upheavals.

How times are changing. The 'normal' family described above has not disappeared, but there is a much greater diversity of family forms and arrangements today; and, above all, the standard model has lost its normative force. In recent decades changes have taken place both in family behaviour and in the normative understanding of the family, and different forms now co-exist with one another, each of them claiming equal standing. This change has made its way into the language: Speaking of'the family' has become suspect - the proper term now is 'families'. So the standard family form has lost its monopoly position. In its place there are different and competing ideas of normality, and ever more ways are considered legitimate options. This indeed is the crucial point. It is not simply the rise and increase of'deviations' that marks our situation today: even more importantly, what were formerly seen as 'deviant' ways have become varieties of the normal - and thus are socially accepted.

The legal framework

These changes in social climate and social practice have also made their way into legislation. In former decades the law defined a catalogue of rules, oriented to the standard family model described above. But the closer we come to the present, the more such norms are disputed, in many respects ceasing to be effective. In their place new rules are introduced, whose very aim is to acknowledge a greater variety of family forms and ways of life. This holds especially true in respect to gender relations within marriage. In many countries the regulatory paragraphs dealing with this area have been thoroughly reformed. German law, shown in the table on page 107, can be seen as a typical example.

Furthermore, in Germany as in other Western countries, many policy initiatives have taken place which follow a similar line. Life-styles that were once considered improper or even illegitimate, and therefore ostracised and even punished by the law, have now gained in terms of rights and recognition. To give but a few examples: easier access to divorce; more rights and protections for children born outside of marriage; more rights and protections for cohabiting couples; growing recognition of homosexual relationships. Increasingly, legislators today refrain from prescribing a particular form of family life. …

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