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Family in Anthropology since (1980)

The 1990s And Beyond: Reimagining Family

While gender provided the thematic focus for studies of the family in the 1980s, in the 1990s families became a focus of study in their own right. Abundant cross-cultural literature emerged in this field, but some of the most important theoretical contributions came from studies of Western families, particularly same-sex families. At the very least, the 1990s can be characterized as a period in which there existed a growing recognition of family pluralism both inside and outside the academy. The postmodern family, a term first used by Edward Shorter in 1975, has come to signal the many diverse, fluid, contested, and negotiated family arrangements most obviously noted in the West.

In 1990 Judith Stacey published Brave New Families, which made visible the improvisational and creative nature of contemporary postindustrial family life due to changes in economic realities, gender roles, and kinship conceptualizations. Brave New Families was read widely outside the academy and proved to be a touchstone for "family values" proponents who locate many contemporary social ills in the breakdown of the male-headed nuclear family. The resulting "family values" debate has provided fertile ground for the development of post-structuralist critiques of one of the most sacrosanct categories of Western thought, "the family." What many have called for are theories that seek to reveal the continuities as well as the shifting symbolism and creativity that people enact in the realm of kinship (Rapp). Moreover, anthropologists have turned their attention toward scrutinizing relations of power. Their interest in the "family" stems from a larger ambition to analyze family as an institution that is affected by multiple structural variables assembled in the name of both public and private well-being. These variables include legal regulation, moral ideologies, economic change, and political discourses.

Same-sex families.

At one time, same-sex families of certain configurations were inconceivable in America. However, beginning in the 1980s circumstances slowly changed and have altered the complexion of family life for gays and lesbians. Due to numerous socioeconomic changes over the last decades of the twentieth century, including the financial independence of women in lesbian families, the availability of donor sperm and the decoupling of sexuality and reproduction, and the increased acceptance of lesbians and gay men by adoption agencies and courts, planned gay and lesbian parenting is a phenomenon that has grown tremendously. However, this social transformation does not come without serious opposition. For example, in the late 1980s and early 1990s "family values" rhetoric was redirected to spotlight same-sex families, particularly child-rearing by gays and lesbians (see, for example, Polikoff). The argument typically falls along the line that same-sex and trans-gender families threaten "the traditional American family."

Attempts in popular culture to frame same-sex families as an "exotic" other (at best) or as the "end of the American family as we know it" (at worst) were countered in the academy and elsewhere by the assertion that same-sex families are neither marginal nor exceptional but represent and illustrate a larger process of contesting dominant and sometimes oppressive concepts of the "ideal" family. While gay and lesbian parenting has sparked the ire of social critics, it has provided fertile ground for scholars in anthropology and other disciplines to reconceptualize theory.

Gay and lesbian theory.

In the 1990s gay and lesbian research moved away from issues of sexual identity to issues of the meanings of intimate relationships including romantic relationships, lesbian mothers and gay fathers, and the psychological development and social adjustment of children of lesbian and gay parents. Unfortunately, much of this work took a psychological orientation. In a review of 2,598 articles, David Demo and Katherine Allen found that while there was an important base for beginning to conceptualize how sexual orientation affects family experiences, sexist and heterosexist assumptions also underlay most of the research on same-sex families. Studies often took a "deficit model" stance in which same-sex families were compared to heterosexual nuclear families and found lacking. These studies tended to focus on individuals and outcomes rather than on gay family life as it is embedded in the broader social context.

Gay and lesbian family theory within anthropology has taken a different orientation. Gay and lesbian family theorists, most of whom are urban anthropologists in North America and Great Britain, suggest a multiplicity of theories to understand ever-increasing diversity across and within same-sex families. While little literature exists, much of gay and lesbian family theory focuses one of two themes. The first attempts to locate family within a discourse on the deconstruction of the modern heterosexual nuclear family and "family values" rhetoric. The second calls for a deconstruction of the family as a concept and a radical rethinking of how social categories become embedded. For example, the term queer was reclaimed by gay and lesbian activists to illustrate their resistance to hegemonic ideal constructs. Queer theory, positioned at the radical end of gay and lesbian activism, provides an important critique of family rhetoric in general. The argument proposed by queer theorists is that discussions of the family, even within the gay and lesbian movement, are predicated on certain hegemonic ideas concerning the distribution of power, division of labor, and so on. The queer movement urges a rethinking of the whole concept of family as necessarily linked to structures of power that marginalize, exclude, and oppress.

Studies that attempt to deconstruct rigid formulations of family argue that most family theories were developed with the assumption of a heterosexual orientation for all family members. The presence of same-sex families challenges that assumption. Gay and lesbian families provide a context in which to expand discussions of the relationships among gender, sexuality, and kinship. Moreover, discussions of gay and lesbian kinship reinvigorated some of the ideas set out in 1968 by David Schneider. In particular, he argued that American kinship is a symbolic system resting on two axes of contrasting but mutually dependent notions of blood and love. While blood was often discussed in the literature on families, love rarely was.

In Families We Choose (1991), Kath Weston argues that gay and lesbian families are a domain in which relationships are most obviously based on love rather than biological connections. According to Weston, these families are negotiating a new model of kinship ideology that repositions biology as potentially irrelevant. Weston demonstrates that gay families represent one element in a broader discourse on family whose meanings are continuously negotiated in everyday situations. Moreover, families are positioned vis-à-vis relations of power in society at large. By demonstrating the resourcefulness of many gay families as they seek to solidify and define what family means to them at a particular place and time, she acknowledges that power is not unidirectional. Her work is not merely theoretical or a cultural/historical analysis but ethnographic and therefore evocative of real experiences and real people as they attempt to negotiate "familiness" in the presence of institutions that both constrain and enable that process.

Valerie Lehr argues that queer studies offer a more radical discourse on family, one that provides an alternative to liberal, rights-based political frameworks. A rights-based approach to marriage and family does not challenge established institutions and power as much as it advocates for some gays and lesbians gaining additional power within the established social system. Rights-based approaches reinforce hegemonic symbols of family and paint the gay and lesbian "community" as a monolithic whole while denying legitimation of alternative ways to framing family. Following Lehr, Ruthann Robson argues that gay and lesbian theorists have left unproblematized the concept of family as they have shifted their focus to advocating recognition for "our" family. By not contextualizing and problematizing "functional familialism," the not-so-implicit message becomes that gay and lesbian relationships will be accorded the status of family only to the extent that they replicate the traditional husband-wife couple, a tradition based on property relations.

Theoretical discussions of family in the 1990s point to the family as an ideological construct firmly embedded in historical and material conditions of everyday life. The emergence of same-sex families as a cultural category has brought into focus the contrasting yet interdependent notions of kinship based on blood and love as well as a need for problematizing the category of "family" writ large. Moreover, as more diverse "imagined" families are created and dissolved, the legal system and social system must rethink the boundaries and meanings of "family" to accommodate the ever-shifting realities. Some relevant and urgent questions future anthropological research might address are: How do the existing structures enable or constrain how gays and lesbians imagine and construct family? Which gays and lesbians are most likely to be agents of change? How do the actions of certain people impact the production or reproduction of certain structures? At what point do these family experiences, policy positions, and incremental shifts in popular thought reach the "tipping point," the point at which difference bubbles up to a critical mass and creates change in social structure? To pose and then investigate these questions offers an opportunity to reinvigorate kinship studies by coupling them to theoretically important and timely research on gender studies, colonialism, class relations, identity, and the construction of the "other."

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Evolution to FerrocyanideFamily in Anthropology since (1980) - New Directions For Family Studies, Putting Theory Into Practice: Family Studies Of The 1980s And Early 1990s