These notes are the first in a series of fifteen lecture for my class Dynamics of the Family.

What about "family"?

what shall we to talk about?

From definitions (deductively):
inductive generalization based on observing what people talk about when they talk about "family."

  1. sentimentally: the discourse of adoption, love and motherhood
  2. quantitatively: the discourse of the census
  3. controversially:
    1. mental health and policy
    2. poverty and the black family, again: Wilson 2009
  4. at home: five people constructing an evening

Intellectual framework for the couse

  1. Introduction

    There has been a course with the words "dynamics of family life" at Teachers College for perhaps 60 years.

    Until the middle seventies the full title of the course was "Psychodynamics of family life" and was taught by a family therapist. Since then, I have taught the course as an anthropologist convinced that the word "family" indexes ("point to") much else than matters of mental health--though the word "dynamics" is worth keeping. This year, given the evolution of my own work and my growing interest in how, when, and with whom, people educate themselves, I have added the word "educational" to qualify "dynamics"

    This reveals both the enduring concern that a school of education must have for the forces that organize family life and the transformation of the understanding of what is involved in this concern: from a centering on what happens within small households when children are young to an exploration of the social forces that move households, including other households, their organization and needs. In this broadening, fundamental questions about what we should be talking about when we talk about "family" have been raised. What we can now be sure of is that we know less than we thought we knew, and this all the more paradoxical that all of us have intimate experiences within social settings clearly relevant to "family."

    This is not to lead to a postmodern critique of knowledge about "family" ("we all have different definitions of the family and all are equally valid") but rather to a call for more critical and rigorous research that can contribute what (social) science always contribute: a more analytic understanding of the constraints on our lives and of the ways through which we might transcend them.


    1. Early sociology and anthropology
      1. initially (in the 1940s and 1950s) it appears to have made common sense to think of the family as a group of persons locked within a set of walls. This was the heyday of the "nuclear family" as a separate institution with particular structural-functional needs. For Talcott Parsons, these needs focussed on "the balancing of adult personalities" and the "socialization of children." Questions of pyschological adjustment were thus placed at the center of educational and therapeutic concerns and research focused on such things as:
        1. the balancing of roles;
        2. the effect of various types of role definition on the people holding them;
        3. the effect of various types of communication patterns on the psychic or educational balance of family members;
        4. etc.
    2. The critique
      1. eventually, it became clear that this approach limited our understanding of what is involved in family life. Through the work of people like James Coleman in the U.S., of Pierre Bourdieu in France, of Lawrence Cremin and others associated with the department of Family and Community Education here at Teachers College, it was demonstrated that the functions of the family are much broader than Parsons had envisioned and that they were not being diminished by the evolution of the modern world.
        1. Parsons had argued that, as the labor of human survival got more and more divided over the course of human history, the family was stripped of all the functions which it may have had for most of this history. This was a deductive argument which, for a while, seemed unchallengeable.
        2. In the long run, two generations of naturalistic work on family life, and the evolution of sociological and anthropological theory, established that, while the family did become part of a more and more complex network of institutions each calling for the human beings caught within them to perform certain acts, it also remained a privileged social space with a significant power over the people who lived there. The family does not simply organize itself, it also organizes its members' participation in other institutions.
        3. above all perhaps, this research established that when talking about "the family" we are not talking about a particular constellation of "roles" (spouse, parent, child) but rather about precisely a "social space," that is a time and a place around which relatively small groups of people are given the opportunity of establishing and maintaining a boundary. Other institutions give more or less explicit "freedom" to the people who inhabit the space to establish particular organizations. The placing of these boundaries, and their properties, cannot be fully predicted even when one knows very well the overall structure of the other institutions and of their relationships.
    3. Dynamics
      1. A course on what is dynamic about family life, that is upon the activity of human beings in families must thus examine family life from the point of view of its relationship with the full ecology of the small multi-generational groups which will be our concern here
        1. Note that I am talking here about families, not "household." The later can be reduced to one person (a young adult first living away from his parents, an elderly person living by herself). The former always involve relationships across households and generations.
        2. Note also that I am talking about an "ecology," that is an environment that gives people in families certain problems to resolve, from which they can take certain resources, and to which they must return some things and people.
        3. Note also that I not talking about the family as an "institution" but rather as a potential within constraints that everyone produces in one way or another.
      2. Above all, a course of the dynamics of family life must emphasize the precisely dynamic character of this life. People in families are not determined by their position within the larger society. They are not even determined by the patterns which they have evolved among themselves. They must always take these patterns into account. But they always move into the future under the power of their own energy and their trajectory is never predictable [ref. to Bateson and the dog].
    4. Making a difference
      1. The power of their own energy thus always introduce a "difference" between the expected trajectory and the actual one. This difference is most often glossed over under the topic of "culture." We will indeed talk extensively about "culture" here, but always in the strongest sense of the term. Culture, from my perspective, must be understood--as it is traditionally--as the particular configuration a group has evolved to deal with its conditions. More importantly it must be understood as the activity of cultivation, the process that creates these configurations. It is a direct implication of this understanding that culture is not shared but constructed.
    5. Education
      1. Shifting from "culture" to "cultivation" opens new routes for looking at the educative in familial interaction
        1. from the impact of familial patterns on school careers to
        2. a consideration of what is taught, pondered, discussed, and perhaps learned in the process of everyday family life.

  2. The Organization of the Course

    The course is organized on the model of the life cycle of a family over two generations, from established adulthood, through child bearing, socialization and education of the children, growing up, getting married, divorced and dealing with the illness and death of parents.

    In every instance, the focus will be interactional with an emphasis on the concreteness of the actions being performed, of the resources used. Family life is infinitely more than the attitudes or values one has about it. The garbage must be taken out, the children must be taken care of. Whoever does either cannot do something else.

    The interactional focus will always be dealt with from the point of view of "cultivation" [also discussed as "mediation"]. Culture is a fundamental aspect of human nature and no understanding of human action is possible outside a framework emphasizing the social facting of difference.

  3. What is at stake
    1. Family organization and emotional child development: Whitehead, Barbara "Dan Quayle was right." Atlantic Monthly, April 1993.
    2. Family interaction, schooling and the "achievement gap": the New York Time's Paul Tough on "What it takes to make a student" (November 26, 2006)
    3. Other matters of general knowledge as presented in the press. For example "The Changing American Family" (New York Times, November 26, 2013)
  4. Or is it?

    All the matters introduce in this lecture will be addressed again and again throughout the course and around different specific issues.

Some questions in the context of this lesson
  • What topics should a course like this adress
  • (for any of the topics you might think should be addressed) why should it be addressed?
  • (for any of the topics you might think should be addressed) what sort of investigation would you trust to answer your questions?