Varenne, Hervé "Talk and real talk: The voices of silence and the voices of power in American family life." Cultural Anthropology 2: 369-394. 1987

This is the twelfth in a series of notes to fifteen lectures for my class Dynamics of Family Interaction.

Radical ethnographies of family practices:
What is it that people do do in the privacy of their homes?

  1. In brief, we can think about the "American" nuclear family

    as a multi-faceted "fact" (something that was made up, facted, in history and is now a constraint on all producing everyday lives in the United States. This fact:

    1. a set of symbols (husband, wife, etc.) Expanded into myth (think of Canaan's cautionary tales).
    2. institutionalized by the State (and State-like agencies: the School, businesses)
    3. inscribed on the landscape (housing)
    4. the starting point for
      1. conversation
      2. interaction
      3. the construction of a life (think about Canaan's Melissa as the interprets her dates)
  2. As a fact the Nuclear Family (as institutions and tales) is
    1. a solution to the tensions produced by Industrialization and capitalism. (Thus it may be easiest to live one's childhood, adulthood, and to raise children in nuclear households);
    2. a problem for those who cannot or will not construct nuclear households for themselves;
    3. and to every one else that has to make something that can recognized as a family without history: what must we all do so that "nothing happens"!
  3. As "problem"

    the Nuclear Family requires work, daily work, as Tolstoy, in a powerful passage in Anna Karanina has Levin, the counter-point hero to Anna, discover.

  4. This work may have consequences
    1. on the mental health of all at work together (family system and their correlates from Bateson to Laing and onward to family therapy)
    2. on educational results (social reproduction)

    But, before investigating outcomes on participants, one must understand better what exactly this work can consist of. This is the major point of my work in Ambiguous Harmony.

    1. from an interest in language as socialization to an interest in language as the media(tion) of practical everday life
    2. looking at what cannot be recorded given the limits of observers at the time scale at which they operate (and the limits of theparticipants)
    3. confirming Tolstoy's wisdom: everyday family life is made up of an infinite amount of trivial tasks that must be performed day in and day out because daily history continually bring new stuff that cannot be "just dealt with" in the absence of various conversational processes. Socializing children and balancing adult personalities (to use Parsons' phrasing) is a matter of birthday parties, dancing lessons and pouts, as well as shopping for furniture, repairing the household, maintaining networks of family and friends, and so on and so forth.
    4. bringing together various forms of talk/action that are all involved in producing everyday life (the major point of the article "Talk and real talk"
      1. talking about a china closet ("actual" talk)
      2. talking about talking about a china clost ("real" talk)
      3. talking to divorce
      4. talking about talking to identify "America" -- but not Americans
  5. As both solution and problem,

    the Nuclear Family limits what can be done practically in the United States. It blinds people to possibilities, erases other solutions. This is particularly true in the behavioral sciences concerned with the family. By simplifying what it is that "the family is all about" the behavioral sciences keep making us miss what we actually experience. For example:

    1. the continued extent of cross-household and cross-family linkages,
    2. the persistence of a push to exploit blood and descent lines to improve one's conditions.
Some questions in the context of this lesson