I -- Social Reproduction, Education, and the Family



Distribution of persons under 18 by type of household organization







children residing






with 2 parents (at least

one related by blood)






with 1 parent (related by blood)






with other relatives






with non relative






in small households (total)







in group quarters







                   Table 1 tells a story that is almost too obvious to notice: all children now reside in small households. And yet this story is not the one that dominates research and commentary. Fifty years ago, the great American sociologist Talcott Parsons affirmed that "the family has become, on the 'macroscopic' levels, almost completely functionless" (1955:16). Much more recently one of the most senior demographers in the United States wrote in very much the same vein, "So what is happening to the family? Family relationships occupy an important but ever shrinking space in our lives" (Bumpass 1990: 493). Given this it is not surprising that he should wonder "why hasn't the family disappeared?" (Bumpass 1990: 491). He answered, like Parsons, by invoking the purported emotional value of familial intimacy, something that is "not available in the marketplace" (1990: 491). Arguably, then, nothing much has changed over the past 50 years: a certain kind of social science continues to reduce the family--defined restrictively as the nuclear household--to a peripheral institution that might concern psychologists since it remains involved in personal development, but not those who worry about the major social issues of modern societies. Much sociology of education is not concerned with families, and little scholarship on families notices how it remains the key to social, as well as biological or psychological, reproduction. When some parents have more resources to help their children with school work, when they move their residence from one school district to another, or when they choose private or parochial education, they perform something for their children, and for the children of parents with different resources, that far transcend the emotional support that they may also give. Children are born in families, and their personalities develop there. But families do more than build character. They place their children in particular communities and, in the long run, in society at large. They are powerfully involved in what is known technically as "social reproduction."

                   The following is a brief review of major analytic trends in sociology, anthropology, and history that have replaced families--now understood as broad networks of linked persons--back to center stage, particularly in education. This review proceed in four steps, starting with the most common sensical analyses and moving on to the more significant ones. The first step summarizes the work on the psychodynamics of family life which confirms what we all know about the impact of intimate relationships on human development. The second step takes up the expansion of this understanding into explanations of social, rather than purely personal, success. The third step discusses the historical and crosscultural evidence suggesting that the dominant definitions of what constitute intimate relationships are limiting our understanding of much that is occuring in familial environments. The section ends with a rapid sketch of the many ways through which these environments contribute to social reproduction, that is, to the likelihood that children will find themselves in social positions that are equivalent to those of their parents--thereby suggesting the relative failure of current democratic forms to erase the privileges of birth.


The Psychodynamics of Family Life

                   One has but to watch television for a brief time to see that, in comedy, drama, and advertising, everything relating to human happiness is made to depend on the availability of a safe, soft, warm, home back into which to retreat from the dangerous, hard, and cold world outside. In so doing the media mirrors both research in personality theory and the general common sense: If the home is a well-organized small group, then it is likely that the happiness of all included will be preserved. This home must have a secure economic base and, equally important, well-balanced personal relationships: powerful cars and other machines, along with loving parents, in combination, are a sure recipee for success. Sociologists have technical terms for these tasks. Parsons talked of the "instrumental" functions of families to refer to the provision of material support (principally through jobs in the market economy), and of the "expressive" functions to refer to the building and preserving of emotional balance. Nuclear households are the place where expressive and intrumental functions are most easily and consistently brought together for the benefit of all, in the household and in the society at large. Things can go wrong, of course: parents may not have jobs, or they may be abusive. And when this happens, then State intervention is warranted. Having loving parents is good, but love can wane and the State shoud support those who seek a divorce. Massive government interventions may be necessary if some people are put in a position where they cannot build the proper loving nest. Children may even have to be taken away from parents. All this was common sense in the 1950s. It remains a powerful guide for research and policy in the 1990s.

                   The theoretical sense that has guided this tradition of work is still with us: Adulthood is a matter of identity built through a child’s interactions with parents, particularly in early infancy, and maintained through relationships with adults, particularly very significant ones, spouses and spouse equivalents. Researchers investigate both the nature of these special relationships and their impact on the individual's mental health first, and then on other relationships. The hope is that one can identify the kind of interactions that lead to interpersonal difficulties so that they can alleviated. Typically, researchers search for the kinds of family relationships that lead to divorce, or the kind that lead to relative success or failure in other relationships on the job, with possible partners, and, most relevant here, in school. One can investigate the relationship between parents, and between them and their children that will produce the most balanced personality in these children. The list of possible determinants of a successful adult identity and of a successful marriage is vast and there is much dispute over what may be the most powerful determinants. The disputes on the impact of the absence of a biological father in the household are particularly acrimonious (Popenoe 1996; Blankenhorn 1995), and so are those about the kind of language used by a household around young children, the amount of books, etc.


The Psychodynamics of Social Success

                   Reviewing this literature on the relationship between household organization and personality development makes it clear why families are a concern for psychologists. What is much more controversial is the use of this research to address matters of interest to sociologists and policy makers. The analytic process starts with a reasonable assumption: many families are so organized as lead to personality breakdown, and this can become a problem for society as a whole when it happens regularly enough. In layman's terms: if one is depressed or unhappy, then one is also likely not to succeed on the job, and not to nurture one's children. And so we are presented with pictures of single mothers with several children living isolated lives in urban poverty--and we are told that their plight threatens all. When mothers are unable to provide a nurturing environment for their young children, the children will inherit a host of emotional problems that will stay with them throughout their lives and will be passed on to their own children. Psychologists mention low self-esteem, psycholinguists cite lags in language development, others focus on the lack of pre-educational training (like reading to young children). The underlying assumption is that good mental and emotional health is central to the "good society." This may make sense but turns extremely controversial when it is used to understand specific social problems, particularly the impact of poverty on children.

                   It follows logically from psychodynamic theories low self-esteem or inattentiveness in school should be the product of, or reinforced by, badly organized families. It is also easy to accept, initially, that poverty would place stress on families and disorganize them. A high rate of mental illnesses is bad, and if "disorganized" families are the primary cause of mental illness, and if personality disorders are passed on from generation to generation, then the wise State must thus work at improving conditions for families since, thereby, it helps the stability of its social infrastructure. Yet, when this argumentation is translated systematically into policy, uncomfortable implications are brought out that should make us doubt its overall validity. Moynihan, a great sociologist in the Parsonian mold, as well as a most liberal U.S. senator, thus produced a statement that immediately became as famous as it was controversial:

"at the heart of the deterioration of the fabric of Negro society is the deterioration of the Negro family. It is the fundamental source of weakness of the Negro community at the present time... The white family has achieved a high degree of stability and is maintaining that stability. By contrast, the family structure of lower class Negroes is highly unstable, and in many urban centers is approaching complete breakdown." (1967 [1965]: 41-124)

This was another version of Lewis theory about Mexicans, Puerto-Ricans and the “culture of poverty” (Lewis 1965, 1966; Harrington 1962). Many have argued that these statements are racist and few would directly repeat them in this form. But the fundamental theoretical framework is still very much alive as researchers continue to explain the difficulties the children of the poor face when entering the school and the market place by pointing at failures in their early socialization that are the consequences of familial disorganization. This has major policy implications, in the 1990s as it had in the 1960s when Moynihan pushed for "Great Society" social programs. Teen-age single-parenthood, alcoholism and other disorders, child abuse and domestic violence, and so on and so forth, are undesirable not only for ethical reasons but also social reasons because they subvert the children’s ability to develop normally and so to achieve prosperity for themselves and their own future children down the generations. If this analysis is right, then poverty is to be remedied first through programs designed to “strengthen” the families of the poor, and this may involve placing the school at the center of the community (Comer et al. 1996: 47). Programs to help families economically must come as a separate step because they will fail if the poor do not first receive help in overcoming their psychological problems. The psychology of intimate relationships is thereby replaced at the core of what makes a society a “good” society.


The Sociodymanics of Everyday Life in Families

                   Undoubtedly, personal, intimate, spousal relationship as extremely sensitive to societal influences, but they are also very flexible, often self-correcting and certainly not determinant of large scale social movements. Bad families do not make a bad society. Rather, a bad society makes everyday life difficult for many and trigger the social processes which make families necessary and eventually strengthen their influence. This is why it makes little sense to follow sociologists and demographers and assume that families have little function in modern societies. When schools send children sent home at night, when business places close their door and they constitute the space where families can flourish. Practical survival in the United States require a home as much as a job.

                   This is not changing, even as some institutions expand. This expansion is continuing, even as its limits have become quite clear. The burgeoning of restaurants as a major location where food is routinely consumed, may be a further movement in the process: even food preparation is moving from the home to industry. Now, in many urban household where two parents are in the job market the only instrumental tasks perfomed "at home" may be those related to sleeping, grooming and such. Parsons would not have been surprised by this development, nor would he have been surprised about the development of day-care centers or pre-schools that allow younger and younger children to be taken care of industrially rather personnally. But he may also have noticed the exact limit placed on this expansions: The spread of day-care centers and afternoon programs has not led to a massive expansion of boarding schools. Orphanages have been closed and abandoned children placed in foster arrangements in the hope that these will approximate families. Some socialist utopians dreamed of societies where children would be raised collectively, and some tried to do this in Israel. All such utopias have failed and the small household is, now perhaps more than ever, the social space where adults and children live together.

                   This, in many and perhaps most cases, is a matter of the values that Americans place on "the Family" as a proper if not sacred unit. Above all, in the perspective of this essay, it is a massive social reality that must be reinforced by the organization of other massive institutions (the organization of employment, government, schools). In all sort of ways these institutions rely on family members to do certain things--if only babysit the children at night. Except in cases of great destitution, it is parents who are responsible for the economic support of their children. Families send their children to school and receive them when they come back from school. Families are were children spend weekends and vacations. It is out of families that children move to college and into their first jobs. It is families that they make when they establish long-term relationships, marry and have children. It is families to whom they turn after divorce. It is families who worry about their elders and who benefit if there is any inheritance to receive.

                   Note a major caveat: when to talk about families in this context is talk about “families and family-like substitutes,” It is to talk about the small group of individuals which, by law, custom, and personal arrangement, concern themselves with each other, have formal and informal authority over each other, and in the case of certain relationship, groups in which certain persons (legally named “parents”) have specific responsibility over particular children, etc. In this perspective a new-born abandoned by his mother and placed in foster care in as much “in family” as one born to a dotting couple. All arrangements where small group of people take care of children when they are released from institutions are, for all social practical purposes, “families." Specifically social “problems” arise only if, for whatever reason, no parent or parent-substitute can be found and, at present, this is resolved by assigning the child to a (“foster”) family. When the child has been replaced in family, then the other institutions concerned with the child (above all the School) can then proceed.

                   Now, of course, to talk about families in such a broad sociological fashion is to leave aside all considerations of the quality of the relationships, or of the impact of these relationships on the members of the unit. Neither the school nor social welfare organizations are institutionally concerned with the exact shape of the unit they can treat as family. Whether there is one adult or many in the household, whatever is their formal relationship (married or not, biological parent or not), however many or few are the significant kin who may enter the household, the school and other state agencies may only use its police powers if there is major evidence that the child does not have a family or is grossly mistreated by some kin. Particular teachers or social workers may be concerned if a child does not get vaccinated, if there are no books in the home, or if parents fight. Teachers may worry about the quality of familial relationships but there is, finally, little they can legitimately do about their concerns. Educators may try to "educate" parents whom they do not trust but their authority outside the school building is quite limited.

                   Far from shrinking in their functions, families must be understood as fundamental to the organization of the contemporary United States. What is to count as "family" is fiercely debated but not the continued relevance of an institution where people and their children can assemble peaceably. All political efforts, on the right or the left, focus on increasing familial autonomy, not at replacing families by other institutions: it is striking, for example, that in the midst of all proposals to improve schooling, no proposal has been made to develop residential or boarding schools that would take children away from their parents for significant periods in their formative years. A solution that appeared common sensical to many in the British middle- and upper-classes of the Nineteenth Century has become all but unthinkable a century later.

                   All this suggests that we are still living in the era of the overwhelming success of the small familial unit as fundamental to contemporary societies. What remains to be done, then, is explore the consequences of this situation from a broader perspective than the one offered by psychodynamic theories


The Place of Families in Social Reproduction

                   There where good reasons for the argument that families had lost much of their funtions in industrial societies. Whereas in many parts of the world and in many historical periods food production, religious observances, training in various skills, were all performed within households, with the rise of industrialism, many of these things were transferred to special institutions that proved more efficient. All this may be true but it may be besides a broader point: Families, that is, of course, parents or parent substitutes, may not actually perform tasks like preparing food for the children in their care, pray with them, or teach them most skills, but parents do control how and by whom such tasks are performed. It is in this sense that they must be seen as directly involved in social reproduction.

                   The point is simple: it is the parents' income and access to other resources that constrain which restaurant children will patronize, which church they will be taught to pray in, and, most directly relevant here, which schools they will attend. This allows for a differentiating process that public schools have not succeeded in stopping. Many continue to hope that schools can be fine tuned more effectively to mitigate distinctions produced by the privileges of birth. National standards, equalized spending, special programs for students at various types of risks, all are justified as ways to break familial (and also community) control. By also requiring attendance and imposing certification standards, the State has also done several things that have institutionalized schooling and maintains it in its domineering position. What the State has not been able to do is actually to equalize outcomes and make it purely dependent on individual merit. Starting in the 1960s at least, sociological research has shown that this goal has nowhere been quite reached. Schooling, in all the nation-states where it was developed to equalize chances, has allowed social distinctions and inequalities to be reproduced. This is the result of families' manipulating the very structure of schooling through electoral politics, the control of funding, and various demands for special programs. In the United States, this resistance of families against a particular form of State-controlled democracy can take many forms: it might involve getting elected to the school board, voting down tax increases, protesting the teaching of this or that subject, or lobbying for certain methods of teaching. It can involve relocating the family residence to an area with “better” public schools. And it can involve taxing one’s family a second time to send one’s children to a private school, or to raise money to supplement what local public schools can do.

                   These are but the most obvious strategies. The indirect mechanisms may be more powerful but they are almost more difficult to understand. From the earliest, public school administration and curriculum has been controlled by a sub-set of the middle-classes: the intellectual elites who propose curricula and pedagogies and staffe the schools (often against the wishes of others in the middle-classes). These elites are altogether open to all those who bend themselves to their ideological choices, but the criteria for entrance into it are stringent. By passing all prescribed obstacles (exams and the like) anyone can enter the universe of the school and this justifies the hope that certain kinds of mobility are easiest through the school. At the same time, it is very much the case that many find it quite difficult to bend themselves to the school discourse--whether because they are not adequately prepared at home, or because they reject it. It appears that the level of difficulty children experience in learning the ways of the school is not dependent purely on their innate merit. Certain kinds of familial environments help. Above all, the school discourse is one of evaluation and exquisite rankings of merit so that all, in the school, eventually "fail" to cross into a higher level (Varenne and McDermott 1998). Most consequential, of course, are the failures sanctioned during the early years of schooling when one is placed in lower tracks, remedial classes, second tier schools, and so on until one's place is fixed. Starkly, there can be no school, however prestigious and stringent its admissions criteria, where more than half the students can be above average. However smart one may be, and however strong one's familial supports, one will find oneself at some point "below average." Most fateful, of course, is the fact that getting a school credential has become much more than a passport into the world of the school. It is now the prerequisite for entry into most of the occupations that will make for a prosperous adult life. While, in the 1930s one might enter the middle classes without a high school diploma, it has now become about impossible to do without a college degree.

                   There is much controversy as to whether the institutionalization of the school discourse as a prerequisite for economic success was a conscious attempt by a class defending its interest (the Marxist interpretation), an unfortunate by-product of reforms that were not fully thought through in their implications by those who fought for them (the liberal interpretation), or the proper by-product of the fact that to be educated means to bend one’s spirit to a particular discipline that takes all who do in the same general direction (the conservative interpretation). Whatever one’s position on these interpretations, no one can deny that, statistically and systematically, the children of the middle classes have done better, and continue to do better, than the children of other classes (except in certain historical situations when the ranks of the middle-classes open up because of some shift in the industrial infrastructure). That this was so was first suggested in the United States by Coleman in a famous report (1966). Aspects of this analysis have been challenged in its details (Jencks 1979), and also restated with even more strength (Clark 1983, Lareau 1989). The problem remains: family background cannot be ignored when trying to understand success as measured by the school and the subsequent economic career of children in modern societies.

                   A large body of research has investigated the impact of this differentiation in the starting points of children's career. Three main traditions of scholarship can be distinguished: a British tradition, most powerful in the work of Bernstein (1974a, 1974b), a more diffuse American tradition perhaps best represented by Heath (1983) and a French tradition in the work of the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, his colleagues and students. Bernstein brought together work in sociology and linguistics to hypothesize that certain modes of speaking might be more attuned to those that have to be used in school and much professional life. Thus some children, particularly middle class children, would be prepared at home for school while other, most working class children, were not. The American tradition was more strongly influenced by cultural anthropology, particularly as it interfaced with personality theory. The differences one could observe between the ways of the school and the ways of many of the families who sent children to particular schools sprang from historical reasons related to immigration and the maintenance of ethnic enclaves. The American melting pot did not work. Children were encultured by their parents into a multitude of “ways of speaking” (ways of standing, ways of touching, etc.), school teachers were encultured into other ways, and the twain could not meet without specific pedagogical efforts to enable teachers and students to learn each other’s ways.

                   Bourdieu formalized both traditions of analyses by hypothesizing that all human action is driven by "dispositions inculcated in the earliest years of life and constantly reinforced by calls to order from the group" ([1970] 1977: 15), what he refers to as an habitus. This is altogether common sense in American social science. But he added a twist when he started to wonder why people who are repeatedly failed by school personnel, sometimes over several generations, still take the school to be the proper means through which to escape their social position. In the process he refocused attention on the issue of political legitimacy and authority and thus opened the way on an analysis of the relationship between families and schools that is potentially less mechanical than those classical relying mostly on differential socialization. Indeed Bourdieu presents his work as primarily concerned with the strategies that people use to deal with their conditions but he has continued to fall back on hypotheses about socialization to explain why the the working classes do not protest more strongly against the school. He suggests that the poor have got blinded by the middle classes who, through making the school legitimate for all, ensured that their own children would maintain a strong advantage. He proposes that the working classes are not aware of this process and that they simply acquiesce to their condition ([1970] 1977: 61). There are many other problems with Bourdieu's analysis, including the apparent assumption that the authority of the school is somehow illegitimate simply because it appears to have been used by middle class parents to gain unfair advantage. This, of course, does not follow.

                   Analytically, the main problem remains the reliance on an overdetermining early socialization to explain the situation. All the theories about the indirect effect of family environments on school performance share a problem that in fact threatens, once again, to collapse a social issue into a pyschological one, thereby reproducing the difficulties inherent in the Parsonian models reviewed earlier. There are two major issues here. First, there is now much evidence that socialization is not the mechanical and automatic process that Freud, Chomski or Erikson suggested it to be. Second, there is the developing evidence that relations between families and school are characterized by an intense activity that one might not expect if one followed simple socialization theories.

                   At their most simple-minded, these theories, whether grounded in psychology or linguistics, imply that early childhood is absolutely determinant. In linguistics as in psychology, by the time a child enters preschool, all is settled: personality and language are fixed by four. Everything that happens later is but the unwinding of that which has already been inscribed indelibly in the child’s brain. Given the power of these theories, it is not surprising that many anthropologists also argued that "culture" is learned the way "language" is learned, that is, mostly automatically and in early childhood, and that "differences" in culture-as-learned would create difficult problems. It is only in recent years that major critiques of this formulation have emerged as sociologists, anthropologists, and, indeed, linguists, have been confronted with human beings who remained active, at work, transforming themselves, even in later years. Similarly, it has been shown that general language acquisition itself is not a purely mechanical process. Researchers have shown that adults everywhere repeatedly correct children ("don't say it this way, say it that way instead"), in essence educating them in a deliberate fashion. Much research has shown (Miller 1982; Ochs 1988; Schieffelin 1989) that pronunciation, (phonetics), grammar (morphology and syntax), and even more intensely stylistics, rhetoric, etc., are matter that continually evolved through a person's life as one moves into new statuses and plays new roles.

                   No socialization theory can however deal with the growing evidence that people, everywhere, actively engage the institutions they encounter in ways that these institutions can never fully control, however hegemonic their power. Sociologists like Willis (1977), anthropologists like Ogbu (1974, 1991) and Reed-Danahay (1996), among many others, have given many examples of deliberate refusals by the poor and those further away from the centers of power to enter into the games of the school. They speak of a resistance that springs from a more or less rational analysis of their condition. Where Bourdieu talks of "misrecognition" they speak of active “penetration.” There are difficulties with this resistance theory: the evidence that any one can conduct fully conscious or rational analysis of their situation is thin and easy to overinterpret. It is also easy to fall back on hypotheses about "attitudes" to explain differential acceptance of school constraints. A concern with resistance can also obscure the systematic relationship between the school and those it holds accountable to its requirements. The school not an alien institution dropped from another planet on unsuspecting tribes. The school may have been so dropped on certain populations that Europe and America colonized. Everywhere else there may be the more organic relationship that my earlier critique of the purported "death of the family" argued for: families need schools just like schools need families. The problems that we now face are the result of this relationship.

                   The implication for theories of social reproduction are profound. If we taken the position that people are active rather than determined, then one can move away from explaining success in school as a matter of the accomplishment of a fate fixed earlier, and start understanding it as something that teachers, parents, and children achieve together in a large scale and continuous struggle in particular conditions and with specific tools. Some studies explored what was called the "Pigmallion" effect as they showed that two children with very similar backgrounds could find themselves at very different places if their teacher was given very different information about them [REFERENCE]. A classical study showed how a high school that recruited only students from the very academic top of local elementary schools reproduced in a few months a full ranking system of "top" to "bottom" students (Lacey 1970). This would suggest that the organization of schooling is more powerful in producing academic differences within a group of students than is the innate capabilities of these students The very notion of school "failure" may not be clear in light of the fact that for many children in elite schools, continual failure to be "first" may in fact be inconsequential (Goldman 1982, 1987; Varenne and McDermott, 1998). Confronting these effects, somethings that done in the next section, opens the way to further explorations based on three fundamental premisses: 1) productive activity is a continuing process throughout life; 2) families, schools, and social structures are systematically linked; and, 3), this activity is more powerfully constrained by the conditions of interaction as it proceeds than by the psychological qualities that participants bring to the interaction.


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October 2002