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Bourdieu on the family as a realized category

March 12, 2013

Given how much Young Adult fiction takes place within the family setting (or struggles with exactly that), I think some of the theory around families is relevant to this genre. Describing “the family – a supposedly private reality that is of public origin,” (p.25) Pierre Bourdieu writes:

“The dominant, legitimate definition of the normal family (which may be explicit, as it is in law, or implicit, in for example the family questionnaires used by the state statistical agencies) is based on a constellation of words – house, home, household, maison, maisonnee – which, while seeming to describe social reality, in fact construct it. On this definition, the family is a set of related individuals linked either by alliance (marriage) or filiation, or, less commonly, by adoption (legal relationship), and living under the same roof (cohabitation). Some ethnomethodologists even to so far as to say that what we regard as a reality is a fiction, constructed to a large extent by the vocabulary that the social world provides us with in order to describe it.” (p.19)

“The new forms of family bonds that are being invented before our eyes remind us that this family, which we are led to regard as natural because it presents itself with the self-evidence of what ‘has always been that way’, is a recent invention […], and is perhaps fast disappearing.” (p.19)

“…in family discourse, the language that the family uses about the family, the domestic unit is conceived as an active agent, endowed with a will, capable of thought, feeling and action, and founded on a set of cognitive presuppositions and normative prescriptions about the proper way to conduct domestic relationships. It is a world in which the ordinary laws of the economy are suspended, a place of trusting and giving – as opposed to the market and its exchanges of equivalent values – or, to use Aristotle’s term, philia, a word that is often translated as ‘friendship’ but which in fact designates the refusal to calculate; a place where interest, in the narrow sense of the pursuit of equivalence in exchanges, is suspended. Ordinary discourse ordinarily, and no doubt universally, draws from the family ideal models of human relations (with, for example, concepts like brotherhood), and family relations in their official definition tend to function as principles for the construction and evaluation of every social relationship.” (p.20)

“And nothing seems more natural than the family; this arbitrary social construct seems to belong on the side of nature, the natural and the universal.” (p.21)

“…inaugural acts of creation (imposition of the family name, marriage, etc.) have their logical extension in the countless acts of reaffirmation and reinforcement that aim to produce, in a kind of continuous creation, the obliged affections and affective obligations of family feeling (conjugal love, paternal and maternal love, filial love, brotherly and sisterly love, etc.). This constant maintenance work on the feelings complements the performative effect of the simple naming which constructs an affective object and socializes the libido (for example, the proposition ‘She’s your sister’ contains the imposition of brotherly love as desexualized social libido – the incest taboo.
To understand how the family turns from a nominal fiction into a real group whose members are united by intense affective bonds, one has to take account of all the practical and symbolic work that transforms the obligation to love into a loving disposition and tends to endow each member of the family with a ‘family feeling’ that generates devotion, generosity and solidarity. This means both the countless ordinary and continuous exchanges of daily existence – exchange of gifts, service, assistance, visits, attention, kindnesses – and the extra-ordinary and solemn exchanges of family occasions, often sanctioned and memorialized by photographs consecrating the integration of the assembled family. This work falls more particularly to the women, who are responsible for maintaining relationships (not only with their own family but very often also with the spouse’s) through visits, correspondence (especially the ritual exchange of good wishes) and, as an American study has shown, telephone calls.” (p.22)

“But the naturalization of social arbitrariness causes it to be forgotten that, in order for this reality called ‘family’ to be possible, certain social conditions that are in no way universal have to be fulfilled. They are, in any case, by no means uniformly distributed. In short, the family in its legitimate definition [-p.23] is a privilege instituted into a universal norm: a de facto privilege that implies a symbolic privilege – the privilege of being comme il faut, conforming to the norm, and therefore enjoying a symbolic profit of normality. Those who have the privilege of having a normal family are able to demand the same of everyone without having to raise the question of conditions (e.g. a certain income, living space, etc.) of universal access to what they demand universally.
This privilege is, in reality, one of the major conditions of the accumulation and transmission of economic, cultural and symbolic privileges. The family plays a decisive role in the maintenance of the social order, through social as well as biological reproduction, i.e. reproduction of the structure of the social space and social relations. It is one of the key sites of the accumulation of capital in its different forms and its transmission between the generations. It safeguards its unity for and through this transmission. It is the main ‘subject’ of reproduction strategies. That is seen clearly in the transmission of the family name, the basic element in the hereditary symbolic capital.” (pp.22-23)

“It is indeed clear that in modern societies the main agent of the construction of the official categories through which both populations and minds are structured is the state, which, through a whole labour of codification accompanied by economic and social effects (family allowances, for example), aims to favour a certain kind of family organization and to strengthen those who are in a position to conform to this form of organization.” (p.24)

“…the traditional opposition between the public and the private conceals the extent to which the public is present in the private, and in the very notion of privacy. Being the product of a sustained effort of juridicial and political construction culminating in the modern family, the private is a public matter. The public vision […] is deeply involved in our vision of domestic things, and our most private behaviours themselves depend on public actions, such as housing policy or, more directly, family policy.” (p.25)

“Thus the family is indeed a fiction, a social artefact, an illusion in the most ordinary sense of the word, but a ‘well-founded illusion’, because, being produced and reproduced with the guarantee of the state, it receives from the state at every moment the means to exist and persist.” (p.25)

Ref: (italics in original, emphases in blue bold, mine) Pierre Bourdieu (1996) On the Family as a Realized Category. Theory, Culture & Society 13(3): 19-26

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