Friday 13 June 2014

Parenting, play and the work-family interaction

By Stefano Ba', University of Huddersfield
Contact Stefano at:
Sometimes we play with our children. Sometimes we would rather not, as we are tired and we would prefer to watch TV or relax in some other ways. Yet many parents end up organising special time to play with their children or make that extra effort taking them to swimming, music lesson or similar activities, when actually their children would rather stay home or watch TV.
Why should we have an interest in these ordinary stories between parents and young children? Where is the social interest in these mundane interactions?
Play is an important part of children’s life and it is considered a crucial element in family life and in the formation of emotional bonding. As mentioned above, taking care of children’s free time can also be quite a demanding activity, as parents – more often mothers – needs to motivate themselves and the children to do something that, there and then, requires extra efforts.
However, I think that as well as the ‘doing’ and the labour that goes into sustaining play and meaningful interactions with children (the effort of taking them away from the TV or from electronic games), there is also a perhaps hard to confess aspect which involves the pleasures of participating into the children’s world, the pleasure of creating little rituals that can be as comforting for the children as for the parents themselves.
The article I have published in Sociological Research Online explores this recreational time of parents with young children and the ways it is mixed with work life and other more taxing  aspects of family life. It is, however, important to explore this ‘mixing’ through the internal dynamics and the emotional side of family life, in order to take in consideration the richness of parents’ life with their children.
Moreover, it is worth considering the ways parents arrange time-together with their children and how the emotional focus that family needs is created through these playful and recreational interactions, if we want to see how and why work and family balance is shaped the way it is.
I found that play and activities with children represent a real area of tension, but this tension is a special one: the labour of parents and its intensification augment as the family space gains in personal and emotional qualities. Through recreational activities and play, parents construct an emotional environment for their family life. This emotional, intimate environment represents home as a distinct and special space which in the mind of parents is often separated from work, although the singularity of this space is very much connected with mothers’ constant engagement with children’s free time.
Thus, if play and recreational time becomes important for parents because this time strongly characterises their home experience and through it they construct emotional bonds with their children, these activities are also arranged with the participation of women more than men in the intimate domestic sphere.

In the article, I propose the concept of ‘parent-initiated play’ to explain some of these dynamics linked to play, bonding and care. Parent-initiated play is a type of interaction between the parent – very often the mother – and the child, whereby the parent takes the lead in stimulating play time with the child, whilst letting the child develop his/her imagination in using toys, developing games and imaginary stories. Mothers – and to a less degree fathers – are intensely involved in the participation and arrangements of play time; these interactions involve doing, dedication, time and energy, but are also an important source of meaning for family life.

Parents, especially from middle class background, very often arrange a series of activities for their children and these typically consist of: swimming, football, basketball, ballet, horse riding, drama, art classes, music lessons etc. Indeed doing something with your children is often understood in these terms, in terms of organising extra-curricular, ‘enrichment’ activities. Organising these activities for children requires the careful observation of children’s progress, the monitoring of their involvement and supervising the overall attendance. It is a practical and organisational focus that needs to be maintained in time and that can be termed as ‘organisational intelligence’, a rather intensive way of taking care of your offspring, but in the article I argue that through these recreational activities parents also form the emotional side of their family life.

Compared to these relatively formal activities, parent-initiated play is more spontaneous; the ludic, fun element comes from experiencing a close interaction with the child and her/his imagination, from taking the initiative of arranging together play time. Conversely the work-like element comes from having to force oneself in a demanding activity which requires time, empathy, patience and at times, appropriate skills; all qualities that parents are not always willing or able to apply.

In general, parent initiated play shows a peculiar characteristic of family life, that is parents literally construct time together with their children and in so doing they fill home life with meaning, they construct a world that has different features from others. This is not simply a rosy way of seeing children-parents interaction, or the separation of the public sphere of work and the private sphere of family, because as we said, this intensive interaction can be sustained only through the labour of care that is often done by mothers. I call this the dual nature of parents’ time with children, which I believe crucial in understanding family life and the strains around the work-family ‘balance’.

This blogpost is based on the following article, published in the May issue of Sociological Research Online: Ba', S. (2014) Parenting, Play and the Work-Family Interaction, Sociological Research Online, 19 (2) 7.

Friday 6 June 2014

Can't we just talk about the music?

By Andrew Whelan, University of Wollongong
Contact Andrew at:

Music is thoroughly embedded in many contexts and practices of contemporary society. It is ubiquitous across social spaces and media environments, and is arguably the dominant form of mediated popular-cultural expression.
As such, music is very important to people. Talk about music is therefore encountered everywhere. Talking about music, however, is also a way of talking about other things: a vehicle or resource for getting other kinds of social and cultural positioning negotiated. Talking about the music we like – and perhaps especially the music we do not like – is a way to express who we are in relation to each other, and thereby a way to produce and exhibit our respective positions in relation to regimes of aesthetic and cultural value. Talk about music involves evaluation, and this kind of evaluation has moral attributes.

This is evident if we think of how ideas around social identity – ethnicity, class, gender, and other forms of social differentiation – are expressed through talk about music. Consider how conversations about, say, Michael Jackson, or Miley Cyrus, utilise the music and performance of these artists to ‘do work’ around sexuality, the politics of race and representation and so on.
There is also a fantastic quantity of academic research about music: in classical musicology, popular musicology, cultural studies, media studies, ethnomusicology, psychology, philosophy, and sociology. Of course, it is commonly through writing that we most thoroughly engage with this research. Nonetheless, it is not too much of a stretch to say that these perspectives also involve ‘talk’ about music, at least in the senses mentioned above.

One of the central features of these ways of talking, ‘vernacular’ or ‘specialised’, is that they can be understood as taking music as something located in the social world, in such a way as to tell us about other things concerning that world. Or rather, they can be understood in such a way as to enable us to tell these other things. This is arguably especially the case for those ways of talking which insist on being ‘just about the music’, thereby indicating a view of the world involving ‘art’ as an autonomous realm, separate from the everyday. At the very foundation of this way of talking about music, is an insistence that such talk can delineate music as a social practice abstracted from the context of its production, and yet simultaneously furnishing ground on which artistic comment can be made on that context.

This particular way of talking about music is surprisingly common, although we might not commonly think of it in this way. Music figures here as a sign of something good, in and of itself. Conversely, it is possible to talk about the degraded state of music (and especially ‘pop’ music) as sign and symptom of our own social degradation. Bad music is a bad sign, a sign of bad things in the world, a sign of a bad world (or at least, one which is getting worse). This draws on very longstanding ways of thinking about moral value with respect to music. We can conceptualise this drawing on Bourdieu. But we can also contextualise it in relation to anxieties about the corrupting effects of music stretching back at least to Plato.
This, then, is a way of talking about music as a ‘problem’. Some (most likely recent) music is deemed problematic, sometimes through juxtaposition with some other, possibly non-problematic or even edifying music (most likely not recent). In academic and in vernacular discourses, and across the political spectrum, these ways of talking also serve as ways of imagining social orders. Notably, they imagine how music contributes to the constitution of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ subjectivities for the social order we have or might want or prefer. Music comes to be posited as ‘doing things’ to people. Selves, moral systems, and social orders are invoked and interlinked – in conversations about music.

Here is a philosophical example, drawing on aesthetics and ethics, arguing that ‘singing along’ to gangsta rap could be morally bad for you. Here is another, from psychology, suggesting that ‘problem music’ is linked with ‘delinquent’ or ‘anti-social behaviour’. The genres of music deemed problematic are predictable, but very similar lines of argument can be shown in sociological work, sympathetic to the political left, which addresses popular music. In this work, it is the ‘poppier’ mainstream which is spoken of as troubling. The intellectual lineage here is customarily traced through Adorno, and these sorts of perspectives are very well known. Vernacular versions can be seen in authenticity discussions among fans – what is ‘true’ black metal, has that rapper sold out, is this band still ‘underground’ and so on. A good contemporary ethnomusicological iteration describes music colonized by the forces of neoliberal hegemony: genres of music become brands.
Despite apparently important differences in political persuasion (in what the desired subjectivities, moral orders, and social forms are), these ways of talking share at least one important feature: they invite the listener/reader to join the proponent of the argument in directing opprobrium at the ‘problem music’ and the social order for which it finds itself serving as a proxy. Whether the relationship is reader-writer or co-conversational, alignment is solicited, and a right-thinking ‘we’ who can make sense of this music is proposed and developed.

It is productive to think about these conversations and the work they get done in this way for a number of reasons. It is not so much that the arguments involved are more or less right or wrong, or tell us more or less successfully what we need to know about music. It is rather that these ways of talking and thinking are objects of inquiry in their own right, which go towards the production of the field that is ‘music’ and how it is understood. Music is a topic or resource for talk, and for the production and display of academic disciplinary orientations. It is therefore an important interactional and discursive means of getting sociality done, and of getting conceptions of the world and how it should be into view. Considering how these conversations and discourses work helps us to understand how ‘music’ is made sensible, and made a sensible and informative feature of the social world. It can also help us to understand thereby some of the means by which we talk that world up into a moral shape.
This piece is based on an article published by Sociological Research Online in May. The article can be found here.