Wednesday 28 March 2018

Troubling Families?

Jane Ribbens McCarthy, Val Gillies and Carol-Ann Hooper

Troubling Families
2018, Sociological Research Online, Vol 23.1

The term, ‘troubling families’, has the scope both to trouble what we mean by ‘family’ and its continuing power,  while also asking why some particular ‘families’ may be found by some to be ‘troubling’.
Talking about ‘family’ has been controversial amongst sociologists for several decades, ever since feminists in the 1980s (e.g. Barrett and McIntosh, 1982; Carby, 1982/1996; Thorne and Yalom, 1982) started to question its ideological underpinnings, its intimate hidden (gendered and generational) dynamics of power, and its social rather than ‘natural’ basis. In Anglophone literatures, the debate about how sociologists should or should not employ the term has continued back and forwards more or less ever since, but within these contexts, there seems to be no denying the continuing central significance of ‘family’ in people’s imaginaries, and in their everyday lives, as well as in public debates and policies (Ribbens McCarthy et al, 2008/2012; Gilding, 2010; Gabb and Silva, 2011; Edwards et al, 2012 ; Ribbens McCarthy, 2012), even as families’ and households become increasingly diverse. Both significant changes and powerful continuities are apparent in how people in Anglophone and Western European countries live their families and relationships.

Paradoxically, these decades of academic scrutiny of the term, and opening up of the ‘black box’ of family, have also seen expectations of ‘family’ increasing, alongside ever expanding idealizations of what ‘childhood’ should entail. These high hopes, or fantasies, parallel the pervasive moral imperative of prioritising ‘children’s needs’, whether enunciated by parents/mothers or politicians and policy makers (Ribbens McCarthy et al, 2000; Gillies, 2014). Those who fail to live up to ‘family’ expectations, particularly in terms of the ‘care and protection’ of children, may thus find themselves increasingly subject to scrutiny and a variety of interventions from the State. One such UK initiative, for example, has formulated a category of ‘troubled families’, defined by reference to a particular set of characteristics, and constructed as a particularly ‘troublesome’ feature of the contemporary British social fabric, requiring targeted interventions (Crossley, 2016). But our discussions here (and elsewhere – Ribbens McCarthy et al, 2013; Ribbens McCarthy et al, 2018; Evans et al, 2018) seek to ‘trouble’ ‘families’ in quite opposite ways from such objectifying and categorical discourses and policies.

In these policy processes, then, we see an apparent binary between ‘families’ that are regarded as successful and un-troubled, and ‘families’ that are considered deviant and problematic. Yet this binary is partly created by the idealization of the term ‘family’ itself, since it is those households that fail to live up to what ‘family’ is meant to be which may experience shame, stigma, and potentially punitive scrutiny (whether merited or not). Furthermore, we find academic work itself helps to construct this binary, with sociologists focusing upon ‘ordinary’ families and mainstream social change, while ‘troublesome’ families are left to the attentions of social work and social policy researchers. These two bodies of research rarely inter-relate, while the researchers and academics involved attend different conferences and participate in different debates and networks.

In this special section of Sociological Research Online, we seek to move beyond this binary through a two-dimensional focus on the notion of ‘troubling families’, exploring both what may be ‘troubling’ about the notion of ‘family’, and how it is that some particular families, and family practices (Morgan, 2011), may come to be seen by some as ‘troubling’. On the one hand, then, some of the articles trouble the term ‘family’ and how the notion may itself shape people’s everyday experiences in troublesome ways, even as they may resist such perspectives and seek to re-shape them. The empirical underpinnings for these article include research with: same-sex couple ‘families’ (Brian Heaphy in the UK, exploring ‘the ordinary’ as an ambiguousdiscourse for same-sex couples, and Luke Gahan in Australia, exploring the contradictoryimplications of idealising same-sex couple families with children); the transnational ‘families’ of Lithuanian mothers living apart from their children, who both engage with and re-shape public ‘scripts’ that cast migrant mothers as ‘troubling  (Irena Juozeliūnienė and Irma Budginaitė); and the families’ of ‘looked-after’ children living apart from their parents in Scotland, where children and carers may ‘talk back’ to the categorization of their families as ‘troubling’ (Vicki Welch).  These examples, in differing ways, all challenge any easy binary divisions.

The two concluding articles address more particularly the grounds on which some ‘families’ and some ‘family practices’ may be seen to be particularly ‘troubling’, raising significant sociological issues about the basis for such problematizing, and the power dynamics involved. Michael Rush and Suleman Ibrahim Lazarus focus onthe difficult topic of parental physical chastisement of children, comparing the histories and current framings of this apparently ‘troubling’ family practice in the contexts of Ireland and Ghana, with evaluative shifts which they argue to be linked to declining patriarchal power. And then Jane Ribbens McCarthy andVal Gillies tackle head on the question of who is troubled and why in regard to what may or may not be defined as harmful to children in diverse cultural settings. While the general framework of ‘family troubles’ can very usefully serve to highlight continuities across diversities (Ribbens McCarthy et al, 2013), at the same time, where might any boundary lie between ‘normal’ troubles in children’s families, and troubles that are troubling - potentially ‘harmful’ - in ways that might be seen to require intervention? Ribbens McCarthy and Gillies argue the inevitability of living with uncertainty in the face of such conundrums, since there are no universal ‘objective’ ‘a priori’ measures for determining what is ‘harmful’ to children, whether through empirical psychological research or through logical moral philosophising. But rather than collapsing into some sort of cultural relativism in which ‘anything goes’, they draw on the philosophical work of François Julienne (2008/2014), to explore the possibilities and difficulties for developing an inter-cultural dialogue, that can at least attempt to go beyond the neo-colonial imposition of Anglophone and Western European assumptions. In this regard they briefly outline dimensions of four particular frameworks and world views: the legal approach of children’s Rights; the African tradition of Ubuntu; the Indian spirituality of Avaita; and feminist theorising of a relational ethics of care.

By troubling the concept of 'families', and asking how to interrogate the evaluative frameworks and everyday assumptions that define some families, and some family practices, as 'troubling', the special section thus raises challenging debates linking substantive issues with theoretical and conceptual questions of diversity in everyday relationships. Key sociological and social policy questions arise concerning who it is who finds particular families troubling, what responses are considered to be appropriate and by whom, and what are the historical processes and power dynamics involved. And from family members’ own perspectives, how does the view of their ‘family’ as ‘troubling’ impact upon them, and do they find ways of resisting or accommodating such processes? In these regards, the theoretical issues raised have the potential to develop insights, across a diverse range of substantive topics, generating additional perspectives. The questions raised in this process are themselves significantly troubling, requiring considerable sensitivity and patience to explore the complexities and ambivalences involved in seeking to engage with them. We are grateful to the contributors to this special section for their participation, and hope others will continue to engage and pursue these themes.

‘Troubling families’ may more faithfully and usefully illuminate contemporary family lives – whether ‘conventional’ or otherwise - in diverse contexts, and this may in turn help to avoid creating further ‘troubles’ to family members themselves. Sociology has an important part to play in this, by attending closely to the everyday meanings and practices through which people experience their family lives together and make sense of their relationships, in circumstances shaped by power dynamics, material inequalities and colonial and cultural histories.


Barrett M, and McIntosh M, 1982 The Anti-Social Family. London: Verso. 2nd ed. 2015

Carby, H.V. 1982 ‘White woman listen! Black feminism and the boundaries of sisterhood’, Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, The Empire Strikes Back: Race and Racism in Seventies Britain, London: 

Hutchinson. Re-printed in in H.A. Baker, M. Diawara and R.H. Lindeborg (eds) 1996 Black British Cultural Studies: A Reader, London: University of Chicago Press.

Crossley, S. 2016 ‘The Troubled Families programme: in, for and against the state?’ In M. Fenger, J. Hudson, and C. Needham, (eds) Social Policy Review 28. Policy Press. 127-146.

Edwards, R, Ribbens McCarthy, J. and Gillies, V. 2012 ‘The politics of concepts: family and its (putative) replacements.’ British Journal of Sociology, 63(4) pp. 730–746.

Evans, R, Bowlby S, Gottzen L and Ribbens McCarthy J 2018 ‘Family “troubles”, care and relationality in diverse contexts’, Children’s Geographies: Special issue (in progress). 

Gabb, J and Silva, EB. 2011 ‘Introduction to critical concepts: families, intimacies and personal relationships’, Sociological Research Online. 16(4)23

Gilding, M. 2010 ‘Reflexivity over and above convention: the new orthodoxy in the sociology of personal life, formerly sociology of the family’, British Journal of Sociology 61(4): 757-777.

Gillies, V. 2014 ‘Troubling families: parenting and the politics of early intervention’, in S. Wagg and J. Pilcher (eds) Thatcher's Grandchildren?: Politics and Childhood in the Twenty-First Century. Basingstoke: Palgrave macmillan pp 204-224

Julienne, F 2008/2014 On the Universal, the uniform, the common and dialogue between cultures, Cambridge: Polity Press. (Translated by Michael Richardson and Krzysztof Fijalkowski.) 

Morgan, D.H.J. 2011 Rethinking Family Practices. London: Palgrave macmillan.Ribbens McCarthy, J 2012 ‘The powerful language of ‘family’: togetherness, belonging and personhood.’  Sociological Review, 60(1) pp. 68–90.

Ribbens McCarthy, J. Doolittle, M. and Day Sclater, S. 2008 Family Meanings, Milton Keynes: Open University. Revised version published 2012, Understanding Family Meanings: a Reflective Text. Bristol: Policy Press.

Ribbens McCarthy J, Edwards R, and Gillies V. 2000 ‘Moral tales of the child and the adult: Narratives of contemporary family lives under changing circumstances’. Sociology, 34(4) 785-803

Ribbens McCarthy, J, Hooper CA, and Gillies, V (eds) 2013 Family Troubles? Exploring Changes and Challenges in the Family Lives of Children and Young People. Bristol: Policy Press

Ribbens McCarthy, J, Hooper CA, and Gillies V. (eds) ‘Family troubles and troubling families’, Journal of Family Issues, special issue (in progress)

Thorne, B and Yalom, M 1982 Rethinking the Family: Some Feminist Questions. London: Longman.

Friday 23 March 2018

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