Considering the Significance of Space in Family Relations

Family minivan sticker sets signify a common fallacy in considerations of family life: the belief that “the family” is composed of certain people (and not others), and that it exists in a certain form (and not others). In fact, the stickers themselves–along with the vans to which they are often affixed–are part of an elaborate, and often very public, performance of family. Families are conceptualized in competing ways in sociological research. A great deal of scholarship presents “the family” as an enduring relationship form that structures our lives. Talcott Parsons mistakenly theorized the “traditional family” as though it was a timeless universal—or that it ought to be—glossing over the very real diversity in family forms and family relations.

The problems with Parsons’ understanding of gender and family life are now well-documented (see here and here for two of my favorite critiques), but much of the transformation in gender and family sociology stems from how these apparently static forms (Parsons’ perspective) are actually produced. Speaking of “the family” is already an illusion as the term itself inhibits consideration of the diverse forms families take. Considering “the family” as a collective accomplishment rather than an objective state of being opens up new kinds of questions. Are the joys of the accomplishment of families equally distributed to all of its members? Are the burdens? How are spaces mobilized by families and put to use in the ongoing drama of family life? Do different groups, living in different social contexts, with different kinds and amounts of economic and symbolic resources have equal access to accomplishing the families they want?

This perspective, by which I mean a consideration of the family as a collective performance, has given rise to a rich new tradition of sociological investigations on the topic perhaps guided largely by the scholarship of Barrie Thorne and Arlie Hochschild among others. Rather than simply considering “the household” as a site for studying the family, we can consider the very architecture within which families interact as part of this elaborate performance. In some reflections on studying families and children, Marjorie DeVault writes,

Even within the physical boundaries of the household, family life is made up of both togetherness and separations. For both children and adults, moments of coming together and spending time alone are key aspects of family experience, and these moments are strongly patterned by both gender and age. In thinking about family life, we tend to emphasize togetherness, but carving out space apart from others—the other side of togetherness—is equally significant. (here: 1299)

A great deal of sociological work implicitly presumes a casual or passive relationship between individuals and the social spaces they occupy and within which they interact. DeVault’s work on “family outings” illustrates just how much work is done to frame the spaces within which families interact. Zoo visits–and all sorts of “family outings”–are part of an intricate and intimate dance in which families engage whereby they construct themselves as contained units, learn to exist in public spaces together, and to literally use and “see” the spaces in the same way. One need only visit the zoo with a small child to realize how much work it takes to “teach” a child exactly what is of interest and why.

To the right is a picture of my son, Ciaran, at the Denver Zoo this past summer. Many of Ciaran’s first “words” were animal noises and the lion is one of his favorites (by which I mean it is our favorite of his repertoire). But, this was Ciaran’s first interaction with the King of the Jungle himself. I thought about DeVault’s work as we brought Ciaran right up to the glass, and repeatedly pointed at the lion as the other people, the constructed habitat, the guardrails, the smells, the snacks, the stuffed animals, the lights, and all manner of things competed for his attention. That was not the first time that Ciaran saw a lion; he’s seen many in his picture books at home. But it was our first time collectively impressing upon him the importance of seeing the lion together—as a family. In fact, of all the photos we took that day, this is one we show because, in it, Ciaran appears to be doing family “right”–he appears to be excited about exactly what we wanted him to get excited about. We relied on the architecture of the zoo to structure our visit, but we also had to mobilize the space in particular ways to get what we paid for. It’s one small piece of how we “do family,” but it’s a delicious example.

DeVault writes about the value of considering the family as an accomplishment rather than a static form in this way:

Rather than treating family as an objective entity, defined from the outside, this approach treats family as discursively organized practice, a mode of action rather than a state of being. The value of such an approach lies in its ability to capture the fluidity and diversity of family life as it actually occurs in the world, beginning with the sites where family is happening, rather than with notions of family “form” that are more durable in scholarship than in the world. (here: 499)

I’ve posted a great deal on how the structure of the household itself structures family members’ experiences of the household in different ways (see here and here for two of the most relevant examples). I plan on writing more on how families invoke spaces in their various doings and how “family time” and “family obligation” are often subtly inequitably distributed in patterned and gendered ways by the very architecture of family living. Household spaces are put to use to engineer certain kinds and quantities of interaction between some family members while carving out spaces of solitude for others.

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