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Institutional Obsolescence

January 10, 2012 by and tagged , , ,

One of the things that we dutifully teach sociology undergraduate students is the functionalist idea that social institutions fulfill functions for society as a whole but this is (1) profoundly annoying, and (2) wrong. This gives a sense of monolithic arrangement that is “just the way it is”. In reality, institutional arrangements are structured as product of history and power relations. As a result, institutional change is notoriously difficult not because “it throws the system out of equilibrium” (good grief, why do we even still teach functionalism?), but because (1) historically produced institutional arrangements have a “natural”, “traditional” feel, (2) no one gives up power easily, and (3) these arrangements are sustained by ideologies promoted by other institutions (such as the media or the educational system).

And that is especially the case for the family, as social institution, where all this ideological baggage has so pervaded the collective representations that teaching a class on marriage and family is practically like doing deprogramming. Students show up in your class convinced that (1) the family is the institutional and moral pillar of society, (2) there a “traditional” family structure, and it is the heterosexual breadwinner / homemaker + children model, (3) this model has its roots (depending on the type of students) in religion or biology (thank you, functionalists, for the instrumental / expressive distinction that so fit this model, as if it were not socially constructed), and that therefore, (4) any change is a cause of moral decline and social instability, caused by deviant actors and practices. Seriously, how many books on the subject that Stephanie Coontz need to write for this to sink in?

At the same time, the family, as social institution, is treated as if it were socially and politically neutral, which it is not. Family structures and relations are shot through with power dynamics, from patriarchy to heteronormativity. But in the context of social change, especially in the economic sphere, and increased inequalities, the persistent insistence on defending or protecting the social centrality of family (i.e. the conservative ideal of the family) through surrounding institutions is socially detrimental.

Case in point 1:

“This example of transgender parenthood very vividly teases out how our ideas about law, gender and parenthood are not as straightforward as we might intuitively believe.  While the law in its current form may ‘make sense’ for the vast majority of people, it does not really grapple with the fundamental question of what makes someone a parent and why.  Is it a person’s intent to become a parent?  Is it their bio-genetic relationship with the child?  Is it an inevitable mixture of a number of factors?  Is being a ‘mother’ different from being a ‘father’, or indeed a ‘parent’? Who should decide?  The current law sends mixed messages on a number of these questions.  However, what does seem clear is that in the context of assisted reproduction our legislators have very deliberately sought to reserve the right of law to prescribe who is entitled to parental status.  This may be justified in the interests of legal certainty, but only if the legal framework is deemed fair and fit for purpose.

The transgender parenthood example highlights a number of existing problems and it is not difficult to imagine further situations where the framework will prove inadequate.  For example, the emphatic grounding of motherhood in gestation and the prohibition of legal motherhood or indeed female parenthood on the basis of the genetic link means that a woman who ‘donates’ her eggs to another woman who has agreed to act as a surrogate, has no direct claim to parental status on the basis of her genetic link.  Instead, she must apply for a parental order for legal parenthood to be transferred.  While this provides some protection for a surrogate mother who changes her mind about relinquishing parenthood once the child is born, it also arguably leaves an agreeable surrogate in a difficult legal situation if the commissioning parent(s) change their mind.   Moreover, it puts the genetic mother in a fairly precarious legal situation.  Only couples can apply for a parental order, so if the genetic mother and her partner were to separate (or her partner to die) before the birth of the child or the award of the parental order, she would have to adopt her own genetic child.  Social and adoption services may well be sympathetic to such an adoption application, but the outcome is difficult to predict, especially if the surrogate (and legal) mother raises objections to the child being adopted by a single person rather than a couple.  While single persons have been allowed to adopt a child in the UK since the 1970s, being single is not a protected status in equality and anti-discrimination law. Any ‘right’ of the genetic mother to adopt the child in question, therefore, cannot be guaranteed.

While this example of surrogacy, like transgender parenthood, may seem to relate to only a small proportion of births in the UK, it too raises fundamental questions about law, gender and parenthood.”

This is in the UK but has larger implications regarding how deeply embedded our ideas about gender, family and parenthood are power arrangements so that it is extremely hard to find a proper legal or conceptual framework once we crack that institutional nut. And this is not just a matter of time passing and technology changing things but of social redefinition that would happen even in the absence of technological change.

Case in point 2:

French sociologist of the family Irène Théry, in this interview for Télérama, lays out the concept of “pluriparentalités” (I don’t need to translate that one, you get the idea). For her, the family is not in crisis (I think that is part of the ideological work that is done to keep the institution intact) but, as always, in mutation. In the context of individualization and deinstitutionalization, studies show that people still value the idea of primary group with specific intimacy. The main difference is the greater acceptance of sexual equality (not perfect but still) which has become a central part of democratic societies. The conjugal hierarchy has lost a lot of legitimacy (hence the shrillness of its supporters). But since its supporters can only conceive of their value system, anchored in patriarchal arrangements, any change, by definition, implies a loss of values. What one sees, rather, is a value shift.

Legally, in France, the couple is now equal. Parental authority has replaced paternalistic power. The principle of co-parenting is more accepted in divorce cases. And a central phenomenon, for the sociologist, is that of demarriage, that is, marriage is losing its status as the indispensable horizon of intimate relationship for many men and women, it is no longer the framework for sexual morality. It used to be that legally, family was based on marriage. To not get married meant social marginality and stigma, especially for women. That is no longer the case. Marriage is no longer the basis for family. To marry or not marry, to demarry or not have become matters of individual decisions.

Even coupling is now a multi-faceted phenomenon: simply living together, under civil partnerships, same-sex, opposite sex. This diversity is based on the idea that couple constitutes a valuable relationship in and of itself, outside of the parent-children relationship, more outside of the patriarchal frame.

But things have also changed dramatically in the linearity department. It was not such a long time ago that a social and legal abyss separated legitimate children from illegitimate ones. This distinction has largely been erased. Socially, the distinction is between coupling challenges, which are seen as contractual and should be relatively easy to dissolve as opposed to linear ties that are supposed to be permanent and indissoluble.

Most of these changes are irreversible. There is no return to the patriarchal family norms as their weakening is tied to increased democratization. We are living under a different familial regime. Now, there is a need for clearer conceptual and legal frameworks to deal with these changes (such as co-parenting after separation or divorce). New structures create new problems, of course, such as the over-investment of parents towards their children such that many parents reformat their relationship with children as a friendship form, outside of authority. And as noted in the case above, parenting itself is no longer the straightforward structure it used to be. What is certain is that we can no longer base our laws and institutions on a parental structure that was never traditional in the first place, and no longer reflect contemporary realities.

At the same time, families still exist in a system of stratification and economic crises. Divorce and separation exist in all social classes but the price to pay is not the same. A divorce is a major cause of impoverishment. In Western countries, a disproportion of the poor are single / divorced / separated mothers. And in times where equality has been so much part of social movements (between sexes, races, children, homo / heterosexuals), one has tended to forget the increasing economic inequalities. The educational, cultural and material gap between families is widening and tackling it is a matter of public policy, not a private trouble to be solved individually. Public policy, according to the sociologist, should compensate for these inequalities.

So, case in point 3:

And predictably, the rest of the article is rather stupid.

And indeed, case in point 4:

as this analysis by sociologist Bernard Lahire, reported by the Observatoire des Inégalités shows, families are a major vector in the persistence and increase in inequalities. This is something that I discussed yesterday on the topic of cultural capital. It is through family lines that inequalities are transmitted on the cultural and symbolic register. This is the immaterial inheritance we all get, and it is as powerful as the material form.

In other words, time for throw out the obsolete institutional model and its ideological underpinnings, and open up the black box of the social structure and institution for some badly needed airing.

 

Posted in Power, Social Change, Social Institutions, Teaching Sociology | 2 Comments »



2 Responses to “Institutional Obsolescence”

  1.   Todd Schoepflin Says:

    Excellent post. Great points all around. I especially like your comment that teaching a class on marriage and family is practically like doing deprogramming. I appreciate your focus on power arrangements. Thanks for a stimulating piece.

    Reply

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