Because it’s not a concept. It has never been a cultural and historical reality. It is an ideological construct, like any claimed “tradition”. There is no objectivity to it. Family structures are always a product of the intersection between structure, institutions and culture. Just go read Stephanie Coontz’s Family: A History. It’s all there. The boundaries of what makes a family have always been porous and who counts as kin or relative has always involved an ever-changing cast of characters. In other words, rather than corresponding to an objective reality, the invocation of “traditional family” obfuscates rather than illuminates. It is a power play, an attempt to reify and solidify a definition of a certain, limited type of family for ideological purposes. It is time to reject the phrase once and for all, along with the political content embedded in it.
After all, the first French baby of 2013 was born to two women:
Now, all it takes is for the “marriage for all” bill to pass for these women to get married. Hopefully, it won’t be long now.
Also, and I have already blogged about it, flexibility in family relations and boundaries involve older practices such as this where the intersection between economics and familial structures is clear:
“Like many men in Japan, Tsunemaru Tanaka is looking for a wife. Unlike some, he is prepared to sacrifice his name to get one. If all goes well in 2013, he’ll find a bride, her prosperous family will adopt him and he’ll take their family name. In an ideal world, he’ll run their business too. “I think I have a lot of skills to offer the right family,” he says.
Japan boasts the world’s oldest family-run businesses, the Hoshi Guest House, founded in 717. And the construction company Kongo Gumi was operated for a record-breaking 1,400 years by a succession of heirs until it was taken over in 2006. Many family firms – car-maker Suzuki, Matsui Securities, and giant brewery Suntory – break the rule of steady dynastic decline, or what is sometimes cruelly dubbed the “idiot-son syndrome”.
So how do Japanese firms do it? The answer, apparently, is adoption.Last year more than 81,000 people were adopted in Japan, one of the highest rates in the world. Remarkably, more than 90 per cent of those adopted were adults.
The practice of adopting men in their 20s and 30s is used to rescue biologically ill-fated families and ensure a business heir, says Vikas Mehrotra, of the University of Alberta, the lead author of a new paper on the Japanese phenomenon of adult adoptions. “We haven’t come across this custom in any other part of the world,” he says.
Though the phenomenon has been previously documented, its impact on economic competitiveness has not. Dr Mehrotra’s paper finds not only inherited family control still common in Japanese business, but says family firms are “puzzlingly competitive”, outperforming otherwise similar professionally managed companies. “These results are highly robust and… suggest family control ’causes’ good performance rather than the converse.”
Finding suitable heirs, however, is not as simple as it once was. Japan’s sliding birthrate has created many one-child families, and while daughters can manage the company back office, the face out front in this still chauvinistic country must be male, says Chieko Date. She is one of dozens of marriage consultants who bring together ambitious young men and the marriageable daughters of business families. Ms Date is proud of her record. “We bring happiness to both sides,” she says.
If the meetings go well, the men agree to drop their own surname and be adopted by their new bride’s family, becoming both the head of the family and its business. Ms Date’s consultancy claims to have brokered 600 of these marriages – known as “mukoyoshi” – over the past decade. “We believe that this cannot be just a business transaction,” she says. If the couples don’t like each other, the marriage and the business will fail.”
While we’re at it, we should also bury the Parsonsian “expressive/instrumental” distinction are artificial and ideologically-loaded as well as the “public/private” distinction that relegates family matters to the strictly private:
“Visit your parents. That’s an order. China’s national legislature amended its law on the elderly yesterday to require that adult children visit their aged parents “often” – or risk being sued by them.
State media said the new clause would allow elderly parents who felt neglected by their children to take them to court. The amendment does not specify how frequently such visits should occur.
A rapidly developing China is facing increasing difficulty in caring for its aging population. Three decades of market reforms have accelerated the breakup of the traditional extended family, and there are few affordable alternatives such as retirement or care homes.
State media reported this month that a grandmother in her 90s in the prosperous eastern province of Jiangsu had been forced by her son to live in a pig pen for two years.
News outlets frequently carry stories about elderly parents being abused or neglected, or of children seeking to take control of their parents’ assets without their knowledge.”
The state, in whichever shape or form it comes, has always regulated family formations, relations, and dissolutions, as it does for markets.
The family, as social institution, is structured at the intersection of a multiplicity of social forces to which it has to adapt. Conversely, it also has some impact on these forces. But this means that “family” in an of itself does not exist. In multiplicities of social contexts, one will find multiple family forms, some more patriarchal than others.
And this is really what is at stake here: the emergence and greater acceptability of non-patriarchal family forms, from single-mother-headed households to LGBT families (with or without children), to child-free singles (men and women). The invocation of “traditional family” is reflects the weaning power of a social control device. Time to finish it off.