Nowadays it is not easy to define ‘family’ and what it stands for. Let us take the following example: Two persons meet and talk about the family weekend. Although this seems quite straightforward, that what they call family may be quite different indeed. One may be talking about a weekend with her new boyfriend and his son visiting her parents, and the other may have spent the weekend with his wife and children at home.
Even though they both use the word family, these are essentially two different kinds of family. Furthermore, despite pretending, they may not necessarily know what the other one is talking about.
Let us take as an example a patchwork family: How does the child from our example above that is living with his mother and stepfather belong to the new family of the father? What about the relatives, for example the aunt that cares for the children of her brother?
What makes a family? And can we speak of ’the family’ at all?
The concept of family practices introduced by David Morgan, sees family as a quality rather than a thing. There is no such thing as the family, says Morgan, but there are practices which form the family.
The focus is laid not on abstract concepts such as roles, norms, visions, images and values, but rather on everyday practices which could be integrated into the term ”family“: cooking, taking children to school, gardening, even rituals such as repeating the same story about how Aunt Augusta holds the tea pot, how Uncle Paul is a good football player, how grandfather had a car accident are all examples of such practices.
This concept allows diversity to come into the picture. There are a whole lot of tiny habits and practices, exchange of words and looks, which an outsider might not understand, but which ‘belong’ to the family. The question raised is not what a family is composed of and whether family members adequately perform their roles as if on stage showing that they are a family, but rather which practices people use and understand as an essential part of their family.
What follows from this concept of family practices?
First of all and most essentially, there is not one ideal model of family but instead many ways to live the family life. Thus, it would be inappropriate to call one the best model or the only one that everybody should cling on to. We learn that family is not naturally given; it is dependent on the historical situation and on the specific cultural background. Within this frame people define a specific family form. For instance, certain family forms are nowadays more acceptable than others.
Secondly, the concept allows us to show what actions are taken to define the family. These actions need not be practices which are directly connected to the family: commuting from family home to work can also be seen as a practice of ‘work’ and a practice of ‘family’.
Thirdly, this has consequences for dealing with family issues: these issues are not only those which we directly connect with family but are everything people use to give it a meaning for their family. Commuting, as already mentioned, the conversation with work colleagues about the last family holiday, the payment of nursery school fees and discussing what might impact on the quality of care offered are all examples of such family issues and encompass even those minute details such as the type of pavement on the street along which the buggy is pushed or considering how products are placed on supermarket shelves. Family policy therefore needs to deal not only with the so-called family issues; it is rather much more cross-sectional.
To look at family practices opens our mind to different forms of living, showing at the same time the restrictions made by values and norms and by our cultural heritage as some of us find certain forms of family more appropriate than others. We understand our opinion not as naturally given but as historically made. We therefore need to learn to observe rather than to judge prematurely.