Thursday 14 November 2013

Who and What is Family?

Importantly, ‘generation’ and ‘family’ is something that is achieved through the everyday work of practical kinship. While the biological facts of generations are, to a certain extent, given, the realisation of generations and family in everyday life is something that we all achieve through our everyday practical interactional work with others. Each of us makes our family through the active mobilisation of relations with and among our kindred. We do not merely document our family tree, we actively construct narratives that create our family and ancestry, by drawing on individual and collective strategies that include or exclude particular individuals or groups of kin; what has been referred to as the ‘genealogical imagination’. In addition, families and relationships are constantly subject to change, through the passage of generations and the everyday status passages such as births, marriages, death and divorce.

The premise of this film can be found within many classic narratives of the English novel, which are predicated on themes of inheritance and genealogy. Lost and found relationships and entitlements are among the stock narrative functions of nineteenth-century fiction. It also a recurrent preoccupation within our popular culture, for example it can be found within the recent cases reported by the mass media in a global frenzy of children who have been considered ‘stolen’ because their phenotype (typically white, blond and blue eyed) did not fit with that of their ‘family’ who have tended to be on the margins of society. The cases in Greece of ‘Maria found living with the gypsies’ and ‘snatched Maria’, ‘snatched blonde angel’; of another ‘abducted girl’ and a 2 year old boy found with Roma families in Ireland who was immediately placed into care only later to be reunited following DNA testing. This brings to mind the recurrent theme of ‘child snatching’, which is an age-old fear and has a long history, for example within stories from the bible to the early European fairy tales replete with lost and found children. It has additional contemporary poignancy when we all know of the stories of children who are missing today- from the high-profile cases of Madeleine McCann, and Ben Needham, which are the stuff of every parental nightmare, through to the trafficking of children that remains a hidden but significant problem in Europe. This is an issue which also touches closer to home; in Wales there were 34 reported cases of human trafficking last year, although it is thought that the majority of cases go unreported.

Our cultural history includes many contexts in which families, kinship and descent have been constructed. We have not had to wait for modern genetic science, still less the results of the Human Genome Project, to recognise that family members can share common characteristics, and that they are inherited. Family resemblances – physical and moral - have been recognised for centuries: we need only to see how successive portrait painters have captured the family ‘look’ of generations of nobility and royal families, for instance. Selective breeding of domestic animals and foodstuffs has been going on for generations. Pedigree pigs and thoroughbred horses, noble lineages and royal successions have all depended on a practical understanding of inheritance, blood-lines and lineages. Title, position, and property depend upon the genealogical documentation of the family tree, and have done so for centuries.

It is also clear that ‘ordinary’ families have ample opportunity to identify their relationships in terms of categories of inheritance. Family resemblance, after all, is a commonplace. The inheritance of physical characteristics has been a taken-for-granted observation, and the absence of physical resemblance prima facie evidence of bastardy. Likewise, the inheritance of aspects of character, such as courage, talent, moral stability and sanity is subject to widespread and firmly entrenched  beliefs.

Notions such as ‘bad blood’ in families and its manifestations in successive generations are also a recurrent theme in the ordinary discourse of family life, generations and inheritance. ‘Families’ are replete with secrets, unspoken pasts, and innuendoes. The recent UK television series ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ illustrates this quite dramatically (BBC). A number of ‘celebrities’ ‘embark on a voyage of personal discovery’ and trace their family trees, in a search for ‘origins’. Several discover things about their own family past and their close relatives that they never knew, and about whom there was a veil of secrecy. Things were not talked about openly in front of the children, and on occasions people were written out of the family’s collective narrative altogether. While subject to the same devices and performed emotions as any ‘reality TV’, these television programmes nonetheless encapsulate what may not be ‘typical’ family stories, but show how families may be morally risky spaces.

Biomedical innovations have given the study of family and kinship a renewed significance, with a particular focus examining the impact of assistive reproductive technologies in shaping family. The complex possibilities created by the technologies of IVF, surrogate motherhood, reproductive cloning all have the potential to displace kinship. Family relations are now supplemented by a variety of novel and alternative modes of creating people and creating relations between people. For example, when the HFEA recommended (2007) that fertility clinics would no longer have to consider the ‘need for a father’ before proceeding with assisted fertility procedures, this provoked a huge amount of controversy. Studies suggest that these technologies may redefine and expand our ideas of family and relatedness, with family becoming something more fluid and subject to transformation. For example, assistive reproductive technologies have an impact on the commercialisation of parenthood; we can now buy babies, gametes and ‘gestational carriers’. It transforms the position of gay men and lesbian women who can obtain donated eggs and sperm, mitochondrial technologies mean that an individual can have three biological parents. Of course, this also has implications for the identity of those conceived using these technologies. Some argue that the increasing availability of these technologies gives rise to increasing social change and the formation of non-traditional family units produced through the new patterns of social relationships available, for example the processes of ‘kinning’ whereby the transnationally adopted child is made to be family.

In sharp contrast, the new genetics of testing for familial inherited conditions tend, if anything, to strengthen the conventional categories of reproduction and biological relatedness. The biology of genetics reinforces the significance of traditional kinship categories, in reaffirming the biological relatedness of kindred. Genetic knowledge is seen to generate new forms of obligations and a large body of literature has focused on the ways in which people manage the burden of responsibility. Responsibility is predicated on judgments of trust and other moral evaluations, such as competence and capacity. Each of us makes our family through the active mobilisation of these individual and collective judgements and strategies – what to tell, who to tell, when to tell.
There is now a long and extensive tradition of work, spanning many decades, documenting family and community life in Wales. Family research, together with research on health and illness, has long been a core theme of the social sciences in Welsh universities. It is, therefore, especially appropriate that newer concerns with biomedical and social relations should be added to that research heritage. Seen from the point of view of the social scientist, new genetic medicine allows us to examine some traditional analytic themes and questions: How do people trace their relationships, and how do they express them? How do people maintain those ties in practical ways? How do people conceptualise the patterns of resemblance and individual difference that are observable among family members? How do people make everyday, practical decisions about sharing information with other family members? What does ‘family’ mean in everyday terms?

Written by Katie Featherstone from the School of Healthcare Sciences, Cardiff University.

This essay derives from previous work:
Featherstone K, Atkinson P, Bharadwaj A, Clarke AJ. (2006) Risky Relations: Family and kinship in the era of new genetics. Oxford: Berg.

Atkinson PA, Featherstone K, Gregory M. (2013) Kinscapes, Genescapes & Timescapes: Families Living With Genetic Risk Sociology of Health and Illness. [this is an open access paper and free to download]

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