Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1997

In the Company of Others: Perspectives on Community, Family and Culture

Nancy E. Snow (editor)
London: Rowman & Littlefield
0 8476 8145 9 (pb); 0 8476 8144 0 (hb)
£19.50 (pb); 50.00 (hb)
xx + 227 pp.

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As a sociologist, I might not generally have come across this edited collection by 'distinguished philosophers', although as a feminist I am of course familiar with the works of people such as Sara Ruddick and Rosemarie Tong, both of whom contribute original pieces to this collection. However, I am very pleased to have read this book, and some of the chapters are ones that will certainly form an important contribution to my own teaching and research work in the sociology of family lives.

The book is divided into three parts, concerning Community, Family and Culture, the first being the shortest and the last being the longest sections. I am going to discuss the parts in reverse order. My strongest reservation about the book as a whole is that the parts do not hold together very well. Various themes of community, family and culture do run through all the pieces, but by the end of the book, community and family are being used in a very broad sense indeed and the connections are quite loose.

Taking the last part first, the article by Virginia Held, for example, is largely a discussion about the role of commercial pressures in shaping the production of 'culture' (argued to be distinct from social structure), and the possibilities for changing this. Next comes a piece by Friedman, seeking to dispel the myths that feminists are anti- motherhood, families, men and sex, which some of my more traditional (and prejudiced?) students might do well to read. This is followed by a chapter by Tong, on the contributions that feminist perspectives may make to debates on choice and freedom around the new reproductive technologies. This chapter provides some very effective summaries of major feminist ontological and epistemological perspectives, as well as offering her own ideas in developing the notions of an autokoenomous ontology combined with a positional epistemology. The next writer, Warren, also offers a very useful discussion about the different meanings of 'home'. She then goes on to introduce her own value perspectives via the notion of homes that are 'functional'. Her argument develops with some very global statements about relationships between women and nature, that seem to have echoes of Rosaldo's earlier work, as well as risking marginalizing men from a reconsideration of nature and the environment. The book concludes with a piece by Iannone about the expatriate experience. By the end of the book, I did rather wonder if the powerful, emotionally laden concepts of 'home' and 'family' were being somewhat hijacked, to encourage the reader's positive response to the value statements being made (although perhaps this in an unfair comment?).

As well as covering a range of rather diverse topics, the collection also includes a range of philosophical perspectives. In addition to the feminist writers found in part three, there are also two articles in part two concerned with feminist ideas, although with very differing points of view. Thus Summers urges philosophers to pay more attention to the everyday morality of family members (presuming she knows what this is), and then goes on to launch a virulent attack on American feminism (it would seem that she had not read the piece by Friedman, responding to just such arguments as Summers is making). The most exciting chapter in the book, for my own interests, is the following chapter by Ruddick, contributing to debates about the relationship between ethics of justice and of care. In the process, she considers possible problems in applying concepts of justice to family life, particularly concerning the underlying notions of individuality and relationships involved. There is much food for thought in this discussion. While at times I found it a little abstract, it also relates very significantly to issues about public and private ways of being, a long-standing interest of my own.

The third article in this section is by Wong, also considering the relationship between ethics of care and justice. He also argues the need to consider both in relation to family lives, while also expressing care with regard to cultural diversity eg. around underlying conceptions of the individual. Wong also has an article in the first part, which introduced me for the first time to the ideas of Confuscianism. While this was extremely interesting, it involved quite a lengthy exposition which, in itself, did not make ready connections with the themes of community and family. However, by the end of the piece, Wong is arguing that Confuscianism has a particular contribution to make to our understanding of the importance and meaning of families, as well as other primary groups. Finally, to end at the beginning, the first chapter in the book, by Mason, discusses differing concepts of 'community' which, he argues, often get confused in debates. He also suggests that ideas of Confuscianism offer a way forward, although liberalism is still seen to have a part to play in valuing neutrality while also valuing diversity.

At the end of the book, I was left pondering the relationship between philosophy and sociology. At times, I felt that sweeping statements were being made that might lead to cries of, 'Where's your evidence?' in sociology. On the other hand, sociology has always of course depended on underlying philosophical orientations. Indeed, Iannone's description of philosophy might equally be applied to at least some forms of sociology, concerning a '... wonder about the familiarity that everyone takes for granted' (p. 202). I certainly found at least parts of this particular philosophical collection extremely illuminating and useful for my interests as a sociologist.

Jane Ribbens
Oxford Brookes University

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1997