Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1999

The 'New' Family?

Elizabeth Silva and Carol Smart (editors)
Sage Publications: London
0761958568 (pb); 076195855X (hb)
14.99 (pb); 45.00 (hb)

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Family Fragments

Carol Smart and Bren Neale
Polity Press: Cambridge
0745618944 (pb); 0745618936 (hb)
13.95 (pb); 45.00 (hb)

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The interrogatory titles of these complementary books about emergent family forms in the UK signal the vexed, contested character of contemporary family discourse in many postindustrial societies. This indicates to this reviewer in the US-the international headquarters of the divisive "family values" ideology industry-how successfully the former colony has exported yet another of our dubious products. More reassuringly, the books' perceptive contents inspire hope that British scholars may prove better prepared than were their US counterparts to defend their nation's families against the more egregious effects of "pro-familist" politics. At the very least, anyone who reads these books cannot complain not to have been warned.

The New Family? and Family Fragments? share much more than one of their (eponymously named) authors, Carol Smart. Collectively they offer panoramic and close-up views of the fluid, contradictory character of contemporary intimacy and kinship. The first, an edited collection, treats diverse family ties and issues, albeit almost exclusively among white citizens. The second, a longitudinal study of the post-divorce parenting relationships of 60 formerly married or coupled heterosexuals, focuses sustained scrutiny on how they contend with the new demands imposed on parents by the Children's Act of 1989. The books' analytic frameworks apply feminist theory and ethics to critical but sympathetic readings of recent work by Anthony Giddens and Ulrich Beck and Elizabeth Beck-Gersheim on intimacy and (post)-modernity. They attempt to shift family studies away from its conventional emphasis on family structures and functions to investigating "family practices" and discourse. Both books contribute significantly to family theory, research and public policy analysis.

The New Family? achieves greater intellectual coherence than is typical of edited volumes, despite some unavoidable unevenness in the quality and style of individual chapters. David Morgan's compelling theoretical chapter on "Risk and Family Practices"elaborates a framework for analyzing the quotidian awareness of risk and the reflexive self-monitoring practices that now pervade ordinary family decision-making and talk, and he usefully encourages scholars to perceive family talk as a form of reflexive family practice. Other strong, insightful chapters treat new analytical approaches to researching children and childhood (Brannan), divorce (Smart), inventive forms of kinship forged outside of heterosexual conventions and resources (Weeks, Donovan and Heaphy; Dunne), and the dominance of "lateral" sibling and lineal ties over marital relationships among Caribbeans in the UK, the only immigrant or racially subordinate population included in the volume (Chamberlain).

Curiously, however, a few chapters, seemingly uninformed by the discursive shift to "family practices" announced by the volume's editors, continue to subject "the family" to institutional forms of analysis. Likewise, although the intellectual level of the chapters is uniformly high, too many authors belie any awareness that talk is a form of practice, for they succumb to the snares of a tedious academic style-excessively rendering abstract prose in the passive voice. This seems a pity, as it is reduces the prospects that this valuable book will influence or appeal to many readers outside the academy.

I would lay far better odds that Family Fragments? will reach beyond the world of academe to reach the broad audience of policy-makers and citizens it so richly deserves. In fact, I have no quarrel with Janet Finch's promotional blurb on the book's jacket cover which labels it "one of the most important publications on family life in the last twenty years." Few books so effectively meld theory, empirical research, political insight and wisdom, let alone communicate the blend in lucid, accessible prose. The book is firstly an exemplary contribution to the growing literature on unintended effects of public policy reforms. Determined to stem the tide of divorce and to mitigate its harmful effects on children, in 1989 Parliament enacted a Children's Act which imposed joint parenting relationships on divorced couples in order keep biological fathers actively involved in rearing and supporting their children. Smart and Neale carefully researched the consequences for members of the first cohort of parents and children to which the reform legislation was applied.

Alarmist concerns about how divorce affects children has been a flashpoint of ideological conflict and policy debate over family change, and the authors properly understand its significance as a case study of the fluidity and politics of family ties today. Their judicious analysis of post-divorce family life exposes the paradoxical costs of coercing shared parenting relationships on hostile parties. Along the way, Smart and Neale also effectively demonstrate the inadequacy of discourses on the "decline of family" and the "loss of functions" that still dominate too much family social science. They apply feminist ethics that emphasize a morals of care over one of rights to the everyday family talk and practices of parents negotiating conflicts with their former spouses over child-sharing and rearing. Here they show that many parents (primarily mothers) engage in difficult forms of moral reasoning amidst an ever-changing context, often subordinating their own desires and interests to what they believe to be "in the best interest" of their children.

Yet the state rarely bothers to take an interest in caring for the parents upon whose caretaking abilities the children depend. Because of an ideological emphasis on the biological father, many mothers and children alike have suffered unnecessary levels of emotional and physical risk. Paradoxically, because this same emphasis inhibits many mothers (and some fathers) from forming new marriages, it has inadvertently escalated the historical shift from marriage to parenthood as the central kinship tie. Thus, divorced adults and their children come to inhabit "family fragments" that remain too often linked indefinitely and unhappily across divided hearts and hearths.

Together these books expose the harmful gap between the anachronistic moralistic ideology that dominates public conversation and policies about family change and the irreversible diversity of the lives, needs, and moral reasoning of actual families on both sides of the Atlantic. Perhaps they can help to spare British families from suffering the ill effects of this chasm as sorely as we have done under the more extreme politics of family values in the US.

Judith Stacey
University of Southern California

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1999