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Mothering Inner-city Children: The Early School Years

Katherine Brown Rosier
Rutgers University Press: New Brunswick
081352797x (pb)
16.50 (pb)

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Based on a three year study of nine, low income, African American mothers and their young children, this book explores how these families cope with complex, day to day pressures and responsibilities. Each mothers biography is examined in individual chapters enabling a contextualised analysis of their practices, decisions and experiences. This analysis is further broadened out through the use of observational data on the children, and interviews with relevant kindergarten and classroom teachers. Katherine Brown Rosier focuses in particular on the child rearing strategies used by the mothers to facilitate their children's education, highlighting a common lack of fit between schools expectations, community constraints and parenting practices. A recurrent theme in the book is the mothers determined validation of education and their high expectations of their children's achievement. Katherine Brown Rosier illustrates the many, varied ways in which the mothers support their children's education, showing how such contributions often go unrecognised in the face of narrow school based definitions of parental involvement.

A major strength of this book is its ability to convey the real life constraints and paradoxes encountered by black, low income families in their efforts to survive and better themselves and their children. In contrast to previous problem focused research on inner city mothering, this study takes a detailed, qualitative approach to understanding the every day lives of parents and children. Rather than generalising across large numbers of interviewees, Katherine Brown Rosier focuses on the specific circumstances of each mother and child, with the aim of listening to individual experiences from the point of view of mothers themselves, and placing actions and interpretations in a wider context. What is revealed is the complex set of social, structural and economic hurdles negotiated by the mothers in their attempts to raise their children.

However, a major drawback of this book is the absence of a broader critical or theoretical framework for analysing the experiences of the mothers and children concerned. Highly relevant feminist literature is not discussed, and while the impact of socio-economic factors are explored (with passing references made to the concept of class) there is no consideration given to how we might define or conceptualise the material deprivation which characterised these mothers lives. Similarly, the central issue of race is left untheorised, beyond a consideration of negative black stereotypes and an individualised interpretation of racial prejudice. For example, mothers accounts of prejudice at the hands of particular teachers were discussed in terms of the difficulties of verifying whether those individuals did draw on crude racial stereotypes. I would argue that such an individualised definition of prejudice conceals the social and political roots of racism and obscures the institutional practices through which it is maintained.

I was also concerned by the moral values, against which the mothers in this study were regularly judged. Individual parenting styles were evaluated against implicit, normative standards and were described using terms like 'controlling', 'overzealous', 'colourful' or 'contradictory'. The mothers basic commitment to 'decency' and 'respectability' was also emphasised with reference to their identification with 'middle class concerns and values'. An aim of this book is to challenge negative stereotypes about poor, black mothers. However, by showing that such mothers do indeed measure up to white, middle class standards, moralistic, culturally specific assumptions are left intact to pathologise others who do not conform. This absence of critical reflexivity combined with a wider theoretical vacuum meant that at times, the chapters read more like a well meaning social work report rather than a sociological study.

Despite Katherine Brown Rosier's deeply held conviction that she shared much in common with those she interviewed, I was very much aware that she viewed the lives of these mothers through a white, middle class lens. Her lack of reflection on the assumptions she brought to the research detracted from an otherwise rich and valuable approach to studying the lived experience of inner city mothers and children.

Val Gillies
South Bank University

Copyright Sociological Research Online,