The concept of family: a critical perspective

20 Jan , 2016 Op-Ed

In the last part of 2015, a number of conservative and religious-affiliated NGOs started a new political initiative which aims to amend the Constitution of Romania. They named themselves the “Coalition for the Family,” copycatting the anti-gay neoconservative movement in the United States and some other Western countries. Their objective? To change the Constitutional definition of the family and to impose their own narrow and “traditional” (religious-based) understanding of it. In this article, I intend to analyze the different conceptualization of the “family” by the two major and opposing actors in this important endeavor of the conservatives, one that could lead to a revision of the constitution in a way that narrows the definition of the “family” only to the nuclear family. The first major actor is, of course, the Coalition for the Family and its affiliated NGOs and religious organizations; the second major and opposing actor being the progressist movement in Romania, represented in this case mainly by the LGBT community, the feminist movement, left-wing thinkers, etc.

Even if the Romanian press framed the discussion regarding this legislative initiative of the Coalition for the Family on the “institution of Marriage” and the rights of non-heterosexual people to marry a person of the same-sex, the real issue is in fact the “family” and how we perceive and understand this concept as a social institution. The two sides of this social debate live in different paradigms and have distinctive narratives regarding the family.

Historically, we have two main understandings of the family, and each one of them developed as a direct effect of social and economic revolutions that affected the development of our society. We understand the family mainly as the “extended family” or the “nuclear family.” But the social changes, the social and economic transmutations created new types of families and we should decide how we act regarding their place in the Romanian society.

We can say that, in Romania, the extended family was the traditional concept of the family until the later half of the past century. Romania was for much of its existence a rural, agrarian and underdeveloped country. The majority of the population (especially the ethnically Romanian population) lived in small villages where you had a mechanical solidarity, the community was homogeneous in almost any aspects of life and the villagers were often related by blood. Even today, in an average Romanian village you can discover that a significant number of its inhabitants are related in some way.

Returning to our main point, the “extended family” was – and still is, in some parts of the country – the proper understanding of the family. In a traditional Romanian household from half a century ago, you could find living together three or up to five generations, and they understood the family in this extended way, this was for a long time the only concept of family they were aware of. This is the traditional family,  the one that begins to dismantle once the industrial revolution and capitalism take shape and develop, as Max Weber¹ says. In Romania’s case, it happens a bit later, just two or three centuries after it started in Western Europe, mainly because the Romanian nuclear family started to be financially viable only in the past century, especially after the forceful industrialization and urbanization led by the communist regime.

The nuclear family is the newer understanding of the family, one that develops in the late medieval period once with the expansion of capitalism and after with the industrial revolution, that increases the financial opportunities, loosens the links between the household and the entrepreneurship, and develops mainly in the urban areas. The nuclear family is a result of the organic solidarity that develops in modern societies and is distinctive for urban areas². In Romania, we have examples of nuclear families in urban areas from the beginning of the 18th century and a real development of this model of the family in the next two centuries. George Murdock (1949) is the first to define this new type of family and he is the one to create the term “nuclear family.” He defines the most common type of family of his time as:

a social group characterized by common residence, economic cooperation, and reproduction. It includes adults of both sexes, at least two of whom maintain a socially approved sexual relationship, and one or more children, own or adopted, of the sexually cohabiting adults. (p. 1)

This is the definition mainly supported by the Coalition for the Family, the Romanian Orthodox Church, and almost every Christian cult recognized in Romania. On their website, the Coalition for the Family clearly and narrowly defines the family as the one formed between a male, a female, and their children.

But the society is changing and the concept of  family is evolving…

The social transmutations that affected the West in the second half of the past century changed the composition and the function of a significant number of contemporary families. Those social transmutations are more and more present in our own society and we must choose how we respond to them. We can decide to refuse to recognize the changes and to remain blocked in an archaic and glowingly exclusivist understanding of the family, or we can decide to be inclusive and recognize the new diversity of families that deserve dignity and an equal recognition of their cohabitation by the government and polity.

We have a significant number of single-parent families, this is more and more frequent in our society. According to the National Census of 2011, there are 626.149 single-parent families, representing 14.5% of all the households in Romania. They are clearly not part of the traditional definition of the family as proposed by the “Coalition for the Family.” Also, the children who grow up in monoparental families tend to be stigmatized in schools and the state is offering them insignificant help. The social imposition of a narrow definition of the family will only jeopardize their status in society.

Another kind of families is the “non-marital cohabitation.” According to the 2011 Census, there are 153.749 non-marital couples with children and 40.422 such couples without children. This represents about 3,65% percent of Romania’s households. The current legal framework does not recognize such families and denies them any legal rights regarding the well-being of the partners. The couples who decided to form a family should be dismissed and marginalized just because they decided not to marry? Shouldn’t the government offer them equal dignity and some rights similar to the ones that married couples have?

And now, last but not least, the same-sex monogamous couples. A totally non-traditional type of couple that existed from the beginning of time but who become socially visible only in the last decades, with the Sexual Revolution and the societal wave of change of the last decades, especially after the HIV/AIDS epidemic from the 1980s and 90s in the United States and Western Europe. This kind of family is formed on the same cohesive and romantic manner as the traditional ones. The main criticism against them is based on the procreation factor, as I name it.

The procreation factor and the functions of the family

The Coalition for the Family, the Church, and many conservative organizations affirm that the purpose of any family is to procreate and reproduce. They recognize that this is not the only function of the family, but they affirm that this is the central element of the social institution that we name “family.” Is it so? Do we form families, do we marry, just to reproduce, to have babies? If yes, then why do we have heterosexual couples who are married, who form legally recognized families, but don’t have children and don’t intend to have? Should we also take away the right of matrimony and recognized cohabitation of those heterosexual couples who decide not to have children, or are incapable of having?

This is one of the most important topics of contention between the two sides. What are the functions of the family?

This one topic of contention is probably the most important one. If we agree that the sole and most important purpose of the family is to procreate, then any other discussions are useless. If it is so, then any other form of cohabitations, even heterosexual legally recognized cohabitations (heterosexual married couples w/o children) are not families. If we accept this main point of the Coalition for the Family, then the majority of Western societies have a minority of families and a majority of other types of cohabitations. Are we really ready to narrow so much the definition of the family? The progressist movement says that we are witnessing the transmutation of the family. That the variations of new types of families and monogamous relationships are increasingly prevalent even in the Romanian society, and that we should recognize this and create a new legal framework to accommodate them. As Judith Stacey (1996) says, the nuclear family is no longer adequated to express the (post-)modern household.

As I have said earlier, there are multiple types of families, from the extended family to the monoparental family and the same-sex family. Today, social scientists that study the modern families divide them into two main categories: (1) the procreative families and (2) the non-procreative families. The Coalition for the Family gives priority to the (heterosexual) procreative family and almost excludes from the definition the non-procreative family. On the other hand, the progressist movement tends to search for a balanced and relatively equal status for the two main types of family. Also, the most critical members of this movement will usually reject to define the family, which they see as a “fluid concept, socially constructed and changing from person to person.” (Weigel 2008, p. 1428)

The two sides in this cultural war  see the functions of the family in different ways. The Coalition for the Family has adopted a hierarchical perspective of those functions, the most important being the procreation and socialization of their children. The progressist movement focuses on the economic and emotional support, creating support networks, and formalizing long-term relationships, giving almost equal status to all functions (Bernstain and Taylor, 2013). This creates a number of ontological cleavages between the two sides. The conservatives see the economic and social functions as subordinated to parenthood and nurturing of the offsprings but the progressists don’t see any binding connections between the two.

Another cleavage between the two sides regards the status of the adopted children, especially those adopted by same-sex couples. The Alliance of Families of Romania, one of the members of the Coalition for the Family, affirms that a child adopted by a same-sex couple will have psycho-social and developmental problems and the best way to raise a child is with a mother and o father. It’s true that the large majority of psychological and sociological studies show that a child that grows up in a nuclear family has a very good environment for developing. But this doesn’t mean that same-sex couples are bad parents or that a child that grows up in a same-sex household will have worse prospects in life. In fact, according to the existing sociological and psychological peer-review literature, children raised in non-heterosexual families do equally well or better than children raised by heterosexual families, and they also tend to have a more complex perspective of the family (Crowl et. all 2008; Manning et all. 2014Gartrell et all. 2012; Rosenfeld 2010; Ryan 2007Chan et. all 1998). This, of course, will not convince the conservatives of their fallacies. Their beliefs are based on an ideology, a dogmatic belief in a more and more archaic concept of the family that is nuclear and narrowly understood from a heteronormative perspective and based on their religious beliefs.

Inclusiveness or exclusiveness

The debate around the concept of family is clearly centered on what type of cohabitation should be considered a “family”. One side, the conservatives, support a narrow and exclusive understanding of the concept. They exclude from the definition of the family any kind of alternative cohabitation and endure in supporting the nuclear family, excluding about 20% of Romania’s population and disregarding the social changes that occur. They are blind to the needs of marginalized and ostracized social groups and communities… because they are the ones who are the foremost supporters of the social structures that exclude and discriminate against those who diverge from the social prototype. The other side tends to support a more inclusive concept of family, one that acquiesces to the social transmutations and the needs of the new or more visible social groups.

Now I read that about 825.000 Romanians support a narrow and traditional understanding of the family. It is their right to do so. Everyone who disagrees with a status-quo has to choose, as Alfred Hirschman once said, between Exit, Voice, and Loyalty.

Many will choose to Exit the polity  by expatriating to a more inclusive society, some will Voice their objections and maybe will fight for change. Others will choose to be loyal to the status quo and accept a narrow definition of the family, agreeing on a marginal status in society. Each decision has a social, economic and emotional price.

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5 Responses

  1. Robert says:

    Interesting analysis of the two opposing viewpoints. Sharing a basic agreement with you on the inclusive/exclusive divide in the understanding of family, I also read some work that ACCEPT posted on the issue. They seemed to express that changing the definition of family in the constitution doesn’t really carry a big legal impact for the non-nuclear families. If I understood it correctly this had to do with marriage already being specified as a relationship between a man and a woman in Romanian Civil Code. I would be interested to hear your opinion on whether recent efforts by the Coalition for Family would have legal ramifications for already constitutionally non-protected groups (same sex couples for example), or is it just hot air to rally folks up and gain political clout.

    • The narrative adopted by ACCEPT is understandable but I disagree with them on this point. They are trying to say that this initiative is legally irrelevant and the society should not give too much attention to them, it’s a way to indirectly defend LGBT interests. Indeed, from a legal point of view, intrinsically, the constitutional redefinition of the institution of marriage will not change the status-quo about the legal rights of same-sex couples to marry, but it will establish a normative perspective on the family. Accepting the main point of the Coalition for the Family and accepting this constitutional amendment will not only change the legal definition of marriage but will have an important and more profound impact on the official (here I’m speaking inclusively about future public policies) understanding of the family. If the conservatives win this social debate, then we should expect that in the future, the policy-makers will refuse to offer some legal recognition and maybe some rights to non-marital heterosexual or homosexual cohabitations, and single-parent families and non-conventional families will continue to be socially stigmatized. This constitutional change will have little legal effects but huge social effects. It will limit any possible social change regarding the way we socially perceive the family. The state and society will continue to consider the nuclear family to be superior to non-nuclear families and I find this appalling.

      • Robert says:

        Okay good to understand – so in gist – the move is a step backwards from the direction the progressist movement would hope to achieve in defining family, and it would set a negative precedence in the social debate that would need to be undone to move back in the more inclusive direction. Great article! Was very difficult to find any thorough discussion on the subject in English, to help me understand a bit better.

  2. sdf says:

    I really like what you guys tend to be up too. This kind of clever work and
    exposure! Keep up the amazing works guys I’ve included you guys to my
    own blogroll.

  3. mishu says:

    i tell you this: if lgbt remained at social pertnership then they would have that right these days.
    but what do we see in other countries ? that family is redefined. that lgbt adopt children. that age for legal sex is lowered in sweden to 13, so pedophilia is considered legal. what else? we see also in sweden that necrophilia is requested to be legal.
    so all these are an attack to traditional concepts. so we have to be careful. we have to deny any modification.
    don’t cover abnormal requests with “modern”. “what is changed is modern, anything else is old and expired”. come on, you mean that planting a tree is old and expired ?

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