The stereotypical family – as described in my last blog entry (heterosexual couple and their biological children) – is sometimes referred to by sociologists (and others) as the ‘cereal packet family’. That is the family most often depicted as ‘normal’ and ‘natural’ (words I question and challenge), not least in social policy and through media representations such as adverts. We could just as easily refer to this family type as the gravy boat family or the washing powder family. . . I could go on. In addition to the rigid structure at play here watching British TV we could also often be forgiven for believing that white, able bodied people are the only ones who shop. Difference and diversity then – both in terms of family construction and social stratification – are often missing from these images. At this time of year a dominant image is the ‘Family Christmas’. However, for some a representation of Diwali, Hanukkah, or indeed no festival at all, would be much more appropriate. This is just one example of cultural difference for in reality not only are there many different family forms but also different family practices; different ways of doing family life (Morgan 1996). Furthermore, ‘kinship’ is much more fluid than traditional conceptions and current policy makers often imply. So affection and obligation towards others is not solely, or even, based on blood ties or marriage vows.
Private family life has long been pictorially displayed through, for example, cave drawings, art and photography. The growth of family photography as a social practice began with the professional production of the family portrait in photos such as this and later shifted to an amateur social activity through which ‘the family’ recorded itself. The family album is both very private and yet historically has conformed to the rigidly standardised cultural form and consisted of visual memories that record special times and positive emotions, happy times and events. Facebook and similar (including blogs such as this) subvert some previous conventions as our personal photographs and albums become permanently public for all to see.
The families we all live in and the intimate partnerships (and parental relationships) that we have represent a challenge to the image that is still sometimes even today presented as the norm. Just think of the contemporary wedding ‘album’. Not only might the photographs be virtual and stored digitally rather than within embossed paper and tissue but the images themselves may depict a Mrs and Mrs or Mr and Mr rather than a Mr and Mrs and the children of one or more of the partners are more likely than in the past to be present. Some choose not to marry at all, but may still have a ceremony, and photographs, to publicly demonstrate their shared commitment. How couples decide to live their lives can also disrupt the expected experience with some marrying but then continuing to live apart for much of the time and others subverting traditional gendered and cultural norms in terms of daily activities and responsibilities. As noted earlier family practices are as varied as family forms it’s just a shame that some of the media can’t seem to keep up.