In sociology, one of the things we investigate is how the social forms we take as given are actually particular socio-cultural, historical forms. Another aspect of sociological analysis is how ideologies guide the shape of our social institutions, as well as the way our identities are formed, as particularly races, sexed, gendered, and as people of particular sexual identities. One thing I encounter in teaching introductory sociology is how we often assume that the way our society is set up is the only option–or that it is the necessarily best option. I think part of this comes from American arrogance that “we” do everything right and we do it the best–the whole “envy of the world” bit. No more do I see this than in talking about the family.
“Families come in many forms.” Yes, this is what we say, but does this hold true in terms of our institutions, representations, and social supports? There is a difference between merely accepting diversity and supporting a diversity of families. The latter sees families as a system of supports that can take several forms, conferring legitimacy to many types of families and accounting for those valid and differentiated families when creating or reforming social policy; the former sees one type of family as ideal, and that there are others that exist, but their existence stems from an individual flaw (being pregnant-while-unmarried, divorce, cohabitation), and that no one really wants to have or should be encouraged to have “those” kind of families.
I also talk a lot about how dominant identities and exclusionary thought become institutionalized in our society–ie institutionalized racism sexism, and heterosexism. The idea behind something being “institutionalized” is that these -ism ideologies are carried out even if no one actively is discriminating, or hating, or believing the ideologies; such institutionalization also means that our society compels particular (appropriate) behaviors by making some practices and identities more valid and viable than others. This happens by the way our society and its institutions are structured, taking a particular group or way of thought as the norm (privileging marriage, and excluding homosexuals from it), or by building damaging assumptions about particular groups into our social practices (i.e. racial profiling).
Our society is marriage-centric, and as marriage is becoming less the rule while remaining the expectation, our society continues to be couple-centric (see the blog Onely for an excellent anti-heteronormative perspective on life). The heterosexual married couple continues to be the assumed, ideal family, and any option types of families and they are responsible for dealing with the consequences of their non-normative family. We may individually define our families in particular ways, but they are not socially or legally recognized as such.
I’ve been kind of vague so far, but I’m setting this up to propose a list I have been thinking about of how our society might be organized differently if single parent families, rather than two parent ones were the assumption for adults. In other words, we would assume that all adults, with or without kids, work; adults working would be the “norm” and adults being expected to fill traditional gender roles would not be.
- we’d have universal daycare or graduated tax credits for daycare expenses, since we would never assume that an adult should stop working to care for their kids, thereby ceasing earning an income.
- we wouldn’t give a tax break to married couples for their spousal dependent, a dependent who provides for the family the advantage of unpaid labor and/or childcare that single-adult families still have to do by either paying for it or by provide for themselves. (i.e. currently, a two-parent family and a single family each earn the same income. The two parent family pays less in taxes than the single parent family does–via having an extra dependent to deduct–and has the benefit of not having to pay for child care, which the single-parent family not only pays more in taxes but also has to pay a pretty penny for child care so that they can work at all.)
- spouses wouldn’t be able to take advantage of their partner’s health care.
- your sexual relationship to the person with whom you’d like to adopt a child would be irrelevant.
- we’d have the same per capita work hours requirement to receive welfare services.
- we’d offer tax deductions for rent, not just for mortgages*
- I know there are more, but these have been on my mind.
I think it’s clear, but some might wonder what’s wrong with having a family norm and with having people take responsibility for having kids only when “they can afford to”, with both time and money considerations. Why shouldn’t they have to “pay the price” for choosing to be a single parent, or for “parenting-while-poor”? The idea of having universal child care seems at first to giving some people a hand-out–an undue advantage over others; but the fact that we don’t have it means that in our society, we expect that certain adults should work and certain ones shouldn’t, and by not accounting for the necessity of child care, we are privileging those families who have an at-home parent. The fact that single parents are supposed to suffer for their choice while two-parent families are benefitted by theirs demonstrates that our approach to social policies and structure privileges only one form of family. (more…)