Volume 9 Number 1 1996

Family and The State of Theory, David Cheal, Harvester/Wheatsheaf, 1991, 213 pages, 9.95 paperback.

Superficially, Family and The State of Theory has a familiar tale to tell. it is a story of how the `standard sociological theory' relating to the family and associated with people such as Goode and, overwhelmingly, Parsons, was shattered by the `Big Bang' of the 1970s. It is a story of a shift from convergence to divergence and from positivism to post-positivism. It is, centrally, a story of the challenge presented by feminism to masculinist models and monolithic approaches.

It becomes readily apparent, however, that Cheal intends to do something more than simply, if concisely and lucidly, go over some rather well-trodden ground. In the first place, he is very much concerned with showing how theorising is affected by the conditions in which we live and within which that theorising takes place. Roughly speaking, if we find contradiction and diversity within present-day family theorising, this reflects a social reality which is itself contradictory and diverse. Recognition of the social basis of family theorising is itself a further source for theoretical and conceptual instability.

The second, and linked way, in which Cheal moves into somewhat less familiar territory (for family theorists at least) is in his emphasis upon the diversity and contradictions of modernism. These simultaneously provide the context within which family life is lived and experienced, and the context within which theorising about these lives takes place. Following some suggestions by the Swedish sociologist, Edmund Dahlstrom, he identifies `four major contradictions in the western societies' (p.20) which provide the organising framework for the book as a whole. He aims, therefore, to depart from a more conventional listing of different perspectives or schools of thought, an approach which he quite rightly rejects as failing to confront the complexities he outlines.

The first contradiction is the familiar one between progress and decline or between modernism and anti-modernism. Here, as elsewhere, Cheal is not simply concerned with outlining positions but also in exploring overlaps, ambiguities and tensions. The second contradiction focuses more directly upon modernity, and explores the oppositions between system and liberation, contrasting two opposing tendencies in sociological theories and their applications; thus, family theorists have either sought to apply their theories to the alleviation of conventionally understood family problems or dysfunctions or have sought to provide a critique of dominant patterns of family living and of social science interventions into everyday life. Here we find discussions of Foucault, of medicalisation, of family policy and of systems theorising and of feminist (and other) critiques of professional involvements in family processes.

The next chapter deals with the contradictions between public and private and provides a neat encapsulation of Marxist and feminist discussions of family, economy, domestic labour and the state. It concludes with a useful critique of the public/private distinction itself. In the next chapter, Cheal moves on to the contradictions between modernism and post-modernism, shaping his discussion around issues of defining the family and of accounting for the apparent evidence for both standardisation and diversity in family life. This theme of post-modernism is continued into his conclusion where he makes some interesting suggestions as to the future development of family theory, tracing a shift from polarisation to pluralism and calling for an intellectual recognition of instability and fragmentation. Last chapters frequently contain the seeds of books to come, and it is to be hoped that Cheal will develop these brief suggestions in some more extended form.

On the whole the project is well worth attempting and well-executed - very well executed if account is taken of the fact that all this is encompassed in just over one hundred and sixty pages of text. It will certainly provide an excellent text for more advanced students and it also constitutes an invaluable guide to a diverse range of sources. His assessments are fair and his overall treatment, apart from some points of over-compression, are lucid. He makes a determined effort to widen his sources beyond those provided by North America and the UK, although it has to be said that these still provide the overwhelming bulk of the twenty nine pages of references; hence, the hints of a genuinely and much needed comparative approach are rather fleeting and slight.

If I have a lingering doubt over the book it is over the use of the term `modernism' as the overarching basis for the analysis. We have here a familiar paradox: if we take the idea of post-modernism seriously, does this not call into question all large-scale historical narratives, including the theme of modernism upon which the idea of post-modernism itself depends? More prosaically, is the theme of modernism and all that it implies as firmly established as it would appear from a reading of this text? If, following Cheal, we `hope to produce a social science that is grounded in the world in which we live rather than being imposed upon it' (p.155), might this not also apply to such grand historically-located categories? But here, I suspect, I am about to elaborate a research project, one of many that this thoughtful and useful book might well stimulate.

David H J Morgan
University of Manchester.


Copyright David H J Morgan 1996

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