The powerful relational language of ‘family’: togetherness, belonging and personhood

Ribbens McCarthy, Jane (2012). The powerful relational language of ‘family’: togetherness, belonging and personhood. Sociological Review, 60(1) pp. 68–90.



This article examines the notion of ‘family’ to consider how it may be understood in people's everyday lives. Certain recurrent and powerful motifs are apparent, notably themes of togetherness and belonging, in the context of a unit that the person can be ‘part of’. At the same time, there may be important variations in the meanings given to individuality and family, evoking differing understandings of the self and personhood. I consider these ideas further through globally relevant but variable cultural themes of autonomy and relationality, suggesting the term ‘social person’ as a heuristic device to distinguish the sense of ‘close-knit selves’ that may be involved in some understandings of personhood. I argue that this version of personhood may be powerfully expressed through ‘family’ meanings, with a significance which can be at least provisionally mapped along lines of inequality and dis-advantage within and between societies around the world. These forms of connectedness may be hard to grasp through those theoretical and methodological frameworks which emphasise the (relational) individual. I argue that, in affluent English speaking societies , there may be little alternative to the language of ‘family’ for expressing such forms of relationality and connection.

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