Troubling children's families: who's troubled and why? Approaches to inter-cultural dialogue

Ribbens McCarthy, Jane and Gillies, Val (2018). Troubling children's families: who's troubled and why? Approaches to inter-cultural dialogue. Sociological Research Online, 23(1) pp. 219–244.



This article draws on multi-disciplinary perspectives to consider the need and the possibilities for inter-cultural dialogue concerning families that may be seen by some to be ‘troubling’. Starting from the premise that ‘troubles’ are a ‘normal’ part of children’s family lives, we consider the boundary between ‘normal’ troubles and troubles that are troubling (whether to family members or others). Such troubling families potentially indicate an intervention to prevent harm to less powerful family members (notably children). On what basis can such decisions be made in children’s family lives, how can this question be answered across diverse cultural contexts, and are all answers inevitably subject to uncertainty? Such questions arguably re-frame and broaden existing debates about ‘child maltreatment’ across diverse cultural contexts. Beyond recognizing power dynamics, material inequalities, and historical and contemporary colonialism, we argue that attempts to answer the question on an empirical basis risk a form of neo-colonialism, since values inevitably permeate research and knowledge claims. We briefly exemplify such difficulties, examining psychological studies of childrearing in China, and the application of neuroscience to early childhood interventions in the UK. Turning to issues of values and moral relativism, we also question the possibility of an objective moral standard that avoids cultural imperialism, but ask whether cultural relativism is the only alternative position available. Here we briefly explore other possibilities in the space between ‘facile’ universalism and ‘lazy’ relativism (Jullien, 2008/2014). Such approaches bring into focus core philosophical and cultural questions about the possibilities for ‘happiness’, and for what it means to be a ‘person’, living in the social world. Throughout, we centralize theoretical and conceptual issues, drawing on the work of Jullien (2008/2014) to recognize the immense complexities inter-cultural dialogue entails in terms of language and communication.

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