“Family Troubles” and “Troubling Families”: Opening Up Fertile Ground

Ribbens McCarthy, Jane; Gillies, Val and Hooper, Carol-Ann (2019). “Family Troubles” and “Troubling Families”: Opening Up Fertile Ground. Journal of Family Issues, 40(16) pp. 2207–2224.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/0192513X19870047


The twin themes of “family troubles” and “troubling families” are closely linked, but they are also each distinct in themselves, and nuanced in particular ways. Rooted particularly (but not solely) in our U.K.-based academic experiences, we offer an account of family studies as siloed between a binary of “the mainstream”, focused on what may be implicitly understood as “ordinary” family lives, and “the problematic”, focused on aspects of family lives that may be of interest to social policy experts, professionals, and practitioners and geared toward interventions of some sort. What has been missing has been sociological attention to the pervasiveness of change and challenges as core for all family lives over time, with such changes sometimes experienced as troubling by family members themselves, and/or seen to be troubling by others such as professionals who saw them as “dysfunctional”, or policy makers who saw them as “social problems”. Practice and policy-oriented research has thus focused on interventions to “make things better”, or to achieve “reforms”, for families that are considered to be “problematic”. Consequently, what may be described as the “normal troubles” of family lives have been largely neglected. In this article, we explore what is brought into view by focusing on “family troubles” and “troubling families”; we argue that these themes offer fertile ground for opening up new dialogue between these contrasting bodies of work, questioning and crossing boundaries, illuminating taken-for-granted assumptions, and encouraging fresh perspectives.

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