Monthly Archives: September 2011

Guest blogger – “Families and the Matthew Effect” by Tessa LeRoux

Today we start a new feature: the monthly guest blogger. Every month we’ll have an invited blogger to write about research or news in the field of sociology of family. The goal is to keep our website dynamic, and to promote more sharing and discussion among our community. For this first month, our invited blogger is Tessa LeRoux. Tessa LeRoux is a Professor of Sociology at Lasell College, working on gender and family studies, and director of the Donahue Institute for Values and Public Life. You can find her here. Thank you, Tessa, for this very interesting and thought provoking blog post. Please leave us your comments and feedback. Without further ado, here is Tessa’s contribution:

Families and the Matthew Effect
Tessa LeRoux

Some years ago, in his opening remarks at the CFR seminar in Boston, CFR President Rudolf Richter talked about how family sociology is or should be involved in public debate, and he concluded with the following words of C. Wright Mills“…the sociological imagination has its chance to make a difference in the quality of human life in our time.” As the first CFR month blogger, I want to pick up on that theme, and would like to continue the conversation about whether and how family sociology should be involved in public debate. Please post your comments and thoughts on this issue – the new media gives us the wonderful opportunity to engage in discussion outside of the regular face-to-face seminars.

In reflecting on current events in the world, like Richter, I also find myself returning to the classics. It somehow seems appropriate, having celebrated the 100th anniversary of his birth last July, to remember the work of Robert Merton, who coined the term the Matthew Effect (after the Biblical reference that to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away). As a family sociologist I tend to focus on how family shapes, and is shaped by the world – and at present it seems that the accumulation of advantage (power, social capital, wealth) that Merton wrote about is a constant theme.

Of course we cannot oversimplify and ascribe all social ills to the growing gap between the rich and the poor. But neither can we underestimate its effect. Take the recent unrest in Great Britain as an example. Explanations for what happened abound. Not surprisingly, these can be divided into the to-be-expected ideological lines; on the one hand those who, like Cameron, emphasize personal responsibility, and blame the actions of those who participated in the riots and/or looting on a lack of morality (or in Cameron’s words a “moral collapse”) – thus, in sociological terms, a sense of anomie, or normlessness. On the other hand the social critics blame the social structure of society, the growing gap between rich and poor. They reference a disenfranchised underclass, and recognize in many a sense of disengagement – or in more classical sociological terms alienation.

As a family sociologist, what really struck me was the way in which “family” was referenced in these discussions. Not surprisingly, the anomie-school blamed families for the behavior of the young people – dysfunctional or absent parents, families who do not socialize their offspring properly. In a variation on this theme some ascribed the looting to a consumer culture (perhaps societal values were too well taught!)

This reminded me of the old issue of family ideology – the traditional family seen as the ‘basic unit’ in society, or in Parsonian terms the institution responsible for primary socialization of children and stabilization of adult personalities. And if something goes wrong, family has somehow not fulfilled its obligation to society. Why does this old ideology persist? As family sociologists understand that there is a much more complex relationship between poverty and social problems. We realize that family is an institution to be supported and protected, rather than to be blamed for social ills. We understand, for example, that divorce and single parenthood are consequences of social and economic dislocations, and that in the neoliberal and minimalist state vulnerable populations are the ones most affected by social conditions – immigrants, women, the poor. Yet in society at large, except in a small handful of countries, the care of children and the elderly is constructed around conservative views of families, and if something goes wrong, families are blamed.

The theme of the 2012 ISA Forum is “Social Justice and Democratization” and the 2014 World Conference Theme is ”Facing an Unequal World: Challenges for a Global Sociology.“ In his vision of utopias for a global sociology, Eric Olin Wright, President-elect of the American Sociological Association pleads for a critical sociology which, he says, have three central tasks: first, the diagnosis of the social causes of the harms of society; second, the elaboration of alternative institutions and structures; and third, the development of a theory of transformation which tells us how to get from here to there.

So here are a few questions for discussion:

– Do you agree with Wright about the need for a critical sociology? Should we become engaged in macro-level sociological work? To what extent is a more critical view of family and household included in contemporary sociological models of society? As Jan Trost rightly points out in the last newsletter, RC06 is one of the most active research committees of the ISA – but does our work spill over to general sociology, or to theory-building on a more macro-level? Some of the most innovative work comes at the intersection of disciplines (as anyone who attended the seminar on Family and Memories will attest). At this point in history the intersection between family and collective behavior/social movements seems particularly relevant – or the intersection between family and modern media. What about the intersection between family and human rights? The list goes on…

– There has been much discussion about a public sociology – what is your view on this? Should family sociologists contribute to this discussion? How can we bridge the gap between our academic discourse and the public discourse of social policy, or should we, as Mills suggested, remain independent researchers? Do we have to be more vocal in our critique of views of family that are rooted in romantic notions of a mythical past? In England Cameron pledged to “mend society” – what role can and should family sociologists play in governmental attempts at social engineering around the world?