VOLUME 6 (2004) - ISSUE 11 (YEARLY)

Family As The First Community


Maya Khemlani DAVID is a Professor of Sociolinguistics at the University of Malaya , Kuala Lumpur , Malaysia.

Alfred Cheung-Ming CHAN is the Director of the Asia-Pacific Institute for Ageing Studies of Lingnan University, Tuen Mun, Hong Kong.

Dear readers,

In May 2004 the First International Conference of The Social Capital Foundation was held. The conference focused on an important subject, the Family, posing the pertinent question: The Future of Family: Recomposition or Decomposition?

In effect, the family link is a primal and most important link that binds people together within society. Realizing the importance of the family in promoting pro-social behavior within society, the United Nations declared 1994 “The Year of the Family”. However, the family as a unit is today threatened by societal, cultural and economic impacts that appear in some societies to disrupt it or dissolve it. This is largely due to the rise in individualist ideologies.

This TSCF conference focused on the vigor of family in our societies: is the concept of family profoundly struck in the past, or is it restructuring itself? Does marriage have a future? What is the place for elderly people in the family landscape? How do we manage the education of adolescents in a context where they seem to be more and more, and earlier and earlier, subject to the pressures of adult society? Should we do something to have firmer family bonds, and if so, what should be done? The conference objective was to shed light on some current developments, and to debate possible innovative responses. Some of the articles we publish in this issue are developed versions of papers presented at the conference. They represent a considered and persuasive attempt to engage with what must be a major preoccupation for those of us who care about family and society, that is, all of us.

American sociologist John Macionis presented the family as a “social institution” found in all societies that unites people into cooperative groups to oversee the bearing and raising of children. Family ties are fundamentally linked with kinship, a social bond based on blood, marriage, or adoption. Although all societies contain families, exactly who people call their kin has varied though history, and varies today from one culture to another. Throughout the world, families form around marriage, a legally sanctioned relationship involving economic cooperation, sexual activity and child-bearing that people expect to be enduring. Through marriage, the family links its members with members of other different social institutions, and in addition it provides protection and security to its immediate members. In the traditional school of thought the family’s main functions are the reproduction of the young, physical and spiritual maintenance of family members, social placement of the child, socialization and social control. It is also through the family that children learn about their culture and values, including religious and moral values. But in these last few decades, what was previously known as “family” has undergone striking changes. Interestingly, the word “family”, according to family sociologist Stephanie Coontz, originally meant “a band of slaves”. For a long time, the notion of family has referred to authority relations, rather than relations based on love.

In any case, over the 50 last years in the industrial countries, the rituals of family life, the wife-husband roles, the place of the elderly, and the role of authority in the parents-children relations have been deeply altered. The size of families has dropped dramatically, the number of marriages has fallen, the number of divorces has exploded, interethnic and same-sex couples have appeared, and various forms of alternative relationships have developed. The slaves, it seems, have set themselves free from the traditional bonds of family - and we are now struggling with all the bewildering and bracing consequences of that freedom.

José Veira’s article published in this issue looks at this changing institution of family in Spain over the period 1981-2001. At the beginning of this period, Spain still was a prototype of a traditional Southern European society where social capital was accumulated within family networks. Over the period, the birth rate has decreased dramatically; so has the number of marriages, while the number of divorces and alternative relationships has increased. His analysis shows that the individualization process underpins these developments, through its impact on the attitudes toward sexual freedom, woman’s identity, divorce and abortion - although this individualization process is still combined with an allegedly high value for the institution of marriage and family.

Another aspect of the contemporary developments is examined by Norman Linzer in this issue. In 2004, gays and lesbians in California rushed to apply for marriage certificates after the mayor of San Francisco authorized the issuing of marriage licenses for same sex couples. In so doing, the Mayor of San Francisco’s action sparked a controversial debate nationwide in the U.S. In his article, “Same-sex Marriage in America : The Struggle for Legitimacy”, Norman Linzer discusses the problems and challenges faced by both gays and lesbians in being recognized as married couples. As a matter of fact, it is paradoxical that while alternative forms of relationships to marriage are increasing, the gay and lesbian movement aspires to legitimize their relationships through conventional marriage, which is an already weakened institution. The question that arises is then whether this may weaken that institution even more, or may instead reinfuse it with a new relevance. This question bitterly divides America, and arguably was a key issue in the 2004 presidential election, where eleven states voted against same-sex marriage even as they re-elected a religious right wing president.

Intergenerational relationships are a crucial aspect of the family link. In effect, one of the major functions of family is to transmit moral values and feelings of identity from one generation to another one. In a cohesive society with a successful inter-generational link, the elderly are necessarily praised, and the values they transmitted are resumed by younger generations. While in pre-industrial societies people recognized the extended family as a family unit that includes parents and children as well as other kin, in industrial societies the nuclear family (which is a family unit composed of one or two parents and their children) emerged. Children move out from their family home once they feel they are adult enough to do so and parents are subsequently left to their own devices. Moreover, individualist self-accomplishment values lead and have led the younger generations to reject or underrate the heritage of the older generations and to devalue the biological, cultural and moral link linking them to their ancestors. And when the older living generation starts to become more and more isolated, they become forgotten people, although they have contributed to the development of the younger generation. This is what Harley Schreck describes in his article, “The intergenerational contract in a selfish age”, using Northeast Minneapolis as a research site to study the isolation and lack of family support faced by the elderly. There are many ways that the elderly can become isolated; be it in terms of their representations in the media, or their participation in jobs which require new skills that the older generation may not be equipped with. Schreck provides helpful solutions to counter a form of ‘selfishness’ which appears in intergenerational relationships.

The intergenerational link can be all the more weak because the ethnic composition of the different generations becomes different. In this case, biological, cultural, or linguistic identification with the former generations becomes much more complex and difficult. What happens for example when grand (or great-grand) children of immigrants adopt a different language and/or lose their mother tongue, due to assimilation (or acculturation for that matter)? How do they communicate with their grandparents, when their proficiency in different languages is different and their zone of comfortability and use is in different languages? Maya David's article, “Strengths in immigrant family communication: focus on Malaysian Sindhis”, shows  that the elders in that community have appeared to have accommodated to the use of a non-ethnic language by the younger generation. As for the young, the major communicative strategy used is shifting languages and using code switches i.e. a mixture of languages in their discourse. The dominant language in the code switch used by younger community members is English. The English language has been reported to be the strongest language of second-generation immigrants to Western Anglophone societies yet even in Malaysia this seems to be the case for the second generation Malaysian Sindhis. It cannot be denied however that due to the varying proficiency levels in different languages the amount and intensity of the discourse between grandparents and grandchildren has to some extent suffered.

Filial piety has been regarded as an ancient virtue of the Chinese and is central to the social organization and governance of Chinese society. In their first article in this issue, Chan et coll. examine the recent changes of filial piety (due to process of urbanization and industrialization, longer life expectancy and changes in government policy) in Chinese societies (Hong Kong and Beijing). They show the far-reaching implications of these changes on elder care policies and on the share model between family and state on elderly care. Three core changes of traditional virtue of filial piety have been noted, including reverence and respects for, absolute obedience, and material and emotional support to parents. Nowadays, parents are still highly respected but their social statuses are declining. Parents and children tend to have a more equal relationship and children are not required to abide by the opinion of their parents. Regarding the material and emotional support, it is not an absolute duty for children to provide all the material needs of their parents. Moreover, it was found that emotional support is gradually more imperative for the elderly persons in Hong Kong while material and financial support are more important in Beijing. The changes in filial piety obviously brought on an impact in relation to elderly care, which are the declining status of the elderly persons, the predominant form of household in small nuclear family, more women joining the labor force and the moving out of children after marriage. All the above changes are not preferable to care provision by the family and give rise to the replacement of services by other social support networks. This has been more evident as society advances, as the differences observed between Beijing and Hong Kong. However, it is believed that the emotional support of the elderly persons could not be easily replaced. Elderly persons still have the expectations that they can be cared and accompanied by their children, especially in their later life. In sum, it is recommended that filial piety should be conserved and carried forward in the nowadays Chinese societies.

Interestingly, Klaus Deimel’s article raises the question of the impact of weak intergenerational relationships over the economy. In effect, he studies the problems inherent to succession in family-owned businesses in a region of Germany. The current literature on this topic mentions severe problems which have the potential to make the transmittal of businesses more difficult, and thus endanger their economic viability. Especially a lack of trust in the successors and a hesitation to share the management power at the incumbents, as well as divergent individual desires of self-accomplishment at the successors are reported to be sources of severe troubles in the succession process. If the persons involved in this process fail to overcome those problems, the success of generational succession is endangered. As a result, the family business as a strong linkage between the generations in entrepreneurial families may cease to exist.

In the final article in this issue a team of researchers in Hong Kong, Alfred Chan and his collaborators focus on the elderly, and explain the meaning of care for older Chinese caregivers in their article, “The meaning of care for older Chinese caregivers: an exploratory model of positive caring.” As an accepted notion in psychology, motivation sets people into motion, and this is what this team of researchers attempt to demonstrate in their study: by explaining the older person’s motivation in wanting to care for their partners. They explain that while pre care-giving conditions like the ability to reduce expectations to match with reality, seeking actively for solutions, etc. are essential for care-givers in generating meanings to care, such cognitive ability has a limit when health or other adverse conditions affect the care-givers’ ability to care. At this point tangible and emotional support and external positive reinforcement (social support) would encourage their commitment in care-giving. The writers discuss two preliminary but comprehensive models to describe and categorize this “cycle of positive caring experience” .

At the TSCF First International Conference, debates enhanced the conflict between family values on the one hand (integrating children and elderly, favoring marital stability), and materialistic/individualistic values (having more income, living for oneself) on the other hand. They stressed that not only the family link helps strengthen the community link, but that reciprocally it takes a strong community link to maintain a robust family link. This is reflected in an African proverb that says: “It takes a village to raise a child”. Meanwhile, it appears that lawmakers facilitate all the time more the weakening of the family link (e.g. loosening the conditions for divorce), and hence contribute to its further disintegration, while they ignore the exact determinants and fallouts of the processes they contribute to push forward. The role of scientific knowledge should be increased here so as to bring more clarity and responsibility in the public settlement of these issues. Families too are somewhat isolated when faced with such private difficulties and transitions. They would need more social support, best practice, as well as intergenerational mentoring (“Why did the marriage work?”).Various tools for prevention such as preparation to marriage are possible. It appears that not only has the global society become an atomized set characterized with weak links and wavering commitment; but that the core nuclear family itself seems to have been threatened. Not only is Western society increasingly characterized with unstable couples, segmented networks and isolated individuals; but the basis on which this society can ensure its future appears to be vacillating.