The Personal Life Perspective on the Family

The personal life perspective on the family is essentially an Interactionist perspective and makes two basic criticisms of structural perspectives such as Functionalism, Marxism and Feminism’. Carol Smart is the main thinker associated with this perspective.

Criticisms of Structural Perspectives

The Personal Life Perspective makes tow main criticisms of structural perspectives on the family such as Functionalism and Marxism

  1. They tend to assume that the traditional nuclear family is the dominant type of family. This ignores the increased diversity of families today. Compared with 50 years ago, many more people now live in other families, such as lone-parent families and so on.
  2. They are all structural theories. That is, they assume that families and their members are simply passive puppets manipulated by the structure of society to perform certain functions – for example, to provide the economy with a mobile labour force, or serve the needs of capitalism or of men.

The Sociology of Personal life is strongly influenced by Interactionist ideas and contrasts with structural theories. Sociologists from this perspective believe that in order to understand families, we must start from the point of view of the individuals concerned and the meanings they give to their relationships.’

Personal Life, not necessarily the family!

People can have close, emotional and meaningful relationships without being embedded in anything like a ‘normal’ idea of a family, thus why we should be looking at personal life from the perspective of individuals rather than focusing on families as the base unit of analysis.

For example, people may have close connections (like we would normally associate with husband-wife, mother-daughter) from all or any of the following:

  • Friends
  • Pets
  • Dead relatives.

In fact, it might be useful to remember the Personal Life Perspective as the one about ‘pets and dead relatives!

Families are complex yet still ‘constrained’

For those people who do form families, the PLP perspective recognises that family structures are complex and that there are several different ways roles within family life may be divided up making for a huge variety in family diversity.

Moreover, different people within the same family may have different views of WHO is in that family. For example, one person might think a dead relative is still part of it, everyone else might disagree; one divorced partner in a step-family may regard their family as divorce-extended, the other partner whose first relationship it is might have a different conception.

However families are still constrained by at least three factors:

  1. Personal family history
  2. Social norms
  3. Structural factors such as class, gender and ethnicity.

These constraints mean that people aren’t just free to make up and defined their families anyway they see fit, there are ‘normative demands’ on them made by objective reality, so this isn’t a purely postmodern take on family life.

Carol Smart: ‘Personal Life: New Directions in Sociological Thinking’

Carol Smart Sociology of Personal Life

Carol Smart is the main person associated with this perspective. She has become frustrated by the fixation of many commentators with the supposed decline of the possibility of family life. She rejects many of the assumptions about the decline of family life found in theories of individualisation by authors such as Beck and Beck Gernsheim and Giddens.

Instead, her approach prioritises the bonds between people, the importance of memory and cultural heritage, the significance of emotions (both positive and negative), how family secrets work and change over time, and the underestimated importance of things such as shared possessions or homes in the maintenance and memory of relationships.

‘By focusing on people’s meanings, Carol Smart’s personal life perspective draws our attention to a range of other personal or intimate relationships that are important to people, even though they may not be conventionally defined as family. These include all kinds of relationships that individuals see as significant and give them a sense of identity, relatedness and belonging, such as:

  • Relationships with friends who might be like a sister or a brother to you.
  • Fictive kin: close friends who are treated as relatives, for example your mum’s best friend who you call your ‘auntie’
  • Gay and lesbian ‘chosen families’ made up of a supportive network of close friends, ex partners and others who are not related by marriage or blood
  • Relationships with dead relatives who live on in people’s memories and continue to shape their identities and affect their actions
  • Even relationships with pets. For example, Becky Tiper (2011) found in her study of children’s views of family relationships, that children frequently saw their pets as ‘part of the family’

In short – The Family is not in decline, it is just very very different and much more diverse and complex than ever before. 

Evaluation of the Personal Life Perspective

  • ‘It helps us to understand how people themselves construct and define their relationships as ‘family’ rather than imposing traditional sociological definitions of the family from the outside.
  • However, taking the personal life perspective can be accused to taking too broad a view. Critics argue that by including a wide range of personal relationships, we ignore what is special about relationships that are based on blood or marriage.
  • The personal life perspective rejects the top down view taken by other perspectives, such as functionalism but it does see intimate relationships as performing the important function of providing us with a sense of belonging and relatedness
  • However, unlike functionalism the personal life perspective recognises that relatedness is not always positive’
Related Links

Late Modern Perspectives on The Family (what Smart criticises)

Understanding Society – A longitudinal study of changing households in the UK (you can use this data to assess the validity of the Personal Life Perspective)

The Personal Life Perspective is one the main perspectives on the family within the A-Level Sociology Families and Households topic

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Further Reading
Vanessa May Sociology of Personal Life


3 responses to “The Personal Life Perspective on the Family”

  1. yes – it’s explicitly on the spec in 2017

  2. An Academic Student

    Is this in the AS Sociology spec as of 2017?

  3. Very useful!

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