It is increasingly common for people to form close, emotional relationships with their friends, pets and other ‘fictive kin’, and to regard these people (or animals) as part of their family.
People can have close ‘family like’ relationships which provide an emotional and even a financial support network without being in a ‘normal’ family, and if we wish to understand personal life today, we need to focus on the close personal connections which individuals have rather than families in the traditional sense.
The personal life perspective on the family is essentially an Interactionist perspective and criticises structural perspectives such as Functionalism, Marxism and Feminism for assuming the nuclear family is the dominant type of family and taking that as the base unit for analysis.
Rather than studying ‘the nuclear family’ in the traditional sense, we study individuals and take the time to understand their own personal perspective on their own family.
If we do this, we will find multiple definitions and understandings of the family with some people seeing pets, friends, or dead relatives as more important in their personal lives than members of their actual family in the traditional sense of the word.
However, this doesn’t necessarily mean people are free to construct whatever family they see fit, they are still constrained by social norms.
Carol Smart is the main thinker associated with this perspective.
A summary of the Personal Life Perspective
Criticisms of Structural Perspectives
The Personal Life Perspective makes two main criticisms of structural perspectives on the family such as Functionalism and Marxism
- They tend to assume 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.
- 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:
- Dead relatives.
- Fictive Kin
Fictive Kin are people who are regarded as family even though they are not related by blood, marriage or adoption.
HINT: 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 stepfamily 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:
- Personal family history
- Social norms
- 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 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.
Supporting evidence for the Personal Life Perspective
Fictive Kin are often regarded as part of the family
Fictive Kin are people who are regarded as family even though they are not related by blood, marriage or adoption.
According to a 2013 survey of 6500 adults in the Netherlands (1) 35% of older persons aged 61-79 were most likely to have fictive kin, as did 23% of middle-aged people, aged 41-60 and 16% of younger people, aged 18-40 had fictive kin
The paper-and-pencil questionnaire included the following question: “Who do you consider to be part of ‘your family’?” Alternatives included: partner, children, parents, siblings, nieces and nephews, grandparents, grandchildren, uncles and aunts, cousins, other relatives, parents-in-law, siblings-in-law, others-in-law, and, finally, “others (a friend, neighbor, etc.).”
The final category was how ‘Fictive Kin’ was operationalized.
This study has some level of reliability as a previous 1992 Study (2) found that 40% of older people identify fictive kin as family.
Pets are often regarded as part of the family
According to a survey of 1000 households and a further 193 in-depth interviews carried out between May 2001 and December 2003 in Swansea, South Wales (3) 46/193 people spontaneously mentioned pets as part of their family.
According to Blue Cross Pet Census 95% of respondents said they view their pets like family, over 70% said they have bought their pet something nice to show them they love them, although I think this may be a case of a biased sample of hardcore pet-lovers when we look at another (2022) survey by the World Animal Foundation 52% of adults in the UK had a pet in 2022, and half of those think they make great companions, which suggests the figure regarding their pets as family is much less than 95%!
This (2023) UK petition to treat pets like children certainly suggests there is support for pets to be treated like part of the family. It is campaigning to get the law changed around how pets are treated during divorce: currently they are treated like property, treating them like children would mean their welfare has to be taken in to account during a relationship breakdown, which currently isn’t the case under British law.
Evidence of Complex family maps…
Eliza Garwood (4) carried out biographical narrative interviews with twenty-two adult children raised by LGBTQ parents.
She documents case studies of how some respondents were born to two apparently heterosexual parents, and spent their early childhoods in that relationship, but then one parent came out and/ or transitioned, broke up with the other parent and established themselves in a queer relationship, with the child being parented by two LGBTQ parents in their later childhood.
She found that many of these (now adult) children have spent considerable time and effort actively construct their kinship-stories as adults, and their sense of family is thus very complex, and often rooted in a sense of injustice about the discrimination than LGBTQ people face.
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.
- 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.
- It recognises that people are active in constructing relationships. You can use this to criticise the New Right’s view of the nuclear family: the nuclear family may be in decline, but from the PLP it doesn’t matter because there’s all sorts of other relationships that can provide emotional support.
- Taking the personal life perspective can be accused to taking too broad a view, all we can really do is describe or map out relationships.
- Traditional married and cohabiting nuclear families probably provide more financial support to children than friends and more emotional support than pets, so let’s not exaggerate the importance of certain types of personal relationship.
- It makes choosing a nationally representative sample of ‘families’ very difficult: there is so much diversity we may not be able to make generalisations from any sample.
- A recent (2022) Survey on Declining Friendship USA has found that friendship is in decline in America: people report having fewer friends than in the 1990s, and that they rely on them less for emotional support than was the case 20 years ago. This suggests that friendship might not be replacing the family, rather nothing is!
Signposting and Related posts
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 and Sources
1 (2013) Fictive Kin just like family
(2) Fictive Kin
3 (2008) My family and other animals
(4) (2022) Queering the Kinship Story