One of the key ideas associated with The Personal Life Perspective on the family is that are lots of differences of opinion over who counts as family. Many people regard friends, dead relatives and pets as part of their family, for example.
This post examines the extent to which people in the UK think Pets are part of the family.
More than 90% of dog and cat owners regard pets as part of the family
58.6% – of pet owners reported spending between £11 and £100 on their pet on Valentine’s Day 2020,
26% of respondents said they are more likely to buy their pet a gift than their partner.
Nearly a quarter of respondents reported they would prefer to spend Valentine’s day with their pet, rather than a love interest
This certainly seems to suggest that, for around 25% of the pet-owning population, pets are more important than their human partners.
Of course this might be because some (most?) of those respondents don’t actually have human partners! Also, the above stats have been collected by a Pet store for marketing purposes – the point being to make it seem like it’s normal to buy your pet a Valentines Day gift, so the reporting here might be selective to give the misleading impression that pets are more important than human partners, rather than pets being a kind of surrogate for a human partner.
Pet posts on social media
The Facebook Group: Our Pets are Family is certainly supporting evidence for the Personal Life perspective. Most of the posts are about pets that have been lost or stolen (yes, dog theft is a ‘thing’!), but with only 2.1K members, this doesn’t seem to be that representative of all pet-owners.
And I’m sure you’ve seen plenty of other pet related social media posts!
What do you think?
If you can think of any other pieces of evidence that either support or criticise the view that ‘pets are part of the family’ then drop links in the comments!
This post has been written to help students evaluate the Personal Life Perspective, which is part of the families and households module for A-level Sociology.
This is a possible question which could come up in the AQA’s Paper 2, families and households topic. This post is just a few thoughts on how I’d go about answering it.
I think this would be a fair question given that this is quite a difficult topic for students, and quite limited in what you can say for 20 marks.
You might like to review the material on the Personal Life Perspective in more depth before reading what’s below, or before having a go at the question yourself, before looking at the suggestions below!
The Personal Life Perspective argues that sociologists should study family life from the perspectives of individuals, and focus on what families mean to them. If people believe that pets and dead relatives are part of their family, the sociologists should accept this.
This is very different from traditional sociological perspectives such as Functionalism and Marxism, which tended to study the nuclear family and look at what functions this performed for the individual and society.
Using the item and your own knowledge, Evaluate the personal life perspective on the family
What you need to do here is firstly show your knowledge of the Personal Life Perspective, and contrast this to Functionalism and Marxism. You can gain evaluation marks by showing how the PLP perspective criticise these older perspectives. Further analysis marks can be picked up by discussing how the former perspectives may have been relevant to a modernist society, but the PLP perspective is probably a better way of analysing the family in a post-modern society.
Finally, to criticise the PLP perspective, you could use Gidden’s Late Modernist theory. Although this would be a stretch for many students, especially as many of the text books don’t even recognise that Giddens is a Late Modernist.
The PLP perspective emerged in the 1990s and criticised the Functionalist and Marxist view that the nuclear family should be the primary unit of analysis.
PLP argues that people still form meaningful relationships, but their Identity or sense of belonging increasingly comes from other people NOT traditionally regarded as part of a ‘normal family’ – for example pets, friends and dead relatives may all be seen as important to individuals.
The PLP perspective makes sense today because the nuclear family has declined in significance as fewer people get married, fewer people have kids, and more and more people spend time living alone, yet people still form meaningful relationships with each other.
The PLP perspective suggests we look at the family from the individual’s point of view, taking their definition – which can be useful, because if we do so we find that many people regard ‘non-nuclear’ family members as more important to them than their immediate traditional family.
This is is useful because it means we should not over-estimate the stability of the traditional nuclear family, and not be surprised by high rates of family break-down.
PLP also seems to fit in with interactionism – looking at the family from the ground up, rather than the top down, a strength of this is that we see that there are still families in the UK, nearly everyone has one, but just not in the standard ‘nuclear family’ sense of the word.
The PLP perspective is thus useful in criticising the New Right – people may not be in nuclear families, or married, but they are capable of establishing their own alternative families.
PLP is also useful to criticise Functionalism and Marxism – if families are different to the nuclear family, theories which focus on the role of the nuclear family must be wrong.
This is also a useful way of exploring family diversity, revealing family diversity if you like, and it’s appropriate when life-courses are diverse and complex.
The PLP perspective did, however suggest that people are not entirely free to construct their own families, they are constrained in their ability to do so by society and their immediate culture.
Finally, a weakness of PLP is that it ends up being a bit wishy-washy, descriptive rather than analytical, one is kind of left shrugging one’s shoulders wondering what the point of it is!
The 53-year old librarian at Sapiennza University in Rome – identified only by her first name, Anna – took two days off work in order to accompany Cucciola to the vet for two different operations.
She told her employers that as she is unmarried and lives alone, her dogs are in effect her ‘family’ – and argued that the days off should therefore be treated as paid compassionate leave.
‘It is a significant step forward that recognized that animals that are no kept for financial gain or their working ability are effectively members of the family’ said Gianluca Felicetti, of the Italian animal rights group whose lawyers helped Anna present her case to her employers.
Relevance to A-level sociology
This is most obviously relevant to the families and households module, especially the Personal life Perspective which says that people increasingly see pets as part of the family, and this is a clear example of this view of the family gaining legal recognition in Italy.
The Personal Life Perspective: dogs and dead relatives are part of the family too!
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.
The Personal Life Perspective: Key Ideas
‘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.
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.’
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.
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’
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