Last Updated 13 Mar 2020

The Study of the Family

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Rooted in how family is defined are precepts about what is considered a social norm, or acceptable behaviour. It tells people what’s perceived as a family and what is not. Within the word family are individual inherited social, historical and cultural values. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a family as the servants of a house, or the household or everyone who lives in a house or under one head and finally as a "group of persons consisting of the parents and their children, whether actually living together or not". The family evolves and changes as the society in which we live changes.

Does the “traditional”, heterosexual family still exist as the norm? There has been a decline in marriage, increase in cohabitation and children born into single parent families. There has also been an increase in divorce, incline of compound families and recognition of same sex relationships, marriages and parenting. The multiplicity in human relationships makes it problematic for psychologists to define family or forecast patterns of behaviour. Individual-society dualism refers to one of the interrogative themes in social psychology.

The challenge of how individuals and society are associated is both complex but also greatly controversial, as it forms the basis of many political thinking, values and viewpoints and the formation of social policies. Traditional psychological theories and research into the structure of families mainly focused on the realm of developmental psychology. Much research centred on mother-child interactions with few studies of father-child interactions (O’Brien 2005). Traditional research centred on the shortcomings and problems within the family structure, such as incest and eating disorders (Cawson et al., 2000) and looks for origins of breakdowns between members of the family.

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Traditional research viewed the individuals as being separate from society and unaffected by it or as over socialised beings and as such was found to be constrictive in its use. “Families and close personal relationships give us a vital framework through which we come to make sense of ourselves and the world” (Helen Lucey 2007 pg 66 cited in Social Psychology Matters). From birth the family generally is the main source of influence in the development of physical, social and emotional well being and as such is worthy of further research and debate.

Recent perspectives such as the discursive and psychoanalytic perspective have gone a step further to take account of both individual and society and looks at how the individual is influenced by as well as from society such as culture and family history (Lucey, 2007 Open University, DVD 1). For the purpose of this essay the main focus will be on the dynamics of family relationships providing a critical evaluation of theory and research into close relationships specifically sibling relationships to demonstrate these complexities from a psychoanalytic point of view.

The concept that our actions and interactions are relatively the creation of unreasonable and unconscious processes tackles previous psychological ideologies about qualities common to humanity. The majority of theories on families, as well as social policies and practices suppose that people are influenced by sound motives that they usually know what their behaviours are and motives for them and have power over their lives.

In comparison psychoanalysis and the more recent social psychoanalytical theories or perspectives propose that conscious thought only ‘scratches the surface’ and is in the domain of extensive unconscious processes, by which the majority of our internalised self lives within, that addresses this notion of an unconscious tool effective in controlling unconscious anxiety, known as splitting, projection and projective identification. The psychoanalytic perspective can be viewed as responding to the need of a more holistic explanation of families and development of self. Previously siblings were marginalised.

When we look and Freud’s theory for example they were only noticed in negative scenarios, murderous rivalry and jealousy. The focus would be on the evolving of individual subjectivity and the psyche and now psychoanalytic theorists are beginning to view siblings as internalised individuals in children’s lives (Lucey 2007) Some of the approaches fundamentals tend to overlap with approaches such as discursive and phenomenological perspectives, but differentiates from these schools of thought in psychology and theories of social sciences by its underlying notions of a powerful subjective conscious and unconscious.

As a result, research into the family from a social psychoanalytic approach may well transcend the individual-society dualism. In direct opposite to the discursive approach the psychoanalytical approach views the family structure/makeup as changeable and influenced by society, parents, individuals and culture. People’s behaviours are not viewed as existing in isolation or as separate entities, but must be viewed as part of and within the wider cultural economic and social world, which influences, effects and guides individual’s behaviours and as a result has different outcomes for relationships.

Lucey 2007 argues that siblings are unique individuals who have in common their genetic makeup and share a majority of social aspects with each other and as such could provide a window into the fundamentals of close relationships. The psychoanalytic approach takes the stance that older siblings are just as important in the development of self as the parents. Siblings evolve into role models (ego-ideals) in which they establish their superego from perceived behaviours (Mitchell 2003).

Society’s social order dictates an individual’s choice which is clearly evidenced in Edward and Lucey’s 2006 research which followed five Bangladeshi sisters living in the United Kingdom. Azra who is the eldest sibling is clearly shown to be regarded as a role model to her younger sisters and an example of how they should behave and the choices they should make in terms of how they live their lives in order to obtain the ‘respect’ and acceptance within the cultural community to which they belong.

The theme of individual-society dualism is displayed as the girls in the research have autonomy to make specific choices in their lives. However this is within the constraints of the Muslim cultural structures. Habiba the second eldest feels pressured to study hard to achieve the success expected and avoid letting her sister down. The unconscious introjection and projection of Azra's perceived purity, goodness and conforming behaviour. Azra’s persona acted as a guide for the sisters behaviour and accomplishments.

The notion of her reproof or displeasure in their failure in anyway is evidently important and ensues in splitting, dividing the good from the bad, and the agreeable and un-agreeable. The individual-society dualism is reflective in the girl’s social surroundings and the relation between culture, community and social factors. ` Sabina, the third eldest sister doesn’t view herself as an individual but refers to her reputation as ‘a family’. Her personal identity is viewed as the family as a whole.

Asian cultures like theirs are guided by ethical and moral principles within the close knit communities they live with strict cultural values and seek approval from each other and as such the need to achieve acceptance is very great (Heinnink 1999). It is clear that the five sister’s choices are restricted by the unconscious self and social influences. The girls however do take an operative role in the creating of their identity on an individual level, as family and as members of their community.

There is an assumed existence of defences such as projection to help resolve any anxieties or conflict experienced Thomas Ogden (1982). In the social psychoanalytic approach anxiety is viewed as unavoidable and ‘normal’ and core to the evolvement of an individual’s personality (Freud 1936). It is important to note the idea of agency and how much choice an individual exerts and how much is governed by the structures, groups and cultures to which individuals belong within society.

For example during an individual’s school years they have no control over which school they attend this is governed by societal structures and parental choice to a limited degree and friends are usually chosen from the class the individual is affiliated to, referred to as propinquity effect (Bersheid and Reis 1988). Therefore proximity, teacher and school dictate which group you will belong and therefore choice of friendships formed. So how much is based on individual choice and how much is dictated by the society, group psychic processes.

However the propinquity effect doesn’t fully explain about interpersonal attraction or why we become friends and other factors must influence our choice such as culture, values and interests for example. Further research is required to highlight features of close relationships. The social psychoanalytic perspectives in the study of families and research into sibling relationships put forward a viable means of comprehending family dynamics and the implications of individual as agency and the influence of social forces such as attachments, race, culture and social and how these forces shape the family and relationships within it.

The psychoanalytic research into siblings highlights how the inner psyche and social life are intertwined, and how the older sibling can become part of ‘critical inner voice’ that siblings will use as a measure for their own desire and impulses (Lucey DD307 Guide). In conclusion therefore the writer is inclined to support and agree with the psychoanalytical perspective and accept that it is important to take account of a multitude of interacting factors such as individual, historical, cultural and social contributions to the study of the family.

Close relationships are formed as a result of the individual as well as social world to which they belong. The problems in the definition of the family highlights the need for a more complete understanding linking theories in social psychology and possibly sociological social psychology which studies societal processes and individuals within the culture and structures in which they live and psychological social psychology which addresses the role of the family and child development during early socialisation.

If social psychology is to effect change in political thinking and social policies which are important especially in the field of social work if working practices are to change, further research needs to be undertaken, due to the fact that sibling relationships are the longest lasting that the majority of individuals will experience. Longitudinal studies into sibling relationships could provide further information into how family dynamics change over time, providing possible models of studying other forms of close relationships.

The Study of the Family essay

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