What could be radical about teaching family with a sociological lens?
I remember vividly the moment when my good friend questioned how I, a very oppositional character not backing down from confronting anyone, can be academically interested in a topic as ‘apolitical’ as family. To be honest, his inquiry—or more of an observation—caught me off guard and made me realize that I never really questioned the political nature of my academic interests up to that point. I might not have given him a satisfactory answer at the moment, but now thinking back, that version of me probably did not have the experience of and acquaintance with the more radical notions of studying and teaching such a seemingly mundane topic as family. While my understanding and knowledge have developed over time, even now I have not fully captured the complexities and implications of this vast subarea of sociology. Additionally, I acknowledge that it is not possible to claim an absolute political impact by mainly staying within the rigidly established boundaries of the academic bubble. Rather, what I want to express in this piece is this: There is and should be an impact, albeit limited, we aim to achieve through teaching by mediating the students’ acquisition and application of a sociological perspective on any everyday life matters of the world they live in.
Considering the not overtly declared but commonly accepted hierarchy of subareas of sociology, those who study family have never been regarded as the primary force within the discipline. At least not as much as, for example, the sociologists studying more macro (and ‘politically-laden’) topics such as inequalities, or social change and transformation. Even though family is regarded as one of the traditional subareas of sociology, family sociologists have long stayed in the shadows of scholars in other fields, such as psychologists, demographers, and one can even claim economists, dominating the broad field of family studies. In Turkey, this is even further complicated by the preponderance of scholars with an educational background in theology in both academic and discourse-making on families with a completely different focus and tone.
Why do I then claim that as a family sociologist, I have the potential of creating a radical impact by simply teaching family the way I do to a bunch of undergraduate students in Turkey (1)? There are three specific reasons for claiming such an impact. First, I challenge my students to think about family in a ‘plural’ rather than a ‘singular’ form, to consider the numerous different ways in which families may be constructed. This is particularly thought-provoking for a group of students who are primarily exposed to a dominant yet discursively reductionist understanding of ‘the family’ as a singular, universal institution. Second and related to the first reason, I introduce my students to gender and queer perspectives on families. By doing so, they get exposed to a fundamentally radical critique on the patriarchal and heteronormative aspects of this social institution. Third, I encourage them to question the very ‘unmarked’ territories of their own current and future families.
To start with, on the first day of class, I emphasize that in this course we would not talk about ‘the family’ but ‘families.’ Many contemporary sociologists out there might automatically give a ‘duh-uh’ reaction to this statement, yet this has not always been a widely accepted understanding among family scholars. Indeed, it is still possible to discover some discussions among important family scholars who would regard this distinction as futile. On the contrary, I find it very crucial to start our discussions on why and how we study ‘families.’ I point at the fact that people in any society would claim they know what ‘the family’ means or looks like, some might even have some unyielding opinions and feelings on what it should NOT mean/look like. While discussing the multiple meanings of families, students realize that not all their classmates have family experiences which fit with the common (mis)conception of ‘family as haven.’ We also delve into the issue of who would count as family to whom and seriously consider whether friends or even one’s pets could be identified as family members.
Throughout the course, we also touch upon alternative family trajectories. I encourage them to consider diverse paths anyone can take rather than following rigid, normative, and restrictive family trajectories. I introduce a vast variety of examples in which individuals deviate from norms of getting married, having kid(s) of one’s own, loving and caring for one’s children, or respecting and taking care of older family members. These alternative family configurations enable them to question what they take for granted as natural life cycles and universal family experiences for every human. Some of my students could then better situate their own plans regarding not getting married/marrying late or not having children as not necessarily a deviation from the ‘normal’ but just an alternative possibility.
Second, I make a conscious effort to present a coherent gender perspective to any family formations and experiences we cover. By doing so, we not only expose the patriarchal constitutions of families which lead to gender inequality, but also question the heteronormativity in our understandings of what counts as family. I have found that my students in Turkey are especially very outspoken about and invested in challenging the gender inequalities in families and envision a different future for themselves than their parents’. For example, some women especially express their concerns about the social pressure from their families and community should they choose not to get married or prefer cohabitation over marriage. However, most of both women and men in my classes regard dual-earner families (2) as a must if they would get married because they all want to pursue their careers. Therefore, they also believe household division of labor should be equally shared between partners. In addition, this class has never solely been about introducing a couple of readings on same-sex marriages or LGBTI+ parenthood. Some of my students have also served as the radicalizing agents in their active participation by providing non-heteronormative alternative perspectives on the topic in hand. What has always been the most exceptional learning experience for me in teaching family is how students have used their assignments as safe spaces in which they can come out and discuss their uncertainties or concerns related to their future family plans. As same-sex marriages are still outlawed (3) in Turkey, the class provides students a unique opportunity to share their accounts of how what they consider as family goes beyond the consanguineal ties, is not restricted to marriage, and includes a wider and diverse net of friends and partners.
Finally, I acknowledge many of the students taking a class on family might think there is nothing that interesting or noteworthy about families. Some consider their family the most ordinary kind one can have, therefore, there is no need to talk about it. This also challenges me as a teacher to ask: Is it easier to teach someone something they have never heard of or known anything about OR to teach a different perspective on something they already think they know and take-for-granted? I assume that my fellow sociologists can relate because “I have never thought about it like this before” is a common reaction we get from our students in sociology classes. When it is family that we teach, even a reaction such as “I have never even thought about or felt the need to ask how my parents met each other” is possible. I will always remember this student of Greek origin who never questioned his last name and only discovered the family history and the meaning of his last name thanks to the family interview assignment in my Introduction to Sociology class at Purdue University. The assignment asks my students to compare their grandparents’ and parents’ family formations and experiences with their own plans. While completing this assignment, they get the chance to explore their own family history, talk to the members of older generation, and seriously ponder upon what lays ahead in their lives. What they discover does not always surprise them or challenge their understanding of how ordinary their family is, but what they end up being amazed by is observing the change as well as continuities in three generations.
Brekhus (1998) proposed that sociology should be equally concerned with unnoticed, unremarkable, taken for granted, and what appears as ‘politically insignificant’ aspects of our everyday realities. Therefore, I consider the most radical impact of teaching family with a sociological lens comes from its focus on exploring and rendering visible these ‘unmarked’ territories of our everyday lives.
I had the opportunity to teach at several liberal universities in the metropolitan city of Ankara, the capital of Turkey. Therefore, I acknowledge that pursuing a similar radical impact from teaching family would require more serious political struggle had I been positioned in a more conservative environment or in a non-metropolitan area.
Considering that only 30% of working age women participate in labor market and single-earner nuclear family form is still the ‘norm’ in Turkey, their ideas on gender equality appear to be more radical.
Additionally, no other legal or social protection measures for LGBTI+ individuals exist in Turkey.