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Family Problems and Problem Families. By: Leslie J. Miller. Table of Contents. Click to go to…. Home Page. Agenda. Problem Families then and Now. Problematizing the Hidden Injustices of Normal Family Life. Conclusions. Agenda. Scramble Challenge Handout Discussion

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By leslie j miller

Family Problems


Problem Families

By: Leslie J. Miller

Table of contents

Table of Contents

Click to go to…..

Home Page


Problem Families then and Now

Problematizing the Hidden Injustices of Normal Family Life




  • Scramble Challenge

  • Handout Discussion

  • Feature PowerPoint Presentation

  • Movie

  • Wheel of Fortune Game

  • Discussion Questions

Goal of the chapter

Goal of the Chapter

To present a discussion of family problems that are responsive to the insights that have emerged from two fields of scholarship: Feminist studies and The Sociology of Deviance and Control

By leslie j miller

Social Constructionists:

  • The sociology of deviance tell us that social problems are not discovered

  • This means that social conditions do not become social problems until some groups make them an issue-that is targeting them, labeling them deviant, and attempts to put them on the social agenda

    The Study of Social Problems is the Study of that Problematizing Process

  • By conceptualizing it as a process, we recognize that social problems is an interaction- often of struggle-between the powerful and the powerless over those whose ways are the right ways

  • Miller argues that the family problems of this century and the last can be understood only against the backdrop of the emergence of the bourgeois family ideal: the patriarchal cult of domesticity that had the effect of sanctifying a single familial arrangement as the only proper and respectable one

Chapter breakdown

Part One:

Outlines the historical process that produced the modern ideal of the domestic family and reviews some attempts to enforce it by regulating alternative or unfit forms

Though efforts to reform the unfit family have taken various guises over the last century, the image of the “normal family” is still regularly invoked to justify the social control of a whole range of more or less discredited alternatives

Many feminists have argued that we should abandon the labelling of alternative arrangements as immoral, evil or unhealthy and except the reality of many forms instead of just one

Part Two:

Develops the insights of feminist scholars more directly

One consequence of the rise of the domestic ideal was to focus on those families that failed to measure up

The main point Miller emphasizes in part two is that these long hidden aspects of family life represent forms of conduct that are currently being raised as problems by feminists and many others

Family realities such as the unrecognized and unpaid labour of housewives, the “normal” violence of routine, the structural impoverishment of women are presently being targeted by various groups wanting to raise their visibility and thus society’s recognition of them as urgent social problems

Chapter Breakdown

Problem families then and now

Problem Families Then and Now

The rise of the cult of domesticity

Social historians agreed that over the 18th and 19th century in Northern Europe, there arose in the burgeoning middle class, a cult of domesticity that made the new form an object of veneration

Until the 18th century, the family existed as a political and public body, with little or no private character

Towards the end of the 18th Century, the “domestic” or “intimate” modern form of the family emerged and became the normal standard of living

The Rise of the “Cult of Domesticity”

Pre modern family

Pre-modern Family

  • Was the problem, which was seen as a parasitic institutional form, whose members were thought to be making an insufficient contribution to the welfare of society p. 135

  • This family was large and diverse, including household encompassing servants and kin etc.

  • Most of the state’s reform policies were not intended to replace the family but to improve it

    Example: The Baby Bonus

The baby bonus

Began as a state payment to any mother who was willing to raise illegitimate children in her own family, became a mechanism which allowed the state to oversee the physical and moral hygiene of the bourgeoisie and later the poor, family by measuring it against the standard of the new idealp.135

The Ethos of Domesticity had its origin in European societies, where privilege accorded to the new ideal, that worked to produce a moral distinction between the respectable middle-class family and the work-class family, who were seen as deficient and a threat to the public order

The Baby Bonus

Rearing the vulnerability of the child

Rearing the Vulnerability of the Child

  • The modern or domestic family is described as “ child centred”

  • This family understands childhood as a distinct social category defined by innocence and vulnerability, in comparison to the past, where there was a tendency to ignore childhood

  • The new understanding meant that the child and society must be segregated, as the child was seen to be vulnerable to society’s corrupting influences

  • This is linked to parenthood, whereby the fit parent would segregate their child from the world of adults (meaning men) who were bad influences

By leslie j miller

  • Failure to meet this criterion would produce an unruly child, a delinquent youth and a criminal adult

  • Thus, the unfit family, which was essentially the unfit mother, was labelled a social problem

  • Above all, the slum and immigrant families, alternative family forms (divorced, blended, gay/lesbian and lone parent families, as well as the employed mother) were all defined as inadequate environments to raise a child p.136

Policing the unfit family

The “Slum” Family:

During the years of rapid immigration between 1860 and the First World War, critics reserved the greatest concern for the urban slum families, where the threat to the child was considered the greatest

Middle-Class definition of a slum family focused on the “Idle Youth” who were marginally employed as bootblacks and newsboys, neither going to school or work, just roaming the streets p. 137

Solutions to this would become the “problem of juvenile delinquency”, and included some things as training schools or orphanages, that were seen to install the child into a better home

During the last half of the 19th Century, children’s wages provided an important part of family income

In comparison with the modern family, good parenting came to imply the complete segregation of the child from the adult world of paid labour

There was a general belief that working-class girls should be at home, rather then at dance halls or theatres, for example

Policing the “Unfit Family”

Excursus the tyranny of the experts

Excursus: The Tyranny of the Experts

  • Prior to the rise of the modern state, the local community and church were the major agents of social control

  • Mechanisms of control were local and informal, and included noisy public demonstrations called “shivarees” which were designed to humiliate the wrongdoer into right conduct p.138

  • The rise of the modern state signalled the weakening of community authority and the social control of the family became more standardized and formal

  • The problem of slum families became in its entirety the property of the new (male) child-care professionals

The dionne sisters

The Dionne Sisters

  • Elzire and Olivia Dionne raised several children under the rural French-Catholic tradition, until the birth of their 5 daughters in 1934

  • They had met the requirements for exemplary parenthood according to their faith and culture (all 5 children were nourished and housed without public assistance)

  • The Dionne's did not have indoor plumbing or electricity at their farmhouse and were considered to have lost traditional authority after the birth of their 5 daughters

  • The girls were later surrender to the state, raised in a hospital, in a scientific environment under the supervision of Dr. William Blatz, Psychologist

  • This is an example of state efforts to enforce the ideal of the bourgeois domesticity by influencing child-rearing practices

  • These sisters have paid for the uninvited scientific and popular celebrity of their early lives early lives with adulthoods marked by suicide, poverty and depression

  • First Nations families have also experienced a history the apprehension of their children, as many were considered unfit parents

  • Overall, such unilateral acts of state intervention continue almost always to be directed to societies most marginalized communities

The employed mother

The Employed Mother

The employed mother1

The Employed Mother

  • The Ethos of Domesticity entails a figure of the vulnerable child together with the mother who is expected to make the child her first concern, above herself

  • The problem with working mothers is that she should be minding her children, instead of going out and working, which became a concern with the ethos of domesticity, whereby the role of the mother should become the central mission in a woman’s life

  • The working mother became a focus of anxiety, as recent debates in connection with the push for more daycare

  • Today, mothers themselves continue to show considerable ambivalence about the appropriateness of their own paid work: they, work, or plan to while insist that their proper place is at home, “at least while the children are young” p.143

  • For those women who work in the labour force, mothering is considered their first commitment or primary “real” work

The new problem the lesbian family

The New Problem: The Lesbian Family

  • Perhaps the most obvious challenges to the bourgeoisie ideal of the heterosexual, male dominated family are the conjugal families of the 1960’s and the alternative family forms of the 1980’s and 1990’s, including gay and lesbian, as well as single headed families

  • Arnup’s study of 5 courts cases dealing with Lesbian custody before 1984, showed that court decisions neither repressed nor tolerated lesbian families as such, but distinguished between the good and bad lesbian families p.145

  • This study showed the state’s role in controlling at least this alternative family form, as well as the goal of the state’s efforts

  • The state is not concerned with lesbian families per se, but with the way such families represent themselves publicly with regard to the domestic standard

  • In court cases, the determining factor in a judge’s decision is not what the mother’s sexual orientation is, but rather what she does with it

Problematizing the hidden injustices of normal family life

Problematizing the Hidden Injustices of Normal Family Life

The Feminization of Poverty: Women face higher risks of poverty than men, which is considered a significant long-term trend


  • Because those women who remained housewives all their adult years have been disadvantaged materially by their total economic dependence on their husband, whose support might suddenly disappear through divorce, desertion or death p. 148

  • The jobs for which women are hired are overall the worst: they offer the lowest pay and the fewest benefits (gender segregation of the labour force)

  • Cultural assumptions about the nature of femininity also play a crucial role both in the causes of women’s poverty and in its invisibility as a social problem

Family violence

Family Violence

The problem of family violence

The Problem of Family Violence:

  • Family violence is now seen as violence of several different kinds- against women, children, the old, and amongst children (siblings)

  • Greater visibility is currently attached to the abuse of women and children than to sibling abuse and the abuse of older family members

  • Domestic violence is sometimes woman-to-man, but more often women and children are the victims

  • A recent Canadian survey indicated that 29% of women have experience violence at the hands of their current or previous marital partner p. 150

  • Sociologist of the family warn that parental homicide is the most common killer of children, parents continue to fear the maniac in the schoolyard for example

  • Some violent acts are also normalized and reinterpreted as acceptable (Ex. fights between siblings)

Social control

Social Control

  • According to Miller, when we reassign severe or deviant violence to others, we evade the recognition that our intimates can also do us harm p. 152

  • Despite attempts to demonstrate, “scientifically” that violence is distributed throughout the ambit of human experience, the violent person who is also an intimate is not yet culturally defined as a category of deviant

  • The tendency to medicalize family violence by attributing it to physical or mental illness worsens the problem, by blinding us to the cultural roots of the way we understand the family and the violence within it p. 152



  • The increase attention paid to social control and its historical evolution has led to a re-evaluation of the linkage between family and state

  • Feminist scholars have come to recognize that the various ways in which the state attempts to suppress or improve “problem families has gone against the interests of women

  • According to Leslie Miller, state enforcement of the “domestic family” often entails direct or indirect repression of other workable arrangements, such as women working outside the home

  • On the other hand, however, many feminists recognize that women today welcome state intervention into their homelives

  • This chapter raises the question of whether the state, given its subservience to the interests of capital (patriarchy) can be expected to act against those interests by taking the side of women in the family

  • At the present time, family theorists have begun to see the state as an environment within which family members are seen to be the agents of their own lives

Discussion questions

Discussion Questions

1)State intervention continues to almost always be directed towards society’s most marginalized communities, and are conducted in a way that often provokes humiliation, confusion and often violence. How does the treatment of lower-class families differ in comparison to upper-class families, with respect to state intervention and control?

2)Family violence is presently seen as violence of different kinds, including violence against children, women, the elderly and amongst children(siblings). Why do you feel that victims of domestic violence, in particular women and children, are reluctant to pursue justification when the abuser is a family member, and not when the abuser is a stranger?

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