CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1This short volume explores the diversity of forms of family regulation in the contemporary period in France, Italy, and the United States. It brings together five contributions from authors participating in the ETHOPOL joint research programme, funded by the French National Research Agency and directed by Sébastien Roux. Each one deals with a different research object: international adoption (Sébastien Roux), paternity tests (Mélanie Gourarier), surrogacy (Jérôme Courduriès), reproductive failures observed in cases of the refusal of continuing IVF (Michela Villani) and, finally, the treatment of perinatal depression (Anne-Sophie Vozari). But all share the original commitment to investigating how various institutions and their agents (doctors, social workers, judges, psychologists, marriage counsellors, nurses, etc.) not only regulate and guide individuals’ behaviour, but also act on their ‘psyche’ (p. 11). Drawing on Nikolas Rose’s concept of ‘ethopolitics’, [1] strongly inspired by the Foucauldian notion of ‘biopolitics’, the authors show how institutions charged with family regulation seek to influence individuals’ desires and perception of situations by stimulating them into constant reflexive labour. In this context, their ‘primary objective [is] the subject’s free and voluntary self-reform, oriented towards a transformed and shared ideal’ (p. 14). Transformations of the subjects’ very interiority are thus central to these regulatory institutions’ relations with individuals.

2Sébastien Roux (‘Les meilleurs choix possibles: savoirs professionnels, allocation d’enfants et hiérarchies sociales dans l’adoption’ [The best possible choices: Professional knowledge, child allocation, and social hierarchies in adoption]) shows how the professionals of the Aide sociale à l’enfance use a specific ‘pedagogy’ (p. 23) and ‘institutional labour’ to adapt parents’ expectations and desires to the ‘specificity of the adoptive bond’ and the realities of adoption. It is less the institution that imposes constraints than individuals who do work of self-correction and self-discipline, readjusting their desires and intentions based on those of the institution.

3Mélanie Gourarier (‘Attestation familiale: l’administration des tests ADN de paternité aux États-Unis’ [Family attestation: The administration of DNA paternity tests in the United States]) highlights the shift from one family order (the declaration system) to another (biological proof) in the certification of family ties. But, Gourarier shows, far from providing irrefutable proof beyond all suspicion, the latter ‘reveals the subjective component of biogenetics and its uses’ as well as a ‘double standard in the evaluation of family happiness’. The professionals charged with passing on the results, depending on their assessment of a given situation, may either emphasize biological truth (in case of immigration and requests for family reunification) or attribute it only relative importance (with respect to ‘family morality’).

4Jérôme Courduriès (‘Les bonnes intentions. Être parent d’un enfant né d’une GPA’ [Good intentions: Being a parent to a surrogate-born child]) highlights the considerable reflective work performed by individuals in France who are considering becoming parents through surrogacy, concerning their family history and their desire for a child. Surrogacy is presented as a ‘last resort’, and current or future parents feel the need to show they have ‘done the right thing’, for example by making sure the woman who bears the child is treated well during the process. This process thus contributes to ‘self-reform’ in how individuals ‘conceive procreation and family bonds’ (p. 57).

5Michela Villani (‘Les arts du renoncement. Sociologie de l’échec procréatif’ [The arts of renunciation: sociology of procreative failure]) looks at people who ended the IVF process after multiple unsuccessful attempts. She highlights the work of the agents of the medical institution, which she describes as a ‘pedagogy of renunciation’ (p. 60). Would-be parents undertaking IVF must perform two forms of emotional labour: first, an intense projection into the future, which must nonetheless remain measured and not go too far; and second, if repeated failures occur, exercising an ability to disinvest emotionally and envisage a life without children. In either case, it is up to the would-be parents to internalize and adapt their expectations to the situation as it presents itself and evolves.

6Finally, Anne-Sophie Vozari (‘De la félicité maternelle: le traitement des dépressions périnatales’ [Of maternal happiness: The treatment of perinatal depression]) examines the management of mothers’ emotional fragility during and after pregnancy (diagnosed, in the latter case, as ‘postpartum depression’). Vozari highlights the paradox of the discourse of health professionals, who deny the idea of a natural ‘maternal instinct’ but who nonetheless forcefully affirm the existence of a ‘mental nature’ in women that tends toward motherhood. They thus seek to help women undergo a ‘free and voluntary self-reform’ of their psyche to become ‘good enough’ mothers. [2]

7In conclusion, these five studies point to a clear common trend in the ordering of families: the interiorization of demands and the implementation of self-reform by individuals, through processes driven and organized by institutions and professionals. These studies thus fall within a sizeable recent research literature on emotions and emotional labour. However, many questions remain unanswered, no doubt in part due to the book’s format. Specifically, the issue of resistance to ethopolitics, whether voluntary or not, is little discussed. It would be interesting to better understand how the family order transforms the interiority of individuals with different social characteristics and family histories.


  • [1]
    Rose N., 2001, The politics of life itself, Theory, Culture & Society, 18(6), 1–30.
  • [2]
    Here, following the author’s example, I take up the term of the British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott—as Vozari puts it, ‘to know how to give her baby just what it needs: a mother who, although not perfect, is at peace, and who is thus able to care for it in the right way’ (p. 80).
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