CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1 This book critically examines the future of the family as a central institution in contemporary French society. It brings together contributions from authors who have participated in the research programme Parentalité(s): production et réception des normes (‘Parentalities’: Production and Reception of Norms), funded by the Caisse nationale des allocations familiales. The project’s work is mainly based on a qualitative survey of around 60 families and around 20 early childhood professionals in two very different areas in France: Seine-Saint-Denis and Côte-d’Or. Seine-Saint-Denis is characterized by social diversity and high rates of immigration and poverty. Childcare is a major problem for the parents interviewed for the survey. Côte-d’Or, although highly rural, is economically dynamic, and extensive childcare structures have been developed as part of an active policy of support for parents. The ELFE survey was used to provide an overall statistical framework in order to contextualize the qualitative observations of the survey.

2 The originality of the approach taken here lies in starting from contemporary experiences of parenthood and capturing parents’ reactions to early childhood professionals, rather than seeking to understand ‘how norms apply in a top-down fashion’ (p. 8). In a context marked by the pluralization of categories of families (large families, families of foreign origin, blended families, same-sex parent families, etc.), the authors explore the norms governing the institution of the family, asking whether they have been transformed, have disappeared, or have been replaced by emergent new norms.

3 In Chapter 1, Fabienne Berton and Marie-Christine Bureau survey contemporary debates around the family. Drawing on the analyses of Loureau (1969), [1] they show that the family oscillates between an ‘established order’ (where norms are defined by institutions and imposed on individuals) and ‘establishing’ action (where individuals do not automatically comply with these norms and can modify them or interpret them differently). The emergence of the French term parentalité reflects this tension. In this context, the issue is to ‘address the reconfigurations of the family while developing new forms of public action targeted at parents’ (p. 33) but also to capture the transformations that have affected parental trajectories and roles. After discussing the different categories of families (single-parent, blended, large, and same-sex parent families), recalling their historicity and the controversies around them, Berton and Bureau examine the classifications used on administrative forms and survey questionnaires. These processes of categorization act ‘as a fundamental element of the institution’ of the family because ‘what is not named has no visibility or recognition’.

4 In Chapter 2, Barbara Rist shows that the norm of reflexivity applies not only to early childhood professionals (who question their social and cultural prejudices) but also to parents (who seek to determine whether their educational practices are effective and appropriate). Although the new model of action ‘is based on partnership, parents’ active participation, and collective initiative’ (p. 63), there has been little analysis of social relations between the different actors or consideration of parents’ living conditions. Rist distinguishes four stances that families adopt in the face of the norm of reflexivity—chosen, unhappy, refused, or negotiated—which vary ‘depending on their social position, the singularity of their family configuration, and their more or less marked adherence to established traditions or beliefs’ (p. 72). This typology allows Rist to capture the varied reactions to the norm of reflexivity. For example, some parents resist but are not necessarily ‘in conflict with institutions’ (p. 81), while others (like some same-sex couples) engage in ‘happy forms of parental reflexivity’ while resisting, or making selective use of, institutions (p. 82).

5 In Chapter 3, Jacqueline De Bony and Céline Jung explain the importance of the theme of authority in interviews with families, by virtue of both the symbolic aspects on which its legitimacy is founded and the concrete aspects of its exercise within the family. The Convention on the Rights of the Child of 1989 led to a shift in child-rearing standards and the development of ‘two conceptions of childhood that must be articulated: those of capacities and of vulnerabilities’ (p. 88). De Bony and Jung present a historical and legal analysis of children’s rights, highlighting their implications for family law and the parent –child relationship. The dominant norm of an authority without authoritarianism, which is expected instead to take the form of support for the child through dialogue, presents a challenge for many families (especially of North African or sub-Saharan origin). They find that this model clashes with their practices, producing experiences of divergent expectations and ‘concerns about [the] weakening [of authority]’ (p. 109).

6 In Chapter 4, Fabienne Berton, Marie-Christine Bureau, and Barbara Rist analyse the diversification of ways of forming a family, examining multiparent situations in particular. They explore several questions in the context: the norm of transparency around the conception of the child (in case of donation), the sharing of parental authority beyond two parents, the fear of the loss of the father figure (in case of separation and step-parenthood), the place of the extended family in everyday life, and recognition of the link with the social parent (neither biological nor legal). This chapter highlights the force of the parental couple despite transformations in families, but also families’ ability to invent ways for more than two people to be parents.

7 In the fifth and final chapter, the same three authors focus on father figures. Two of these figures continue to exist: the traditional father figure and the missing father figure. Paternal absence has long constituted ‘a social problem’ and ‘the subject of public intervention’ (p. 144), and remains a matter of concern to parenting professionals. It is also clear, however, that today other paternal figures coexist and are seeking to establish new ways of relating to children and new forms of commitment within families. Gay fatherhood and stepfatherhood are examples of such forms of commitment that have not yet gained institutional recognition. The issue of the emergence of a new fatherhood persists, but the picture is a mitigated one. The neo-patriarchal model, with a traditional division of labour, persists, while the egalitarian ideal is found more in the middle and upper classes.

8 The book offers a useful overview of major debates around the institution of the family and follows in the line of recent studies on family transformations (Roux and Vozari, 2020; [2] Chatot et al., 2021 [3]). Starting from the point of view of diversified families, the authors demonstrate the force of certain norms and how they weigh on individuals. Nevertheless, far from being passive, families appropriate these norms in varied ways. Examining the role played by a range of factors (be they economic, social, cultural, or religious), this collective volume highlights different stances with respect to norms of both reflexivity and authority.

9 In its conclusion, the book proposes a set of seven interaction models, depending on the type of institution and the type of family. This proposal ‘shows that the child-rearing norms disseminated by institutions do not apply unilaterally’ (p. 162) but are variously reinterpreted by families with different social characteristics. A tension persists between a ‘permanent process of institutionalization of the family’ and the ‘contestation of prevailing norms’ (p. 163), notably due to the plurality of models of ‘being a family’.


  • [1]
    Loureau R., 1969, L’instituant contre l’institué, Paris, Anthropos.
  • [2]
    Roux S., Vozari A.-S. (eds.), 2020, Familles: nouvelle génération, Paris, PUF.
  • [3]
    Chatot M., Compans M.-C., Quennehen M., Yadan Z. (eds.), 2021, Dossier: Instituer la famille. Entre parenté et parentalité, Revue des politiques sociales et familiales, 2–3, 139–140.
Uploaded on on 30/11/-0001
Distribution électronique pour I.N.E.D © I.N.E.D. Tous droits réservés pour tous pays. Il est interdit, sauf accord préalable et écrit de l’éditeur, de reproduire (notamment par photocopie) partiellement ou totalement le présent article, de le stocker dans une banque de données ou de le communiquer au public sous quelque forme et de quelque manière que ce soit.
Loading... Please wait