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34. Displaying families

Photo wall by Nate Grigg (nateone) on Flickr

Finch’s concept of ‘displaying family’ highlights the importance of role of the audience in the performance of ‘doing family’
(Photo: Nate Grigg/nateone on Flickr)

Janet Finch launched the concept of  ‘Displaying families’ in her seminal article of the same name, published in Sociology in 2007. The concept extends David Morgan’s original argument about ‘doing family’, that: ‘families need to be ‘displayed’ as well as ‘done’. It also builds on work by Carol Smart and Jennifer Mason, as well as on Finch’s earlier work on the sociology of the family.

In other words, our ‘doing’ of family needs to be conveyed to and understood by others. The various family practices that we engage in, such as phone calls with an elderly parent, are interpreted by ourselves and others as family practices because they are linked with ‘wider systems of meaning’ related to ‘family’. Finch argues that displaying family has become increasingly important due to the fluidity and diversity of contemporary family relationships, as a result of which ‘family’ cannot be a given, if it ever was.

Family displays take place in direct social interaction between family members. It is important that family members themselves recognise these as displays of family, but they are further reinforced when others acknowledge the ‘family-like’ nature of the interaction. In other words, displays are directed at those involved in the interaction and to ‘relevant others’ such as kin, friends, neighbours and various authorities. Finch states that these displays of family are not ‘optional extras’ but rather fundamental to successfully constituting ‘my family relationships.’

These relationships would not, according to Finch, exist if they could not be successfully displayed and recognised as ‘family-like’, at least by those involved in the interaction. Finch also notes that the need to display family may be particularly strong for particular families, such as those that deviate from acceptable notions of what ‘family’ is, and at particular times in family life, such as transitional periods when family relationships are being reconfigured.

The concept of displaying families was quickly incorporated into sociological research (see for example Esther Dermott and Julie Seymour’s 2011 edited book: Displaying Families: a New Concept for the Sociology of Family Life).




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