I went to The British Sociological Association’s 2009 annual conference held in Cardiff in April, where I gave a paper on last year’s Channel 4 documentary The Family. The paper focused on the relationship between the documentary remit and sociological research into families. Here I explained the traditional links between to the two forms of social investigation and how these have altered in light of both recent changes to the documentary form and theoretical developments in the sociology of families.
Originally conceived as a means to observe everyday practices in order to better understand the world we live in, factual film-making has been reinvented enormously from social observation to its most recent transformation into reality TV. In 1974 Paul Watson’s The Family pioneered the ‘fly-on-the-wall’ technique to build a picture of family life that also exposed inequalities contained in British society. Recently in the new Channel 4 show also called The Family, film-maker Jonathan Smith updated this format using technologies such as motion sensor cameras usually found in reality programming such as Big Brother to focus on the mundane everyday practices of family life. However, I suggested that instead of the meta-narratives of class, race, etc, displayed in the 1970s documentary, the naughties version appears to have been stripped of politics. While it is true to say that today’s family loves the same, argues the same and slams doors the same as it did thirty years ago, I argued that it is problematic that its documentary presentation is solely concerned with the minutiae of everyday family life and contains no broader social narrative. At its most straightforward The Family simply becomes another form of display for the participants, the same kind of display that we now see everyday on our TV screens through numerous ratings driven reality programmes. However, on another level this form of representation reveals a society confessing its own disconnection from the bigger picture.
In addition I also wanted to suggest that the apparent lack of social reflection in the documentary form of The Family has been mirrored in sociological research into families, which has in recent years also de-contextualised families to the extent that wider social conditions have taken a back seat behind the individualisation thesis. Here thinkers such as Giddens (1992) and Beck and Beck-Gernsheim (1995: 2002) have lead the way in conceiving the negotiated family as one that makes its own (very fluid) meaning regardless of (and also perhaps because of) global and/or local social conditions. The problem with the individualisation thesis, which in part suggests that we are able to pick and choose our ‘families’ and how we relate to them in any number of ways, is that it ignores our desire to be embedded in something bigger. While I accept that kinship has altered greatly in recent decades, I suggested that this does not mean we want to be fragmented individuals; that instead we want to find meaning in terms of our social position, our family history, or whatever. I situated this idea by referring to Carol Smart’s recent work, Personal Life (2007), which suggests that sociology needs to start paying less attention to the ways we deconstruct ourselves and more attention to the ways in which we build our identity, often around heritage, memory and tradition. This idea was augmented by one of the other speakers on my panel, Anne-Marie Kramer of Warwick University, who discussed this process in terms of the recent increase in people attempting to trace their family history via dedicated internet sites or specialist genealogists.
While The Family is set to return for another series later this year, thus perhaps finally discarding its documentary credentials, it is important that sociology re-imagines how it investigates everyday social life in order to reconnect these practices to both local and global social conditions.
I am currently preparing this paper for publication. The paper was abstracted from my current research into the history, cultures and technologies of confession. My book, The Culture of Confession, is due out next year on Palgrave.