Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Troubling Families?

Jane Ribbens McCarthy, Val Gillies and Carol-Ann Hooper

Troubling Families
2018, Sociological Research Online, Vol 23.1

The term, ‘troubling families’, has the scope both to trouble what we mean by ‘family’ and its continuing power,  while also asking why some particular ‘families’ may be found by some to be ‘troubling’.
Talking about ‘family’ has been controversial amongst sociologists for several decades, ever since feminists in the 1980s (e.g. Barrett and McIntosh, 1982; Carby, 1982/1996; Thorne and Yalom, 1982) started to question its ideological underpinnings, its intimate hidden (gendered and generational) dynamics of power, and its social rather than ‘natural’ basis. In Anglophone literatures, the debate about how sociologists should or should not employ the term has continued back and forwards more or less ever since, but within these contexts, there seems to be no denying the continuing central significance of ‘family’ in people’s imaginaries, and in their everyday lives, as well as in public debates and policies (Ribbens McCarthy et al, 2008/2012; Gilding, 2010; Gabb and Silva, 2011; Edwards et al, 2012 ; Ribbens McCarthy, 2012), even as families’ and households become increasingly diverse. Both significant changes and powerful continuities are apparent in how people in Anglophone and Western European countries live their families and relationships.

Paradoxically, these decades of academic scrutiny of the term, and opening up of the ‘black box’ of family, have also seen expectations of ‘family’ increasing, alongside ever expanding idealizations of what ‘childhood’ should entail. These high hopes, or fantasies, parallel the pervasive moral imperative of prioritising ‘children’s needs’, whether enunciated by parents/mothers or politicians and policy makers (Ribbens McCarthy et al, 2000; Gillies, 2014). Those who fail to live up to ‘family’ expectations, particularly in terms of the ‘care and protection’ of children, may thus find themselves increasingly subject to scrutiny and a variety of interventions from the State. One such UK initiative, for example, has formulated a category of ‘troubled families’, defined by reference to a particular set of characteristics, and constructed as a particularly ‘troublesome’ feature of the contemporary British social fabric, requiring targeted interventions (Crossley, 2016). But our discussions here (and elsewhere – Ribbens McCarthy et al, 2013; Ribbens McCarthy et al, 2018; Evans et al, 2018) seek to ‘trouble’ ‘families’ in quite opposite ways from such objectifying and categorical discourses and policies.

In these policy processes, then, we see an apparent binary between ‘families’ that are regarded as successful and un-troubled, and ‘families’ that are considered deviant and problematic. Yet this binary is partly created by the idealization of the term ‘family’ itself, since it is those households that fail to live up to what ‘family’ is meant to be which may experience shame, stigma, and potentially punitive scrutiny (whether merited or not). Furthermore, we find academic work itself helps to construct this binary, with sociologists focusing upon ‘ordinary’ families and mainstream social change, while ‘troublesome’ families are left to the attentions of social work and social policy researchers. These two bodies of research rarely inter-relate, while the researchers and academics involved attend different conferences and participate in different debates and networks.

In this special section of Sociological Research Online, we seek to move beyond this binary through a two-dimensional focus on the notion of ‘troubling families’, exploring both what may be ‘troubling’ about the notion of ‘family’, and how it is that some particular families, and family practices (Morgan, 2011), may come to be seen by some as ‘troubling’. On the one hand, then, some of the articles trouble the term ‘family’ and how the notion may itself shape people’s everyday experiences in troublesome ways, even as they may resist such perspectives and seek to re-shape them. The empirical underpinnings for these article include research with: same-sex couple ‘families’ (Brian Heaphy in the UK, exploring ‘the ordinary’ as an ambiguousdiscourse for same-sex couples, and Luke Gahan in Australia, exploring the contradictoryimplications of idealising same-sex couple families with children); the transnational ‘families’ of Lithuanian mothers living apart from their children, who both engage with and re-shape public ‘scripts’ that cast migrant mothers as ‘troubling  (Irena Juozeliūnienė and Irma Budginaitė); and the families’ of ‘looked-after’ children living apart from their parents in Scotland, where children and carers may ‘talk back’ to the categorization of their families as ‘troubling’ (Vicki Welch).  These examples, in differing ways, all challenge any easy binary divisions.

The two concluding articles address more particularly the grounds on which some ‘families’ and some ‘family practices’ may be seen to be particularly ‘troubling’, raising significant sociological issues about the basis for such problematizing, and the power dynamics involved. Michael Rush and Suleman Ibrahim Lazarus focus onthe difficult topic of parental physical chastisement of children, comparing the histories and current framings of this apparently ‘troubling’ family practice in the contexts of Ireland and Ghana, with evaluative shifts which they argue to be linked to declining patriarchal power. And then Jane Ribbens McCarthy andVal Gillies tackle head on the question of who is troubled and why in regard to what may or may not be defined as harmful to children in diverse cultural settings. While the general framework of ‘family troubles’ can very usefully serve to highlight continuities across diversities (Ribbens McCarthy et al, 2013), at the same time, where might any boundary lie between ‘normal’ troubles in children’s families, and troubles that are troubling - potentially ‘harmful’ - in ways that might be seen to require intervention? Ribbens McCarthy and Gillies argue the inevitability of living with uncertainty in the face of such conundrums, since there are no universal ‘objective’ ‘a priori’ measures for determining what is ‘harmful’ to children, whether through empirical psychological research or through logical moral philosophising. But rather than collapsing into some sort of cultural relativism in which ‘anything goes’, they draw on the philosophical work of François Julienne (2008/2014), to explore the possibilities and difficulties for developing an inter-cultural dialogue, that can at least attempt to go beyond the neo-colonial imposition of Anglophone and Western European assumptions. In this regard they briefly outline dimensions of four particular frameworks and world views: the legal approach of children’s Rights; the African tradition of Ubuntu; the Indian spirituality of Avaita; and feminist theorising of a relational ethics of care.

By troubling the concept of 'families', and asking how to interrogate the evaluative frameworks and everyday assumptions that define some families, and some family practices, as 'troubling', the special section thus raises challenging debates linking substantive issues with theoretical and conceptual questions of diversity in everyday relationships. Key sociological and social policy questions arise concerning who it is who finds particular families troubling, what responses are considered to be appropriate and by whom, and what are the historical processes and power dynamics involved. And from family members’ own perspectives, how does the view of their ‘family’ as ‘troubling’ impact upon them, and do they find ways of resisting or accommodating such processes? In these regards, the theoretical issues raised have the potential to develop insights, across a diverse range of substantive topics, generating additional perspectives. The questions raised in this process are themselves significantly troubling, requiring considerable sensitivity and patience to explore the complexities and ambivalences involved in seeking to engage with them. We are grateful to the contributors to this special section for their participation, and hope others will continue to engage and pursue these themes.

‘Troubling families’ may more faithfully and usefully illuminate contemporary family lives – whether ‘conventional’ or otherwise - in diverse contexts, and this may in turn help to avoid creating further ‘troubles’ to family members themselves. Sociology has an important part to play in this, by attending closely to the everyday meanings and practices through which people experience their family lives together and make sense of their relationships, in circumstances shaped by power dynamics, material inequalities and colonial and cultural histories.


Barrett M, and McIntosh M, 1982 The Anti-Social Family. London: Verso. 2nd ed. 2015

Carby, H.V. 1982 ‘White woman listen! Black feminism and the boundaries of sisterhood’, Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, The Empire Strikes Back: Race and Racism in Seventies Britain, London: 

Hutchinson. Re-printed in in H.A. Baker, M. Diawara and R.H. Lindeborg (eds) 1996 Black British Cultural Studies: A Reader, London: University of Chicago Press.

Crossley, S. 2016 ‘The Troubled Families programme: in, for and against the state?’ In M. Fenger, J. Hudson, and C. Needham, (eds) Social Policy Review 28. Policy Press. 127-146.

Edwards, R, Ribbens McCarthy, J. and Gillies, V. 2012 ‘The politics of concepts: family and its (putative) replacements.’ British Journal of Sociology, 63(4) pp. 730–746.

Evans, R, Bowlby S, Gottzen L and Ribbens McCarthy J 2018 ‘Family “troubles”, care and relationality in diverse contexts’, Children’s Geographies: Special issue (in progress). 

Gabb, J and Silva, EB. 2011 ‘Introduction to critical concepts: families, intimacies and personal relationships’, Sociological Research Online. 16(4)23

Gilding, M. 2010 ‘Reflexivity over and above convention: the new orthodoxy in the sociology of personal life, formerly sociology of the family’, British Journal of Sociology 61(4): 757-777.

Gillies, V. 2014 ‘Troubling families: parenting and the politics of early intervention’, in S. Wagg and J. Pilcher (eds) Thatcher's Grandchildren?: Politics and Childhood in the Twenty-First Century. Basingstoke: Palgrave macmillan pp 204-224

Julienne, F 2008/2014 On the Universal, the uniform, the common and dialogue between cultures, Cambridge: Polity Press. (Translated by Michael Richardson and Krzysztof Fijalkowski.) 

Morgan, D.H.J. 2011 Rethinking Family Practices. London: Palgrave macmillan.Ribbens McCarthy, J 2012 ‘The powerful language of ‘family’: togetherness, belonging and personhood.’  Sociological Review, 60(1) pp. 68–90.

Ribbens McCarthy, J. Doolittle, M. and Day Sclater, S. 2008 Family Meanings, Milton Keynes: Open University. Revised version published 2012, Understanding Family Meanings: a Reflective Text. Bristol: Policy Press.

Ribbens McCarthy J, Edwards R, and Gillies V. 2000 ‘Moral tales of the child and the adult: Narratives of contemporary family lives under changing circumstances’. Sociology, 34(4) 785-803

Ribbens McCarthy, J, Hooper CA, and Gillies, V (eds) 2013 Family Troubles? Exploring Changes and Challenges in the Family Lives of Children and Young People. Bristol: Policy Press

Ribbens McCarthy, J, Hooper CA, and Gillies V. (eds) ‘Family troubles and troubling families’, Journal of Family Issues, special issue (in progress)

Thorne, B and Yalom, M 1982 Rethinking the Family: Some Feminist Questions. London: Longman.

Friday, 23 March 2018

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Wednesday, 21 February 2018

The Sociological Inspiration: Part 1

By Carli Ria Rowell

Over the course of my doctoral degree I have engaged with myriad sociological texts relating to the theoretical, empirical and methodological and I have spent much time discussing with my doctoral peers those texts that have sparked a passion for, interest in and commitment to sociological research. On a theoretical and empirical level, for me, it is those sociological texts that explore, validate, and enlighten my own experiences and the experiences of those around me, and on a methodological level it is texts pertaining to various methodological and ethical problems and possibilities that have been of greatest guidance.

As an ethnographer, researching the experiences of working-class students at an elite UK university a core focus of my study sought to explore participant’s experiences of transitioning, spatially, affectively and metaphorically between the elite sphere of the university and their working-class locale. Here, I was concerned with attending to social spatialisation and placed-images exploring the way(s) in which, if at all the physical, material and topographical site of the elite university and working-class locale worked to include or exclude participants; positing them as both in and out of place in both an actual, embodied, emotional and metaphorical sense. Recognising that “vision does not dominate the way we experience our environments” (Pink 2009:12) I adopted a somewhat visual approach to ‘data collection’. I conducted a number of photo elicitation interviews, walking and driving tours and it was through the utilisation of said research methods that I was introduced to participants’ home locales, often these locales were council estates. 

From the outset of my research a sub-set of participants shared with me their experiences of navigating their way through formal educational institutions that had rendered them, within the imaginaries of formal educators as ‘problem people’ from ‘problem places’. It was thus, in this vein that I compelled to explore the way in which the now educationally and spatially mobile working-class first-generation students experienced the constant transition from a vilified council estate to the geographical site of the elite UK University. However, questions pertaining to the practice and ethics of doing so pervaded. How am I to amble to sociologically explore such phenomenon? What methods might I draw upon? What are the ethical issues inherent in such line of enquiry? And how am I best able to manage these? Importantly, do I have the right to enter into such spaces for the purpose of my doctoral research and subsequent personal gain? These were the questions that the three Sociological Research Online articles discussed here helped me think through and what I discuss in this post. I attempt not to provide a comprehensive overview of said papers but instead discuss the way(s) in which they shaped my research theory and practice.

Welfare Commonsense, Poverty Porn and Doxosophy by Tracey Jensen

At the time of conducting my fieldwork there had been the proliferation in the mainstream media of what Sociologist Tracey Jensen has termed ‘poverty porn’. Poverty porn typically ‘documents’ the experiences of the poor, exploring the lives of families and individuals as they attempt to get by on welfare. As Jensen notes:“It is through the explosion of 'poverty porn' television that welfare discourses of political elites have become translated into authoritarian vocabularies. Poverty porn television is not simply voyeurism, but performs an ideological function; it generates a new 'commonsense' around an unquestionable need for welfare reform; it makes a neoliberal welfare 'doxa'” (2.2).

Typically, such antagonistic programmes are set on 'sink council estates' with a stark visual imagery of architectural decay, vandalism and environmental degradation and are accompanied by a narrative of intergenerational worklessness, petty criminality and anti-social behaviour and a lack of aspiration. Jensen’s paper sensitised me to the new forms of 'commonsense' of welfare and some of the stigmatising stereotypes that a number of my participants were subject to as a result of the narrative of poverty porn that was (and is) circulating in lay, political and media commentary.

 A Walk in Thirdspace: Place, Method and Walking by Kate Moles

The second article published by Sociological Research Online that has been central to the formation of my research methodology was the aforementioned paper by Moles. The paper foregrounds walking as a mobile methodological tool. In doing so, it engages with debates and discussions surrounding mobile methods, “methods employed that embrace and celebrate the different engagement with spaces that being mobile produces” (1.10). The purpose of the paper, as Moles herself writes, is “the demonstration of what Thirdspace methods might look like” (7.1). The paper draws upon the author’s experience of conducting in-depth research over three years in a park in Dublin. It begins by guiding the reader through spatial theory, engages with the concept of Thirdspace and argues for the inclusion of spatial practices within sociological research, before setting out the methodological act of gathering data through walking drawing upon anecdotes and vignettes from her fieldwork to illustrate the arguments being made.

Throughout the article Moles recognises the importance of pertaining to issues of place and space in a way that accounts for and encompasses its mobility. Moles foregrounds the importance of “recognizing the affinity between personal narratives and the movement through place" (Hall et al. 2006) and attends to a thirdspace of epistemology (1.5). It was through reading ‘A Walk in Thirdspace: Place, Methods and Walking’ that I was introduced to the cultural concept of bimbling, the act of wondering aimlessly through “a co-ingredient environment, which can be harnessed to prompt theretofore unstated or unrecalled knowledge of the life-world” (4.3). Blimbling became a central component within the numerous walking tours that I conducted with and alongside participants and the act of blimbling brought with it numerous methodological gains. Just at Moles notes, blimbling provided space by which dialogue between both the body and mind and the individual and the place can emerged (Anderson 2004). This enabled me to explore the way in which the place, the personal and the cultural interlinked and combined to shape participants' subjective experience of transitioning spatially, affectively and metaphorically between the elite sphere of the university and their working-class locale. Spaces and places mean different things to different peoples in different epochs. Thus the experience of moving within and between is dependent upon the idiosyncrasies of a particular participant and mediated by the social, cultural, political and historical. Familiarising myself with the concept of blimbling and executing said cultural practice within the various walking tours I conducted thereby enabled me to explore the way in which the special practices of participants contributed to their experience of being a working-class student in an elite British university.

Furthermore, through the method of blimbling I was able to translate my pledge to feminist research ethics into practice, most notably the commitment to dismantling hierarchical research relationships insofar as possible. As Hall et al. (2006 cited in Moles 2008) acknowledged, mobile interviews shift the balance of control away from the researcher. Finally, through the method of blimbling, the way in which participants experienced their working-class locale per se was uncovered. This enabled me to access meanings that seldom exist in dominant discourses surrounding working-class localities, council estates and council housing.

The Dereliction Tourist: Ethical Issues of Conducting Research in Areas of Industrial Ruination by Alice Mah

Mah’s ethnographic research was focused upon illuminating the way in which individuals live in and among sites of industrial ruination. Specifically, the research focus “was on places that were caught between being left behind and moving forward” (1.4) in relation to the unequal geography of capitalist development. The research was conducted in areas of industrial ruination in Russia, the UK and North America. In each case study location Mah undertook approximately 20-30 interviews, driving and walking tours of neighbourhoods with research participants, and informal visits with residents in their homes, at community centres, and at various meeting places in their communities. The average time spent in each field site was two months and it is in this vein that Mah noted that the relatively short period of time in each field site “contributed to the sense of being not only an outsider but 'just' a tourist, passing through” (1.5). This, coupled with the fact that the original inspiration for the research derived from Mah’s experience of a cross-country road trip through Chicago, Detroit, Buffalo, in addition to her personal fascination with industrial ruins and the subsequent enjoyment of research, led Mah to feel as if she were a “dereliction tourist traipsing around the globe chasing the aesthetics thrills of ‘ruins porn’” (Mah 1.5) as opposed to a sociological ethnographer committed to, and conducting, social justice research. This led Mad to interrogate the role of the 'dereliction tourist' as a way of reflecting critically about the various ethical issues inherent in 'outsider' research. In doing so, the article explored the ethics of “voyeurism, romanticization, and the reproduction of negative stereotypes about marginal people and places” (Mah abstract) and discussed critically the role of an outsider researcher. 

Throughout the article there is the critical engagement with the notion of 'ruins porn' (Clemens 2011, Mullins 2012), which Mah summarises to be “a metaphor for the aesthetic, sensory and self-satisfied pleasure of dereliction tourism” (1.1). However, Mah argues, “industrial ruins are only fascinating for some people, typically outsiders, passing by, snapping photos” (1.1). It was at this point that the parallels between the ethical and moral dilemmas inherent in Mah’s fieldwork and that of my own became apparent. I could not help but call into question the ‘enjoyment’ that I had for my doctoral thesis. Here I was especially concerned with interrogating my fascination with my doctoral participants' experiences of transitioning between the elite sphere of the university and their working-class locale, and the moral and ethical implications that were inherent and Mah’s article provided me with the sociological thinking to do so. 

One of the seminal luxuries of doctoral research, I am frequently told by those more senior than myself, is the luxury of time and the subsequent opportunity of endlessly immersing oneself in sociological texts. However, as a doctoral researcher near to submission, I have since reached the point where I am encouraged (or rather told) to read only that which is central to my thesis. My supervisors and peers are often hesitant to recommended readings for fear that I will ‘read the entire thing’. Whilst the skill of instrumental reading is nonetheless one that I am yet to master, for those who possess the luxury of time, I urge you to immerse yourself in wide-ranging sociological texts and when doing so I encourage you to take note of the lessons learned and guidance gleamed…

Carli Ria Rowell is currently a final year ESRC doctoral researcher in the Department of Sociology at the University of Warwick and a full time teaching fellow in the Department of Sociology at the University of Sussex.

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

The Sociological Inspiration

The editors of Sociological Research Online are pleased to announce the start of a new series that will feature on the SRO blog: ‘The Sociological Inspiration’.

This series offers reflections, from scholars of all career stages, on articles from the journal's back catalogue that have inspired them in some way - perhaps by changing their thinking, motivating their research or improving their teaching.

What’s been your Sociological Inspiration? We’d love to hear from anyone willing to write a reflection of approx. 800 words that highlights at least 1-2 articles from SRO, and up to one more from any of the BSA journals. For further details, or to submit a proposal, please contact the Editorial Office at


The Sociological Inspiration: Part 1

Monday, 8 January 2018

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