The Malta Independent 23 September 2023, Saturday
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Families in our times

Michael Briguglio Thursday, 29 October 2020, 06:51 Last update: about 4 years ago

Pope Francis recently said that same-sex couples should be allowed to enter into civil unions. Presumably, this led to a myriad of reactions both within the Catholic Church in particular and the public sphere in general.

Conservatives and liberals may have opposing views about this statement, though it is pertinent to note that there were conservative politicians - such as David Cameron during his stint as Prime Minister in Britain - who argued that legislating for same-sex couples adds stability to family life.

Some may argue that the Pope’s statement was made in a documentary and does not present any significant change in Church doctrine, which, in turn requires a thorough internal process of deliberation.

In this article I will not discuss the theological merits of the Pope’s position, especially since I am not qualified to do so. What I will be discussing are some sociological observations related to this matter.

I wish to begin with a recent article in Time Magazine by Susan Golombok,  Professor of Family Research and Director of the Centre for Family Research at the University of Cambridge, whose four decades’ worth of research on different family forms has contributed to the understanding of child development within family life.

Through her evidence-based research, Golombok engages the popular idea that the greater the difference from the traditional family, the greater the perceived risk of psychological harm to the child.

In her words, “this is wrong. I can say this definitively because I’ve been studying different family forms for more than 40 years, analysing families with lesbian mothers, gay fathers, transgender parents, single mothers by choice, and families created by egg donation, sperm donation, embryo donation and surrogacy, and all my research points to one conclusion: What matters most for children is not the make-up of a family. What matters most is the quality of relationships within it, the support of their wider community and the attitudes of the society in which they live.”

One should not read Golombok’s findings as some debunking of traditional family forms. What she found is that alternative family forms can flourish just as much as traditional ones, depending on various factors.

At the same time, however, such families may face stigma and discrimination both formally, for example through policy legislation and application, as well as informally through everyday life interaction, for example among children at school. Hence, the Pope’s statement on same-sex couples may be particularly relevant in this context.

Solombok adds that just because some of us “become parents in non-traditional ways, does not make them less capable ones or love their children less. In fact, my research suggests the opposite. The sooner we accept this, the better off these kids we claim to be so concerned about will be. Because there’s another finding that stands out loud and clear from our research: although the make-up of families does not affect the well-being of these kids, intolerance of their family does.”

Indeed, social scientists today speak of a diversity of family forms, including local extended families, dispersed extended families, nuclear families, blended families, lone parent families, same-sex families, and others. The question is not whether one form is ‘better’ than others, but, as sociologist Janet Finch puts it, whether family relationships work in everyday life.  Thus, persons ‘display’ and ‘do’ families through day-to-day activities, some of which may reproduce traditional patterns, whilst others may produce alternative ones.

Another sociologist, David Cheal, emphasises that diversity among families can be explained through culture – for example when family practices are characterised by people’s values and ideals of family living, and situation – which refers to the different experiences we face and how we adapt to them. To give two examples, one may be experiencing the situation of lone parenthood despite aspiring for marriage, and someone else may value social altruism but may be inhibited by illness.

Thus, when discussing, analysing, legislating, and deciding on family matters, it is important that those involved in policymaking and implementation are equipped with evidence-based knowledge. Questions such as the make-up, functions and linking of families need to be answered through approaches grounded in everyday life, and not through prejudice which is debunked by evidence.

In a Covid-context, it is therefore imperative to look into opportunities, constraints and challenges related to matters such as telework, housework, work-life balance, domestic violence, mental health, separation/divorce, access to family members living in different households, and sometimes in different countries, parental and child alienation, and economic matters. 

Malta happens to be a world leader in LGBTIQ rights. But there are other aspects, both legislative and cultural, which deserve attention for a more inclusive society. This, in turn, merits thorough social-scientific research and advocacy. Not all such protagonists are fortunate enough to have their voices represented by effective social movements such as Malta’s LGBTIQ movement, or to capture media attention.


Dr Michael Briguglio is a sociologist and senior lecturer at the University of Malta


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