Sunday, April 22, 2012

Logics of Familial Solidarity: Structural Functionalism and the Individualization thesis.

  In contemporary Western societies, since the mid to late 20th century, there have been considerable debates around the status of the family, its perceived decline or transformation into a new historical form. Talcott Parsons’ original formulation of the nuclear family has fallen out of fashion, outmoded by contemporary social trends and criticised for teleological biases that preference one model of family and designate all other forms as deviant and dysfunctional. Ulrich Beck and Elizabeth Beck-Gernsheim have put forth their “‘individualization thesis”’ to explain shifts in contemporary society and the institution of the ‘family’ that elevate individuals to the forefront of discussion. The individualization thesis has been widely discussed and misunderstood. Jennifer Mason criticised the individuation thesis on the basis that it “creates a sense of individuals floating free of family ties and commitments”. However, Beck-Gernsheim has stressed that individualization: “does not mean mere subjectivity or juggling in an empty space. On the contrary, the space within which modern subjects plan, act and weigh their options is in many ways socially defined”. Thus, the individualization thesis does not imply that individuals have been cut-off from social commitments and regulations but that the form of solidarity between individuals have changed due to shifts in the legal and economic structures that underpin social integration. With a view to C. Wright Mills’ sociological imagination, this paper will attempt to bridge the gap between history and biography through an autoethnography of the authors own experience with family. Firstly, the sociological theories that inform discussion of family will be given greater treatment, from this discussion will be drawn three themes that will be analysed through an autoethnographic case-study that will be used in turn to reassess the current sociological theories of the family.

Debates on the institution of the family often echo strands of sociological theory. In the 1950s and 1960s, sociological thinking on the nature of the family was dominated by the structural functionalist theory of Talcott Parsons. At the time, the debate about the institution of the family centred on the place of extended family and kin networks that appeared to be declining in significance. Parsons viewed the ‘nuclear’ family as a functional unit best suited to serve the needs of industrial society; this family comprised a father and mother with a clearly defined gendered division of labour – the instrumental role and expressive role, respectfully – who supported and socialized their children. Of course, when this theory of family was formulated the nuclear family was the dominant social model and a series of legal measures were in place to ensure its continuation and privilege it over ‘deviant’ social forms. However, the legal and economic matrix that underlay the nuclear family started to break apart in the early 1970s with the women’s movement and the collapse of the post-war economic boom. It was at this point that a series of legal reforms and changes in the structure of the economy started to develop conditions favourable to processes of individualization.

The ‘individualization thesis’ was formally developed towards the end of the 20th century to conceptualize the contours of modern society and the economic and legal frameworks that have shifted the logic of solidarity from functional imperatives and communities of need towards emotional bonds and elective relationships. Beck and Beck-Gernsheim defined individualization as follows:
“[i]ndividualization means the disintegration of previously existing social forms – for example, the increasing fragility of such categories as class and social status, gender roles, family, neighbourhoods, etc.”

However, individualization does not imply complete dissolution of social forms because as Beck and Beck-Gernsheim contend, with processes of ‘disintegration’ the question then arises as to “which new modes of life are coming into being where the old ones…are breaking down?” The implication of individualization for the sociology of family is to understand the new forms of solidarity that arise as old forms are undermined. It is in this vein that Beck and Beck-Gernsheim have explored trends in contemporary familial relationships. In the 1950s, the institution of the family had a proscribed social form protected by the state and it implied a distinctive life-cycle for individuals: “love, marriage, baby carriage”. Perhaps the most salient feature of individualization is the notion of “Individually designed lives” and “do-it-yourself biographies” as this traditional life-cycle has lost its dominance and new choices open up. Beck-Gernsheim expands on this point:
“Individualisation is a compulsion, albeit a paradoxical one, to create, to stage-manage, not only one’s own biography but the bonds and networks surrounding it, and to do this amid changing preferences and at successive stages of life”

Individualization entails not only do-it-yourself biographies, but do-it-yourself familial relationships that have to be actively negotiated, pursued and chosen by individuals as the functional imperatives that bound people together in mutual dependence have declined. Therefore, the processes of individualization have produced distinctive transformations in the conduct and experience of familial relationships some of which will be outlined via the autoethnographic case-study of the author’s own experience of familial relationships.The familial relationship has to contend with the demands of modern society and this has resulted in a temporal and spatial divergence of the family. As I reflected earlier on the issue of temporal and spatial divergence:
“My family is rarely in the same location together, apart from holidays such as Christmas. My father works irregular hours as information technology consultant and my mother is currently attending tertiary education after having been a stay-at-home mother for most of her adult life. One of my sisters is an exploration geologist who spends most of her time on remote mining sites while the other sister is still in high-school. I live with my brother in a different city to the rest of our family, he has his own educational and other commitments and I have mine which means we are rarely at home together. ”

The temporal and spatial divergence exhibited in my own case is emblematic of wider socio-historical trends. In preindustrial families, economic activity was often organized in the household which meant that family life was organized around a common geographical location to a common temporal rhythm. Industrialization undermined the economic basis of this familial solidarity and the nuclear family described by Talcott Parsons eventually came to the fore, since the 1970s economic trends, technological innovations and legal reforms have contributed to the transformation of this family model yet again. Without binding mechanisms, such as economic interdependence, Individuals’ commitments, whether for employment, education or social engagements, are contributing to greater temporal and spatial dislocation within the family. Individual commitments and timetables have to be negotiated in order to stage family events. Beck-Gernsheim likened the modern family to small business, where divergent priorities have to be negotiated in order to find common time. Thus, the issue of temporal and spatial divergence implies management of familial relationships and issues of emotional labour. These issues are touched upon in the case-study:
“Not only is my immediate family not located together, but my extended family is located throughout Australia and even overseas. The majority of my immediate family resides in Newcastle, but I have relatives in Queensland, Sydney and Adelaide alongside cousins in Canada. Personally, this doesn’t mean much to me but family gatherings and reunions are a great strain upon my mother who bears the brunt of maintaining contact with branches of the family. She has complained in the past about this emotional burden and having to look after extended family members and having the responsibility to organize events to keep the family together left to her.”
The temporal and spatial divergence of families in contemporary society necessitates management of familial relationships and greater emotional labour on behalf of those undertakes the burden of this familial management. The case-study comports to this understanding of contemporary family life. Family engagements have to be organized with each member of the family individually to navigate their prior commitments. Economic trends, such as the casualization of employment and job insecurity, make these balancing acts much harder to achieve which only increases the level of management required to forge common family time. In view of this, Maria S. Rirrich argued that: “elements of rationalization and calculation are marching into private life”. Given that familial relationships require active management and emotional labour, who is a member of an individual’s family, can no longer be taken for granted:
“For my father and mother, family is very important and conflict between members of the family should be put aside because: ‘blood is thicker than water’. However, within the extended family there are cleavages as to who is a member of the family. Of course, my maternal cousins don’t regard my paternal cousins as family. But, there are cleavages between groups of cousins on my father’s side who don’t regard each other as ‘family’. By the same token, there are blood relatives who I don’t regard as family either through conflict or because of a lack of presence in childhood. Also, there are life-long friends who I and other members of my biological family will refer to as family.”
Beck-Gernsheim’s central claim is that modern families have transitioned from communities of need to elective relationships. The processes of Individualization have removed the functional imperatives that bind individuals into communities of need, as such questions of ‘relatedness’ and who constitutes family become conceivable. In the case-study there are clear divergences between members of the ‘family’ as to what constitutes the ‘family’, in this sense each member has an individually centred kin-network that differs slightly from other members of the same ‘family’. With the advent of individualization, unitary definitions of family become increasingly problematic both between members of the same ‘family’ and to what relationships constitute familial relationships. While familial relationships require management and active engagement, the reduction in functional imperatives does not signal the decline of the family but its transformation. Individualization occasions new opportunities and demands, but it often leads to the need for intimacy and emotional bonds. The themes of temporal and spatial divergence, management of familial relations and individually centred kin-networks discussed in relation to the case-study all bear upon current sociological theories of family and conceptualizations of the social structures that shape the experience of modernity.

C. Wright Mills’ concern with bridging the gap between personal troubles and public issues is no less relevant when discussing the sociology of family. The case-study demonstrated the relevance of themes derived from the individualization thesis to contemporary familial relationships and the interplay of social structure and individual experience. Current trends render Talcott Parsons’ nuclear family model quite dated and debates about the continuation and relevance of families to modern life have emerged in its wake. Ironically, Parsons’ theory was developed in the context of a moral panic over the decline of the extended family. He demonstrated the logics of solidarity that underpinned the nuclear family and how it functioned in industrial society. That legal and economic matrix has since fallen apart and individuals face new challenges in their efforts to forge new familial forms. Beck-Gernsheim’s individualization thesis attempts to ascertain the new logics of solidarity that bring people together beyond the functional imperatives of economic necessity and the legal domination of women towards elective relationships. Familial relationships are still sought, but from within the logic of individually designed-lives.


Beck, U. and Beck-Gernsheim, E. (1999),  “Individualization and “Precarious Freedoms”: Perspectives and Controversies of a Subject-Orientated Sociology”,  A.  Elliot (Ed),  The Blackwell Reader in Contemporary Social Theory, Malden; Blackwell, pp. 156-168.

Beck-Gernsheim, E. (2007) “From the ‘Family’ to ‘Families’, Soundings, Vol. 35,  pp. 105-114.

Beck-Gernsheim, E. (1998), “On The Way to a Post-Familial Family: From a Community of Need to Elective Affinities”, Theory, Cultural & Society, Vol. 15. No. 3-4, pp. 53-70.

Mason, J. (2011), “What it Means to be Related”, V. May (Ed), Sociology of Personal Life,  New York; Palgrave Macmillan, pp., 59-71.

Mills, C.W. (1959), The Sociological Imagination, New York; Oxford University Press.

Parsons, T. (1956), “The American Family: its Relations to Personality and the Social Structure”, T. Parsons and R.E. Bales (ed), Family Socialization and Interaction Process, London; Routledge & Regan Paul. 

Thompson, E.P. (1968), The Making of the English Working Class, London; Penguin Books.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Migration and the British Empire: an Empire of White Settlement, an Empire of The Conquered.

The role and importance of migration within the British Empire throughout the 19th century cannot be overstated. Migration during this period fell into two major categories: white settlement and tropical migration. Emigration from the British Isles sustained and powered the expansion of settler colonies, from Canada to Australia and New Zealand. Whilst, tropical migration allowed the Empire to maintain and expand its plantation colonies after the abolition of the slave trade in 1834. Both forms of migration informed British engagement with the world and helped to shape Imperial policy. In the Oxford History of the British Empire, Andrew Porter argued that the British Empire could be divided into three categories; the Empire of White Settlement, the Empire of India and the Empire of the Conquered. The category of Empire that a colony fell under determined the form of government that London imposed or accepted, somewhere between responsible self-government and autocracy, and these categories were determined in part by patterns of migration, dependent in turn on a variety of factors. Contingent on a wide range of influences; geography, technology, economics, politics and ideological platforms migration within the British Empire was rarely a directly state-sponsored program. However, migration patterns informed Imperial policy throughout the 19th century on a range of fronts and constituted a powerful shaping force in world affairs.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Colonial Administration in British Ceylon.

In the 1832 Report of the Colebrooke Commission, Mr. C.H. Cameron outlined his view that Ceylon represented: “the fittest spot in our Eastern Dominions in which to plant the germ of European Civilization”. Ceylon had been unified under British control between 1796 and 1815, and remained relatively stable throughout its occupation, bar the Kandyan rebellions of 1817-1818 and 1848. Unlike India and the rebellion of 1857, maintenance of British control of Ceylon did not pose a significant headache for the Colonial Office beyond the initial invasion of Kandy. The later instability of 1848 was quickly remedied and provided important lessons for the administration of Ceylon. However, the administrative apparatus of the Island was largely in place by the first decade of the 19th century and further reforms were carried on through the 1830s to the 1840s, remaining the purview of the Ceylon Civil Service throughout British Occupation. Though expanded in the late 1830s, the Ceylon Civil Service remained a small organization with limited representatives in each district. From this datum, the stability of Ceylon is difficult to explain. Two useful documents that pertain to the administration of Ceylon, the 1848 Reports on the finance and commerce of the island of Ceylon, and correspondence relative thereto and Leonard Woolf’s Diaries in Ceylon 1908-1911, lend to our understanding of its relative stability. In the Ceylon Civil Service, it was required of high-ranking civil servants that they catalogue their daily activities. Leonard Woolf’s official diaries composed while serving as assistant government agent in the Hambantota district, between 1908 and 1911 provide insight into the day to day aspects of colonial administration. While, from the metropolitan core of the British Empire, a 1848 House of Common’s report on the finance and commerce of the island, place the administration of Ceylon in its broader political and economic context. Thus, both sources provide the basis for a dual perspective on British rule in Ceylon.

The House of Commons’ 1848 report, Ceylon: Reports on the finance and commerce of the island of Ceylon, and correspondence relative thereto, was intended to inform the metropolitan polity of the proposed course of action to be pursued by the colonial administration for improving the fiscal position of Ceylon. Prior to the Victorian era, the primary importance of British Ceylon was its strategic location and use by the navy during the Napoleonic period. Despite the prominence of cinnamon trade, the colony had maintained consistent deficits. Once Ceylon’s strategic value waned, the Colonial office could not ignore this state of affairs and the Royal Commission of Eastern Enquiry was established to redress the problem. Simultaneously, the first British attempts to develop a plantation economy modelled on the West Indies plantation systems. Control of Kandy provided entrepreneurs and would-be plantation owner’s access to suitable lands for the cultivation of coffee and tea. Whilst efforts to develop cotton and other crops failed, the original multiple crop models collapsed into monoculture. Plantations would eventual transform Ceylon’s economic, cultural and ethnic landscape. Prior to these developments, the reforms of 1833 represent an important turning point in the administration of British Ceylon.

The reforms of 1833 were centred on transforming Ceylon’s economy from the mercantilist structures developed under the Dutch occupation and continued with the East India Company toward a laissez-faire economic system. Indeed, the 1848 document reported a dramatic decrease in the colony’s expected revenues and the Colonial Secretary of British Ceylon, J.E. Tennent, recommended the abolition or reduction of trade duties, taxes and the cessation of remaining monopolies to remedy the fiscal decline. These policy recommendations were informed by classical political economy and signal the propensities of British colonial administration in Ceylon. However, the timing of the report coincided with a commercial crisis in metropolitan Britain and decline in cinnamon production and the nascent coffee plantations and the immediate response to the crisis involved reform of the tax system, burdening the peasants and Sinhalese population without removing impediments to economic liberalization. Nevertheless, the British effort to develop the infrastructure and agricultural production of Ceylon continued despite the setbacks of the late 1840s.

The development of plantations continued with renewed vigour after the collapse of 1848, as new investors brought failed plantations and commenced cultivation without the crippling debts of the first generation. It should be noted that the Kandyan rebellion of 1848 coincided with commercial crisis and occurred in geographical regions with intensive plantation cultivation. From this it has been speciously argued that the combined force of the commercial crisis and plantation economics caused the disturbances of 1848. However, the development of plantation cultivation in the region of Kandy did not occasion wide-scale dispossession of lands and much of the disturbances was associated with marginalized native power-elites that had not been placated under British rule. Landlessness was not a significant problem. Sinhalese peasants could not be made to work on plantation in large enough numbers. Therefore, Tamil seasonal labourers from South East India had to be imported to work the plantations. In practical terms, the Kandy Rebellion was not difficult to supress. The British had connected Kandy to Colombo by a major road that allowed for the quick movement of troops from the maritime region to the upcountry and further connected isolated regions by intensive road systems. Thus, the rebellion was suppressed quickly. In response to the rebellion, the British adapted their policy towards Buddhism and started to discourage Christian evangelicalism in an effort to plicate traditional power elites. Though, there was no great reform of the administrative system and the priorities of government remained consistent with those outlined in the Colebrooke Commission and the 1848 Ceylon: Reports on the finance and commerce of the island of Ceylon, and correspondence relative thereto. Leonard Woolf’s Diaries in Ceylon 1908-1911, though written in a later period, support this understanding of British Colonial administration.

Leonard Woof’s diaries detail his conduct and performance of duties as a member of the Ceylon Civil Service. It was required of agent assigned to districts that they maintain a daily account of their activities and these diaries were the primary source of information for the colonial administration in Colombo and from there the Colonial Office in Britain. In view of this, it should be remembered that Woolf is writing to impress a superior and present the image of himself as an efficient administrator and this perspective colours the document. Woolf served as the assistant government agent in the south eastern district of Hambantota and had roles pertaining to both the judicial and executive functions of administration. Many entries of the dairies detail inspection of infrastructure, predominantly this applies to irrigation systems and the construction of water tanks to facilitate the cultivation of rice paddies and moreover, the maintenance and improvement of salt production in the districts collection of lagoons. Of course, much preoccupation is given to the state of the district’s finances and means by which the administration could allocate its resources more efficiently. Specifically, through much of November 1908, Woolf spent much of his time attempting to reduce the cost of production and transportation of salt. This kind of activity was especially important, given that salt constituted one of the leading sources of colonial revenue, as the report on Ceylon’s finances makes clear. Incremental improvement to infrastructure and inspection of facilities constitute a mainstay of Woolf’s administrative duties.

In the administration of Ceylon, the fiscal position of the government and the economic development of the island were of paramount importance to the British establishment. Though, Woolf’s judicial function required him to preside over the trail of murder and other crimes. His ability to pursue this question is limited given his resources and there is one occasion were he acknowledges his inability to ascertain the truth relating to a murder in January of 1910. It is clear that Woolf’s primary role and that of Civil Servants was to preside over the economic development of the country and maintain the semblance of order among the natives. Only occasionally does Woolf depart from the recounting of his daily activities to offer casual opinions and aspects of Sinhalese culture and the effectiveness of the civil service. Thus, while much of Woolf’s activities are centered on the improvement of infrastructure, he regularly expresses skepticism about the technical prowess of the Sinhalese and their ability to maintain machinery indicating a contrary impulse among members of the civil service. As stated above, much of the labour for coffee and tea plantation was undertaken by imported Tamils from South East India and contemporary British opinions of Sinhalese were not favourable. Though, the Sinhalese did not destabilise the British Occupation after the Kandyan rebellion because they were not disposed of their lands and the development of plantation cultivation which were the primary economic support of colonialism did not in large matter adversely affect the native population and their way of life.

Infrastructure and economic development were the guiding priorities of the British occupation of Ceylon. Roads like the Colombo-Kandy link provided access to suitable lands for plantation and much energy was expended to improve farming and village conditions. The 1848 report was a low-water mark in British efforts to reform the Ceylon’s economy and administration given the impact of the 1847 commercial crisis. Though, it indicates the trajectory and priorities of British administration. Woolf’s diaries support the understanding of British rule presented within the report and add a quotidian dimension to that viewpoint. Under British Rule, Ceylon remained relatively stable after the suppression of the Kandyan Rebellion of 1848, many factors influenced this outcome and it would appear difficult given the small British presence in the day to day lives of the native population, especially in regional districts, but a confluence of economic and cultural forces mitigated against forces that destabilized other European colonies.

Written by Mathew Toll.


Primary Sources.
United Kingdom, House of Commons, (1848), Ceylon: Reports on the finance and commerce of the island of Ceylon, and correspondence relative thereto, London; William Clowes and Sons.
Woolf, L. (1963), Diaries in Ceylon 1908-1911 & Stories from the East, London; Hogarth Press.
Secondary Sources.
De Silva, K.M. (1981), A History of Sri Lanka, London; C. Hurst & Company.
De Silva, C. R. (1995), Ceylon under the British Occupation 1795-1833: Its Political, Administrative and Economic Development, Vol 2, New Delhi; Navrang.
Kerr, D. (1998), “Stories of the East: Leonard Woolf and the Genres of Colonial Discourse”, English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920, Vol. 41, No. 3, pp. 261-279,
Samaraweera, V. (1972), “Governor Sri Robert Wilmot Horton and The Reforms of 1833 in Ceylon”, The History Journal, Vol. XV, No. 2. Pp. 209-228.
Sivasundaram, S. (2007), “Tales of The Land: British Geography and Kandyan Resistance in Sri Lanka, c. 1803-1850”, Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 41, No. 5, pp. 925-965.
Subramaniam, V. (1957) “Graduates in the Public Services: A Comparative Study of Attitudes”, Public Administration, Vol. 35, No. 4. Pp. 373-394.
Wenzlhuemer, R. (2007), “Indian Labour Immigration and British Labour Policy in Nineteenth-Century Ceylon”, Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 41, No. 3. Pp. 575-602.



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