Monday, July 23, 2012

Multicultural Urban India: Challenges to Family Living

Dr. S. Albones Raj

     One of the assertions, indeed a fait accompli, which have the least risk of being contested, is that multi-culturality has been an abiding character of Indian society. Advocates for cultural pluralism and cultural homogeneity abound and - highly polemicized issues as they are – had given rise to a welter of ‘theories’ of cultural nationalism and hegemony. On the other end of the continuum are several students of social philosophy for whom pluralism and modernity (or even post-modernity) are coterminous (Giddens 1996, Oomen 1985). Monism - for all its irrepressible appeal to laymen of social sciences - is a much debunked stream of thought in epistemology and in sociology proper. As an epistemological framework, monism and its variants have little use in a “Science” which seeks to problematize social reality.  Phenomenology and its sociological version – symbolic interactionism – share the distaste for monism, more specifically to the reductionist and the determinist variety. As evidenced in Sociology of the family – a branch of sociology devoted to the study of family and also in cultural studies, monism is perceived to be a sterile approach with little substantive dividends to offer. Both esoteric and lay literature on Indian society hold cultural pluralism to be a predominantly an urban trait and this is also reflected in the encounterist semiotics of city-dwellers. Thus many families in urban India keep discovering the diversity of the urban mosaic and respond to the same in a uniquely selective fashion – a thesis akin to that of Ishwaran (1975). The Urban family in India is no single entity; it is at best a pattern of patterns. The urban family is undoubtedly under pressure from various quarters and forces, some of which are cultural, while others are politico-economical. Some of them are exogenous and others stem from within. Interestingly enough, the urban family faces the challenge of demand for change even while it faces the challenge of identity-retention. This paper seeks to identify and classify these factors and, so in doing, attempts to lay the foundation for a quasi-grounded and middle-range theory of family transition in urban India. This article makes no claim to being the last word in sociology of family. Nonetheless, this article seeks to raise certain substantive issues and, in the process, to indicate the future directions which research on family could profitably take. The paper admittedly takes the methodological stand of the classical sociologists, but does not seek to challenge the post-modernist attempts on this area of inquiry.

Sociology of Family: An Overview
Sociologists’ romance with family dates back to Auguste Comte, who essayed to relate the changing forms of family to the evolutionary transition of societies from theological thinking to positivistic thinking. Comte’s singular quest for an ‘elixir’ for re-building families in his blue-print for social re-construction has indeed made scholars to credit him to have been the first social philosopher for bringing family to the centre stage of sociological discourse (Comte 1986). Early anthropologists Morgan(1943) and Taylor (1945) - through their largely speculative, albeit seemingly historical, analysis – initiated a debate on the origin and development of patriarchal -monogamian family.  Peter Murdock perhaps was the first anthropologist to grapple with the conceptual issues related to family and proposed that family was a cultural universal, despite the interesting variety which it exhibits (1949). Engels (1972) and Zeretksy (1976) made a valiant attempt to advance a politico-economic explanation and thus tracing its origin to the rise of private property in the true Marxian tradition. The first inkling of a political sociology of family could be discerned in the writings of these Marxian scholars. Parsons, Bales (1955) and Anshen (1959) ventured into a functionalist treatment of family and they proffered a spirited defense of the nuclear family as the most appropriate and functional form for an industrialized society. Although the views of the American functionalists gave rise to a hitherto unsettled polemic on the reported relation between the type of family and the concept of modernity, they did manage to highlight the macro forces at work, shaping the destiny of family as an indispensable social group. Goode, an archetypal macro-sociologist, evinced keen interest in socio-historical inquiry on family and the changes it witnessed on account of revolutions which swept societies at different points in time. This classical study, described by many as an important corner-stone in the field of historical sociology, is also an important treatise on social change (1963). 

     Three broad yet important trends, which could be discerned from the scholarly preoccupations beginning from 60s and 90s in Euro-American societies, are the specific focus on family structure in ethnic communities and migrants, a gendered approach to family and the tacit acceptance of empiricism as the most valid approach to the study of family. Emergence of criminal subcultures, which was presumed to be the causa prima for the anomie ‘let loose on the society’, exercised the attention of American scholarship on family. These studies shed useful light on the pattern of socialization at home and in the community. The parent-sibling interaction and the role of peer group had claimed much space in their rather elaborate description of the family unit (Silva and Smart, 1999, Purdy 1967, Barret and McIntosh 1982, Herskovits 1968, Leibow 1967, Hannerz 1969, Smith 1962, Lewis 1959). Black studies in US and ethnographic studies of Indian families also belong to this broad genre of studies. Gough’s study on Nair families of Kerala, however, stands out prominently from the rest for the strident attempt it makes to redefine matrifocality (Gough 1958).The gender perspective sought to challenge what then was called as “stereotyped assumptions and conceptionsabout family, and made a strong plea for re-defining family and an equi-gendered social order. Attempts to trace sexual exploitation of women to the patriarchal family structure and to the gender-specific socialization imparted at home, highlighted as to how the subjugative culture is sustained and reproduced.  Gender studies – initially handicapped by its own cloistered approach, because of its historical affinity with feminism, but later on widened its scope to include homosexuals and transgender in its ambit – wisened up to the problems and issues of all sexually marginalized sub-groups and communities (Calhoun S 1997, Calhoun C 1997, Siba and Smal l 1971, Laing 1971, Delphy and Leonard 1992, Abbot and Wallace 1992, Jenness 1971, Benston 1972, Gonzlez 1970, Sheeran 1993). Durkheimian strain of empiricism has been firmly on the sociological saddle in the domain of family research. However, historical researches of the Weberian variety also vie for space. Compilatory works, which seek to collate piecemeal investigations on family across cultures have also bourgeoned. Morgan’s published works on family (1975, 1995), besides offering a large spectrum of insights, represent a broad theoretic framework on family. Goode’s work on world revolutions and their impact on family also belongs to this class of empirical investigations on family. Conceived in qualitative terms, Laing’s study of family and insanity has also contributed richly to the corpus of knowledge on family, especially when faced with a crisis. The Indian academic scenario had, by and large, the same set of concerns and issues as their cognitive epi-center. However, ethnographic portraits of family by anthropologists demarcated them starkly from a largely survey-oriented sociology conférer.  

Indian scholarship on Family:
An overwhelming number of Indian scholars had chosen to study family in 50s and 60s, nonetheless scholars from the West have also enriched this field with their own insights. K.N.Kapadia introduced family studies to the Indian academia in early 50s. His pioneering and generic work on family, marriage and kinship opened up new vistas for sociologists and anthropologists in India. He saw a triangular relationship amongst the three. As a leading culturologist of his time, he premised his analysis with the conviction born of field observations that family could not be studied in isolation. Exemplifying this approach, his work Family, marriage and kinship served as a source book on Indian family for many students of Indian family. D’Souza’s work on Mother-right families(1959)   in Konkan coast and in Kerala illumined the transition witnessed in two communities, namely,   Navayats and Moplahs.  Close on the heels of Kapadia’s work, Ross and I.P Desai published their observations on Indian joint family. While Ross drew largely upon his American experiences and his short exposure to Russian family, I.P Desai  and contended that  the criteria of nuclearity and joint-ness need to be revisited in the light of fresh evidences and presents strong case in favor of joint family being the predominant form in Indian cities. Iravati Karve’s work on Kinship system in India highlighted, inter alia, the broad principles governing the kinship system in India. She attempted to situate the Indian family in a broader framework of kinship network. She saw continuities and discontinuities in Indian family system. Raman Unni and Fr.Puthenkalam S.J had attempted to highlight the unique features of families in South-West region. Unlike the approach of Kathleen Cough, they took upon the task of bringing out the variety which characterized the families in this part of India. Fr.Puthenkalam , to his merit, sought to highlight the structure of Christian families in Kerala. 

     M.S Gore set the mood for many scholars India, wanting to study the impact of urbanization on family.  M.S.Gore articulated what has long been hypothesized by many. To him, the urban family in India has its own dynamics and joint families are not only found in urban India but also found to thrive by reinventing itself. However, he concurred with his contemporaries that urban families exhibit an amazing variety and are structurally and functionally different from those found in rural India. Striking a concordant note with M.S.Gore, Morrison and Nimkoff identified some of the fundamental problems a student of Indian family face in conceptualizing family in the Indian context. Realizing the need for systematizing and codifying the study of Indian families, Khatri sought to embark upon an ambitious epistemological project on codifying knowledge vis-à-vis  the methodological approaches employed by scholars in India and abroad.  A theme dearer to Gore was taken by Sudha Kaldat, namely, urbanization and its impact on family. Edwin Driver chose to study the family structure in one of the biggest tribal belts of India, namely, Central India. Vasanth Pethe was a keen student of the inner dynamics of Indian family. The life cycle approach adopted by him brought him closer to Mandlebaum, who expatiated a similar approach to Indian family in his book, society in India. The advantage of such an approach is the opportunity it offers to take a closer analytical view of the natural changes to which the Indian family is subjected. Concerned about the increasing number of divorces and family disorganization, Fonseca, a Sri Lankan scholar elected to study the same in India. This task of his was guided by a fairly documented fact that many Asiatic societies and their experiences in this sphere of social life are similar, if not identical. That Christianity would have meant radical changes to the traditional Indian joint families was a theme of investigation for Panos Bardis.  Bardis did not find any traces of significant impact on the family structure. He observed that Christianity managed to touch only the peripheral aspects of Indian family, leaving the core more or less intact. Kanti Pakrasi investigated the impact of involuntary migration on the family structure among refugees in West Bengal . Involuntary migration tends to uproot families and in innumerable ways it does alter the structure and organization of the family. Some of the changes are so far-reaching that present structure has no resemblance to what it was once -  before the forced migration.