Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Discourse Theory and Parenting - Deconstructing the Social Construct

For this post, I will don my amateur anthropologist hat (it's a pink sombrero if you're interested) and attempt to examine how the social phenomenon of "Parenting" (the capital P is important) has been shaped by the language we use to discuss it and how this influences the decisions we make about raising our children.

Before we get our teeth into the subject matter, I'd like to define a few of the terms which will crop up here and there. This is purely because today's post is written from an Anthropological perspective, which is great if you're an Anthropologist and understand the social theory behind my ideas. If you've never even glanced over them, however, they just don't make sense! It took me a while to get my head around some of the themes and perspectives I studied during my degree. 

  • Discourse theory - specifically "discursive formation" as outlined by Michél Foucault. The essence of this is that the language surrounding an idea is itself an integral element of its construction. Everything abstract exists as a product of the exchange of thought processes which created it.
That still sounds like complete nonsense, doesn't it? Yeah, I thought so too. Let's look at it in practice. Teenagers didn't exist pre-World War Two. Obviously they did exist, in that there were living people aged between 13 and 19 but they weren't "teenagers" as we know them today. The modern teenager - in his scruffy clothes, obnoxious attitude, untidy bedroom and general misanthropic outlook has been entirely constructed by post-war social ideas. Prior to this, adolescents were miniature adults, often out working, rarely in school past the age of 14 (in the case of working class families) but the idea of hormone-ridden, juveniles skulking round the streets in hooded tops and trainers just wasn't there in any form (further reading: Language, Class & Identity - Teenagers Fashioning Themselves Through Language)

It is the exchange of concepts through dialogue that shapes such a social phenomenon as The Teenager. The word 'teen age' (adj) itself first appeared in writing in a Canadian publication dated 1921, but was enclosed in quotation marks, signifying that it wasn't a fully integrated entry into the dictionary or normal language. From the late 1940s and early 1950s, "teen-age" began to appear in newspaper articles and was eventually included in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1950-something (I will find an actual date for that at some stage, promise!). Don't even get me started on "emo"!

George Orwell exploited this idea of the power of language and how it shapes concepts in his novel 'Nineteen Eighty-Four'. In the text, he creates "Newspeak" and "Doublethink" (combined in later linguistic theory to form "doublespeak"), which are effectively the two ways in which 'Big Brother' and  'the Party' have reduced the English language right down to a skeleton form; words have simply been removed from the lexicon in order to extinguish the concepts which they represent. In practice, this would mean that by removing the word "revolution" from the language, it ceases to exist as an idea and thus there can be no social uprising against the government. Doublethink is the mental process accompanying the implementation of Newspeak, in which the user is simultaneously aware that the truth has been altered and that the 'new' truth is now the only truth. If you haven't read 'Nineteen Eighty-Four', you really should. It's an excellent insight into how we use language. 

Anyway, I digress. The point is that there are lots of ways in which you can explore the role of language and discourse in forming, sustaining and eliminating social phenomena. 

Are you still with me? Well done! Now for another one...

  • Cultural/social construct -  this isn't dissimilar to how I've defined discourse theory. It's another expression of how events and phenomena only exist as a product of the exchanges which have defined them and characteristics that have been attributed to them. This extends beyond the language (discourse) though and looks at social norms and values, shared understandings across social groups.
Again, to put it into practice - gender roles are a cultural construct, as opposed to being innately defined by our biology. "Gender" is obviously a biological fact - a person's DNA will either express them as being Male or Female, but how that is expressed throughout their social lives is constructed BY the society in which they live. There is nothing in my biology which says that I, as the woman, must take charge of the housework in our home while my husband goes out to work - but this is the expected norm because my role as a woman has been decided by shared understandings, passed on from one generation to another. A 'stay at home dad' is regarded as quite the exception, because it goes against the cultural construct of the man's gender role.

Got me? That one is a bit easier to get your teeth into. Just beware of trying to apply it to more abstract scenarios... I recall having an argument with one of my lecturers because he said that Science is a social construct. He did persuade me eventually, but the depth of the theory to explain it was so elaborate that I've never been able to recall it since. Safe to say, pretty much everything is a cultural construct. 

So those are the two biggest themes that will come up in today's post. As I said, you can break just about anything down as being a cultural construct - including Parenting.

You don't have to look far to see parenting in practice as a social event. Comedians will base whole routines around their experiences as a mother or father, there are websites set up with the express purpose of attracting mothers (and fathers, but more so the former) to discuss elements of their child-rearing, adverts for various household products and brands will often refer to "Mums prefer this" as a point in their superiority over competitors (my Asda loo roll promises me that 3 out of 4 Mums prefer it to the leading brand). Parents are a Big Deal in modern British society. The industry behind pregnancy, birth, baby care, childhood is enormous - at present I don't have even a ballpark figure for how much the UK baby industry is worth, but it is A Lot. Parenting is also a contentious issue in the media. Barely a day goes by when some news story or other doesn't come up about the impact of children's upbringing on their functionality as adults, whether it's behavioural, nutritional, medical - there is almost always something in the news about all the new stuff researchers are learning about how we develop from infants.

There is a huge number of phrases most parents will be familiar with, and each one is an idea entirely constructed by society:

Hands up if you've heard these before? (you don't really have to raise your hand, I won't see it anyway)

They are all ideas about modern parenting that crop up time and time again in the literature and general conversation between mums & dad, health care providers and self-styled "baby experts". Some of them relate to behaviours we anticipate our offspring to exhibit at certain stages (like sleeping for a particular number of hours overnight), some refer to the DREADFUL consequences of making certain choices about how to raise our children (I have an impressive collection of 'rods for my back' according to some people). And then there's this one: 'a happy mum means a happy baby' - this one induces the sort of head-meets-desk response from me; it's overly simplistic, thoughtless and frankly just not true! (read more HERE)

One thing that all these buzz words have in common is that they are entirely derived from Western social concepts about how babies ought to behave and how parents ought to achieve this arbitrary standard.  

Babies, as we know them in the modern context, are a social construct. I promise that is not complete nonsense! Biologically, we produce offspring. Humans are a mammalian species who give birth to live young (rather than laying eggs, etc) and provide their first nutrition in the form of milk from the mother's breasts. That is how science has differentiated mammals from reptiles, birds, insects etc. However, a chimpanzee baby and a human baby have very different roles within society. I can't recall any zoological studies investigating the sleep patterns of 12 week old baby chimpanzees, or groups of chimpanzee mothers coming together to discuss when they plan to start introducing solid food to their young one's diet. That sort of preoccupation is very much a human practice, and even more so in the last 50 years than earlier in history. 


Why, if we're just another mammal, do we get so caught up in how we raise our children and all the possible combinations of consequences that decisions about this, that and the other might have?

I have some ideas about why, and it is all down to how human society has constructed The Baby. In the West, a newborn baby is a helpless, feeble, dependent being, reliant entirely on its parents for sustenance, warmth, protection and love. It is the job of the parents to enable this little creature to survive and to endow it with the ability to function as a biological entity, independent of its parents. The word "independent" is highlight in red there, because that is the fundamental point of Western parenting. Our focus is very much on assisting our babies to stop needing us as soon as is safe for them. Discourse about feeding babies often focuses on the baby's dependence on the mother as a negative of breastfeeding, or the ability of any other person to feed the baby as a positive of bottle feeding; we have the most bizarre obsession with how long our babies sleep at night and WHERE, with the self-proclaimed experts extolling the virtues of an infant learning to sleep alone as early as possible; behavioural observations will comment on making a baby 'clingy' if he or she is picked up and soothed every time a cry is uttered, and there are an increasing number of methods populating the book shelves claiming to teach your baby how to "self-soothe". 

The outcome of all this is that parents begin their life with a new baby thinking almost from the word go about how and when their child will be less reliant on them to meet their every need. It has spawned a counter-revolution of parenting philosophies which rebels against this yearning for independence and calls itself "attachment parenting", with the emphasis on continual physical contact with a baby through breastfeeding, carrying the baby in a sling rather than a pram, bedsharing where safe to do so and so on.  Ironically, these are the sorts of practices which invite the "rod for your own back"  and "clingy baby" remarks and prompted me to write this blog in defence of my own choices.

For a moment, let's compare this to Japan. I read a fascinating article examining maternal and infant interactions in Japan and from it gleamed that The Baby as a social construct is a very different creature there than it is in the West. For them, The Baby is from birth an autonomous being and must be taught how to form relationships with other humans through ongoing contact from the parents. The social norm is much more in favour of maximised contact between the mother and baby, habitual bedsharing rates are infinitely higher as are breastfeeding statistics. Two groups of human beings, viewing and behaving towards their offspring in remarkably different ways, and all can be traced back to socially constructed ideas and how they are represented through the discourse surrounding parents and parenting.

I follow quite a few parenting blogs and their pages on Facebook, and there is a definite reoccurring  theme among the posts from other readers. They are almost all related to how they feel they are negatively viewed and treated by other people for the choices they have made - this may manifest as being criticised for breastfeeding in public, well-meant but ultimately unwelcome 'advice' from relatives, observations about a baby's weight/sleep/general demeanour as a negative consequence of some choice made by the parents. I challenge you to find a single parent who does not feel that at some stage they have been criticised, however subtly, for a decision they have made about caring for their child. 

So this is what we as a society have achieved: we have elevated the status of parenthood and parenting by creating a lucrative industry behind it, supported that status by revering the Mother and Father figure as paradigms of virtue in advertising of the most benign products and yet also constructed such an unnatural and inaccessible ideal of The Baby that your average man and woman waiting to welcome their first child will find themselves overwhelmed with conflicting advice as to what is "the best" thing to do. 

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