The nexus of our research circulates around the concept of family, as it is expressed in laws and public regulations and enacted in actual family practices. In modern Western societies, the main producer of social categories through which people's minds are structured, is the state. Through political prioritizing of certain cultural institutions, citizens are rewarded (symbolically, economically, and otherwise) for performing for instance family life according to the concept of family that currently dominates the minds of politicians, civil servants or social scientists.
Conflicting concepts of family at work in different fields of current Nordic legislation
Over the last decade research in the AAU cluster has pointed to a number of cases and constellations that could be seen as challenging to the political aims for legitimacy, consistency and popular acceptance (cf. Holdgaard, 2009: 318). For one thing, there seems to be conflicting concepts of family at work in different fields of current Nordic legislation, such as inheritance law, social law, health law or tax law. Some of these differences may be due to the nature and needs of the different areas, while other differences seem due to changes in political and conceptual emphasis over time.Clearly, however, this does not account for all differences. Research has also, fragmented though, been able to document that despite the legislator's (sometimes explicitly stated) intention to adjust the legislation to reflect so-called new family forms, the reality is that certain forms of family life are generally prioritized over others and that some ways of actually performing family life are in fact neither (fully) accepted nor (properly) protected legally (for all members of those families). For instance, members of families of cohabiting couples – or couples living apart together – with common children are somewhat protected by law, but far from as well as the formally married couple (cf. Holdgaard, 2009: 316).
Research in the AAU cluster has also indicated – perhaps more surprisingly, at least at first view – that there is a sense of continuity underlying the otherwise diverse legal material. The essence of the “proper family” concept seems still to be modelled on a view of two mating adults living together, with their common children in the same household. (cf. Holdgaard, 2011: 316). Further, the research has indicated that in recent legislation the concept of family is shifting towards a recognition and protection of horizontal connections (i.e. the partner in the current relationship) on the expense of vertical connections (i.e. the biological family across generations) – as in the case of inheritance (above) (cf. Holdgaard & Selmer 2010: 289-301 and Holdgaard, 2007: 308)
The very family concept that animates public and political discourse must be considered
Considering the complexities and apparent challenges to Nordic family policies, we aim to ask: what are the conceptual, social and political dynamics underpinning recent developments in Nordic legislation and law case? The public discourse has to a large extent focused on changing family practices and aspects of values in different family formations. Our preliminary bid, however, is that the underlying grammar is not to be found simply in the substance of actual family practices, but also in the (history of) the very family concept that animates public and political discourse – and which is by now deposited not only in long lines of social ideological thought, but also in institutions and practices of the welfare state. For this purpose, we have engaged cultural-historical expertise to contribute to illuminating the current situation, professor dr. theol. Terje Stordalen, University of Oslo, who is also Obel Social Science Visiting Professor at the Institute of Law at the University of Aalborg.
The joint research conducted this far indicates that legal and political concepts of family are continuously produced and reproduced in what could be described as a dynamic triangle:
- legal and institutional regulations of family life (and the history of these regulations),
- the predominant view in society and culture of what counts as a “real family” (and the cultural historical background for these views), and
- the actual family practices performed by individuals in society.
All these interact and influence each other, but in order to understand the ongoing development, it is vital to recognize the social power of conventional concepts of family and the conservatism of the societal apparatus and institutions.