Remembering David Morgan and his work: collaborations, inspirations and new applications

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  • 1 Open University, , UK
  • | 2 University of Edinburgh, , UK
  • | 3 NatCen Social Research, , UK
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Introduction

From the late 1970s and the publication of Social Theory and the Family (1975) to beyond his untimely death in 2020, David H. J. Morgan is recognised as the leading UK academic in social scientific analysis of families and relationships. This monograph was the first of many contributions highlighting the theoretical significance of the everyday conduct of familial and personal relationships; he staked out the importance of dialogue between the research evidence in the topic area and wider debates within the discipline of sociology. His critical exploration of diverse theoretical approaches highlighted ways in which family life simultaneously engaged in the social shaping of gendered individuals and societies as well as being shaped by the social vagaries of their time and place. This was the precursor of his further conceptualisation of ‘family practices’, a theoretical framing now internationally used in the topic area, one that chimes with cross-disciplinary reappraisal of the significance of ‘relationality’ and ‘relatedness’. In friendly dialogue with his work, UK scholars extended David’s conceptualisation of ‘family practices’ to encompass ‘displaying family’. As this collection shows, this conceptualisation too now has international reach. The approach has been further extended to practices of conducting and displaying intimacy and particular forms of relationships including friendship.

David Morgan also rapidly developed a reputation as a generous and kind colleague and became widely known for his academic citizenship, his service to the British Sociological Association, the encouragement he gave to younger scholars and assistance with their new ventures. Not surprisingly, then, in 2010/11, when Families, Relationships and Societies was no more than an idea, David’s name immediately entered the conversation. His life work made him the ideal person to be in conversation with about a new interdisciplinary journal that would showcase academic work in the topic area and foster debate of relevance to policy and practice. His conceptualisation of family practices, the wide substantive range of his work (acquaintanceship, neighbours, friendship, couples, family, kin, gender issues) and his championing of autobiographical as well as more conventional research methods, chimed with and, inevitably, already informed the ambition of the journal. The founder members wished to steer clear of being tied to any one methodology, any particular stage of the lifecourse or any particular normative understanding of ‘family’ or ‘relationship’, hence the plurals of our title Families, Relationships and Societies.

Those involved in bringing the journal into being also knew, of course, that having David Morgan on board would immediately enhance the reputation of the new journal enormously, but much more than that, we correctly anticipated that he would be a true friend to the journal and to us. When the founding co-editors, Tess Ridge and Brid Featherstone, asked David if he would consider being involved, they were greeted by immediate enthusiasm. As had been anticipated, Professor Morgan became not only a founder member of the editorial board, but a hard-working participant who shared in the many decisions that have to be made when setting up a journal. Over what we now sadly know to be the remaining years of his life, David played a sequence of active roles. In collaboration with Jacqui Gabb he worked to develop the Open Space section of the journal, which made room for shorter, pithier commentary, policy reviews and more experiential pieces than the conventions of an academic article allow. David was also one of the first members of the board to take on responsibility for helping to develop and manage special issues working alongside the special issue editor. His gentle humour helped to inject fun as well as constructive comment into many an editorial board meeting. Throughout this special issue we sometimes refer to David as Professor Morgan and sometimes we use the convention of first name or surname only, thereby reflecting the multi-faceted nature of our relationships.

Following David’s death, we discussed many possible forms of tribute and this special issue in David’s memory was an obvious step. While our intention was to solicit new research and think pieces that carried his work forward, it was, of course, impossible for one finite collection to do justice to the full range his work. We had hoped, in particular, for more research weighing up the applicability of his work beyond Euro-North American or Anglocentric application. The pandemic, international inequalities and gender differences in the consequent pressures faced by scholars worked against us. Nevertheless, diversity of national contexts has been achieved by articles that draw on David’s conceptualisation of family practices while reporting on research in China and Israel; the extension of his concepts to practising and displaying friendship, also in China; and reporting on migrant families from Afghanistan and Syria, and families with Pacific island heritage, albeit in the context respectively of Sweden and New Zealand. We always anticipated receiving contributions that extended the concept of family practices to new circumstances. New applications of family practices and displaying family are strongly represented within this collection, largely through a focus on the renegotiations necessitated by challenging circumstances: the unsettling context of seeking asylum, relationships negotiated across the distance created by employment mobility, challenges shifting the context and heightening the importance of displaying ‘being a family’ for those bringing up children – post-divorce or separation, building family for adopted children maintaining links with birth families, single-parents living in poverty during the pandemic – and for grown-up children coping with family illness and bereavement. We have also included an article on children displaying friendships. Finally, we hoped that David’s own interest in autobiography would be reflected by an autobiographical account from at least some authors of how his work influenced them. We are delighted to have a piece which draws on his own unpublished autobiographical reflections about his family of origin in a comparative dialogue with and presented by Professor Dame Janet Finch, as well as contributions from leading UK academics reflecting on how their own work has been and is informed by dialogue with David’s, and an autoethnography of death in the family.

Family practices and mobility

The incorporation of mobility into family practices and doing family and intimacy at a distance are not a new phenomenon. They are, however, an increasingly likely experience for many, as factors associated with globalisation change the possibilities of and pressures towards mobility and migration within and between nation states, and, in turn, contributing to the diversity of intimate and family life. The theme of migrant family practices within the international context of forced migration is the subject of the article by Jesper Andreasson and Marcus Herz (2022) which considers how the Swedish asylum and immigration policy context conditions the ‘doing of family’ for asylum seekers. The authors draw on longitudinal ethnographic fieldwork with participants mainly from Syria and Afghanistan but also those from Lebanon and Eritrea who are seeking asylum in Sweden. Their use of ‘deportability’ and Morgan’s ‘family practices’ shows how the threat of being removed from the country shapes, modifies and organises day-to-day family life and living for asylum seeking families. They document how the often prolonged process of seeking asylum is experienced, negotiated and navigated in relational ways by families. Their analysis shows that structural conditions limit the preferred ways of doing and being – the carrying out of family practices in turn making and un(making) relationships across time and space.

Shuang Qiu (2022) offers insights into the complexities of distance and proximity in doing family and intimacy in China, also drawing on David Morgan’s conceptualisation of ‘family practices.’ In a context of employment migration, this article draws on a qualitative study of family and intimacy practices of partnered Chinese women and a small number of men in non-cohabiting (heterosexual) distance relationships. The women, whether homemakers or in employment, were ‘staying at home’ and their partners were ‘away’ for work, mostly within China. The author observes that in the Chinese context, where the cultural discourse of family comprises ‘two heterosexual people in co-residential partnership with dependent children’, living apart for work not only challenges conventional understandings of family and coupledom but also remains largely socially invisible. Her findings involve partners engaging in technologically mediated reflexive ‘everyday’ talk, including ‘not talking’ or ‘talking only about certain things’. Women’s sense of doing family includes the taken-for-granted doing of care work for children and, in the case of married women, also parents-in-law. In highlighting the gendered and culturally located nature of family practices, influenced by Confucian ideology and often valued, Qiu’s findings offer a challenge to recent debates about de-institutionalisation of family in contemporary China. Instead, her study suggests continuities: institutions of family and gender not only play a central role in discourse but also in practice; intimacy is linked to and articulated through values associated with family and filial piety that remain embedded in many ways of doing things in everyday life.

Renegotiating family practices under challenging circumstances

The concept of ‘family practices’ deliberately steps away from defining ‘family’ by solely drawing on legal and biological categories of relationships; instead, it privileges the processes of ‘doing family’. Kate Wood, Brid Featherstone and Anna Gupta (2022) note a disjuncture in the UK between how adoptive families are, traditionally, legally construed as replacing the old ties of biological family with a socially constructed ‘new and forever’ family and the growing fluidity and diversity of family life. Applying the concept of ‘family practice’, the authors revisit the evidence gathered by the 2016 enquiry into British social workers’ role in adoption. While legal and policy changes across the UK have made contact between adopted children and their birth families more possible, family practices by the birth family members are often highly monitored and constrained by social workers. For example, in the context of contact letters to children, displaying family by including expressions of love and use of familial terms is actively discouraged. The authors note how typical inequalities in resources between relatively poor birth families and better-off adoptive families further contributes to marginalising and diminishing birth families. They leave open the question of the need for a more fundamental rethink of adoption in the light of the scholarship on family practices.

The article by Dana Kaplan (2022) and her co-authors considers how living in poverty modifies family practices. The authors draw on research involving white Jewish families bringing up children while living in poverty in Israel, many of whom are lone mothers. The fieldwork is conducted by people who themselves live in poverty. The main data are journal entries written by the participants. The central focus of the original study was on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on their experiences of living in poverty. The authors show how the pandemic intensified the continuous crises with which family practices must cope. Analysis of the journal entries illustrates the combination of personal stress arising from the relentless struggle for survival on low or no income, political awareness of the structural rather than individual causes of poverty, and moments of collective action. The authors conclude that doing family while poor results in a particular structure of feeling, which they refer to as ‘agentic hopelessness’. Family practices involve action to sustain family life for the children and resist stigma by drawing on political awareness of the poverty-inducing systems but, at the same time, participants also express an experienced-based hopelessness about the possibilities of change.

Kathryn Almack (2022) contributes an autoethnographical account of the lived experience of herself and her siblings during the time when first her father fell ill and died, and then her mother. The article applies Morgan’s concept of family practices to the lived experience of families at the end of life, there by applying the concept to a new part of the lifecourse. Almack explores how the relationships and roles differ between herself and her siblings and how they shift over time. As the only one who had left home and as an academic, she takes, at times, the perspective of the observer and interpreter of the family relationships. Taking care of first one, then the other, ailing parent establishes new routines, brings the spouses more tightly into the family and reconfigures relationships. The siblings have what they refer to as ‘deep conversations’ as a result of the caring responsibilities, and later on establish a WhatsApp group to not only communicate more but also to share their own everyday lives with each other. The application of family practices to end of life illuminates how roles, relationships and practices shift among family members across the changing shape of generations, as the younger generation of siblings increases through inclusion of their partners and the older generation shrinks as they suffer bereavements. Her analysis demonstrates both the flexibility captured by the concept of family practices and its ability to unearth the processes of building shared understandings within families and how patterns shift over time.

Extending from displaying family to displaying friendship

Janet Finch’s concept of ‘family display’ that developed as an extension of David’s work on family practices is now being deployed across national contexts.

Moeata Keil and Vivienne Elizabeth’s (2022) article on post-separation focuses on exploring the concept of ‘displaying families’ as one aspect of family practices. Based on qualitative interviews with separated mothers and fathers living in the Pacific region they explore the different interpretations and manifestations of how family practices are being redefined post-separation. For example, occasions where families would come together, such as Sunday lunches or attending sports events, can no longer be taken for granted and instead have to be carefully decided on; considerations for displaying families at key points in the week include the wishes of the children and its imaginary family. The concept of ‘imaginary families’ in this article is used as both the family we may wish for and the family we should be, the latter being influenced by social norms. The authors point to differences in gender regarding imaginary families with separated mothers actively including the former in-laws in their family displays whereas fathers tended to view their former in-laws as separate. Parental separation requires the reimagining of family and family displays, which may have been taken for granted. Post-separation arrangements of family displays can therefore be the result of conscious choices of reimagined families.

Yan Zhu (2022) explicitly extends the idea of ‘displaying families’ to ‘displaying friendship’ as an organising conceptual category in analysis of detailed ethnographic insights into the everyday practices of friendship at a Chinese primary school. The results illustrates three key ways in which intimate friendships of both girls and boys are displayed: (1) prioritising intimate friends, (2) having and signalling to peers an ‘intimate friends only’ policy, and (3) using gestures (for example, walking arm in arm), personalised language (for example, nicknames), and the exchange of gifts including photographs. The author teases out the role of audience on how readings of display are constructed and notes similarity in expectations and display of intimate friendships among both boys and girls.

In dialogue/autobiographical approaches to David Morgan’s work

The final three articles have elements of biography, albeit more conventionally retrospective than the earlier autoethnographic piece by Almack. The first by Janet Finch (2022) is based on extended conversations with David Morgan about their respective lived experience of family and is acknowledged as co-authored. Both decided to write an autobiographical account of their childhood and youth and then analyse it using a (family) sociological lens. David had presented his account orally at a conference but it has been written up as an article, in which Finch gives space for the two narratives of their respective experiences of family life and it becomes immediately obvious that these were very different. The key themes emerging from the mapping of the differences are gender relationships, reflecting the uncertain period for women in the 1950s of going from being in employment and having a profession to suddenly being a homemaker versus a more matriarchal figure that continued to be in employment and at the centre of the family. Links to location and locality, with one family having newly moved into the suburbs of London without family connection while the other had continued to stay in the part of Liverpool where much of the extended family was based and therefore could help with childcare. The article concludes by making links to the biography of the parents and grandparents, as well as the influence of the shadow of the Second World War that was still very evident in Liverpool but much less so in suburban London. Thus, applying a family sociological lens to two autobiographical accounts of their lived experience of early family life has shed light on personal and structural significance of gender, family connections and geographical location. It also demonstrates the unevenness of social change in post-war Britain, challenging the monolinear narrative of the arrival of the nuclear family.

Vanessa May, Helen Holmes and Sarah Marie Hall (2022) are building on Morgan’s (2009) work on acquaintances and neighbourhood. A starting point for their work is a conference talk given by David Morgan with the title ‘Neighbours, neighbouring and acquaintances’(2012). The authors apply the concepts of ‘stickiness’ and ‘elasticity’ to relationships between neighbours to capture that these are spatially and emotionally constraining and flexible at the same time. Morgan points to the need of physical separations between neighbours and the risk of not being able to escape if a relationship between neighbours turns sour. The stickiness, however, has become more apparent during various lockdowns in the UK, where both the physical space of neighbourhoods became more important as did collective actions such as clapping for the NHS, as well as a more fundamental mutual interdependence. Thus, the article further illuminates the application of acquaintance as a sociological concept to neighbourhoods as a physical and emotional construction.

It is appropriate to end the collection with Jane Ribbens McCarthy’s (2022) discussion, which includes critical evaluation of David Morgan’s work with particular reference to the concept of family practices. This is interwoven with a biographical account of her own development as a family sociologist. When doing her PhD in the 1980s, Morgan’s first monograph Social Theory and the Family (1975) was one of the cornerstones of her work. She notes that the change in emphasis within his work from ‘theory’ to ‘analysis’ was not a turning away from theory but a reemphasising of the mutual benefit between family analysis and theoretical developments. Ribbens McCarthy highlights how throughout his writing Morgan highlights the links between the micro worlds of familial and personal relationships and structural inequalities, social divisions and cultural tropes. It was his third book Family Connections (1996) that explicitly introduced the concept of family practices, which is applied and expanded in a number of articles in this special issue. Family practices can be described as a lens to analyse important sociological topics such as work, employment and households or gender, care and the body. Family practices as a concept has not only withstood the test of time but has also been expanded to encompass the diversity of familial, domestic and personal arrangements in different regions of the world.

If a reader consumes all of the contributions to this special issue, they will be well placed to judge whether the three critiques that Ribbens McCarthy indicates are reflected in or overtaken by what they have read. She asks whether the focus on theorising practices downplays the significance of the everyday meaning of family, whether analysis is still limited by an Anglophone view and a focus on the minority of rich countries in the world, and finally whether an explicit concern to critique ‘collectives’ has resulted in a neglect of critique of the individual. We trust the reader will also have picked up some of the inspiration that the range and depth of Professor David Morgan’s work continues to provide.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that there is no conflict of interest.

References

  • Almack, K. (2022) A death in the family: experiences of dying and death in which everyday family practices are embedded and enacted, Families, Relationships and Societies, 11(2): 22741, doi: 10.1332/204674321X16472778502561.

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  • Andreasson, J. and Herz, M. (2022) Family practices, deportability and administrative violence: an ethnographic study on asylum seekers’ family life in the Swedish migration context, Families, Relationships and Societies, 11(2): 15774, doi: 10.1332/204674321X16381850636644.

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  • Finch, J. and Morgan, D.H.J. (2022) Two families, many stories and the value of autobiography, Families, Relationships and Societies, 11(2): 27486, doi: 10.1332/ 204674321X16311914213298.

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  • Kaplan, D., Levy, G., Buzhish-Sasson, H., Biton, A. and Kohan-Benlulu, R. (2022) Doing family while poor: agentic hopelessness as lived knowledge, Families, Relationships and Societies, 11(2): 20826, doi: 10.1332/204674321X16474246365913.

    • Search Google Scholar
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  • Keil, M. and Elizabeth, V. (2022) It is important that my kids see us all spending time together and that we do spend time together’: pacific mothers and fathers displaying post-separation family connections, Families, Relationships and Societies, 11(2): 24257, doi: 10.1332/204674321X16318861621792.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • May, V., Holmes, H. and Marie Hall, S. (2022) Neighbours, neighbouring and acquaintanceship: in dialogue with David Morgan, Families, Relationships and Societies, 11(2): 287302, doi: 10.1332/204674321X16318862227348.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Morgan, D. (2012) Neighbours, neighbouring and acquaintances: some further thoughts, Workshop titled ‘Neighbouring and Neighbour Disputes – Mapping Ongoing Research in Finland, Finland: University of Turku.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Morgan, D. (1996) Family Connections: An Introduction to Family Studies, Cambridge: Polity.

  • Morgan, D. (2009) Acquaintances: The Space Between Intimates and Strangers, Maidenhead: Open University Press.

  • Morgan, D.H.J. (1975) Social Theory and the Family, London, Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

  • Qiu, S. (2022) Family practices in non-cohabiting intimate relationships in China: doing mobile intimacy, emotion and intergenerational caring practices, Families, Relationships and Societies, 11(2): 17591, doi: 10.1332/204674321X16468493162777.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ribbens McCarthy, J. (2022) Family sociology as a theoretical enterprise? A personal reflection, Families, Relationships and Societies, 11(2): 30319, doi: 10.1332/204674321X16449322694920.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Wood, K., Featherstone, B. and Gupta, A. (2022) Reordering family practices in an unequal and disorderly world: contemporary adoption and contact in the UK, Families, Relationships and Societies, 11(2): 192207, doi: 10.1332/204674321X16388097229006.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Zhu, Y. (2022) Displaying intimate friendships: Chinese children’s practices of friendships at school, Families, Relationships and Societies, 11(2): 25873, doi: 10.1332/204674320X16047229586741.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Almack, K. (2022) A death in the family: experiences of dying and death in which everyday family practices are embedded and enacted, Families, Relationships and Societies, 11(2): 22741, doi: 10.1332/204674321X16472778502561.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Andreasson, J. and Herz, M. (2022) Family practices, deportability and administrative violence: an ethnographic study on asylum seekers’ family life in the Swedish migration context, Families, Relationships and Societies, 11(2): 15774, doi: 10.1332/204674321X16381850636644.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Finch, J. and Morgan, D.H.J. (2022) Two families, many stories and the value of autobiography, Families, Relationships and Societies, 11(2): 27486, doi: 10.1332/ 204674321X16311914213298.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kaplan, D., Levy, G., Buzhish-Sasson, H., Biton, A. and Kohan-Benlulu, R. (2022) Doing family while poor: agentic hopelessness as lived knowledge, Families, Relationships and Societies, 11(2): 20826, doi: 10.1332/204674321X16474246365913.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Keil, M. and Elizabeth, V. (2022) It is important that my kids see us all spending time together and that we do spend time together’: pacific mothers and fathers displaying post-separation family connections, Families, Relationships and Societies, 11(2): 24257, doi: 10.1332/204674321X16318861621792.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • May, V., Holmes, H. and Marie Hall, S. (2022) Neighbours, neighbouring and acquaintanceship: in dialogue with David Morgan, Families, Relationships and Societies, 11(2): 287302, doi: 10.1332/204674321X16318862227348.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Morgan, D. (2012) Neighbours, neighbouring and acquaintances: some further thoughts, Workshop titled ‘Neighbouring and Neighbour Disputes – Mapping Ongoing Research in Finland, Finland: University of Turku.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Morgan, D. (1996) Family Connections: An Introduction to Family Studies, Cambridge: Polity.

  • Morgan, D. (2009) Acquaintances: The Space Between Intimates and Strangers, Maidenhead: Open University Press.

  • Morgan, D.H.J. (1975) Social Theory and the Family, London, Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

  • Qiu, S. (2022) Family practices in non-cohabiting intimate relationships in China: doing mobile intimacy, emotion and intergenerational caring practices, Families, Relationships and Societies, 11(2): 17591, doi: 10.1332/204674321X16468493162777.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ribbens McCarthy, J. (2022) Family sociology as a theoretical enterprise? A personal reflection, Families, Relationships and Societies, 11(2): 30319, doi: 10.1332/204674321X16449322694920.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Wood, K., Featherstone, B. and Gupta, A. (2022) Reordering family practices in an unequal and disorderly world: contemporary adoption and contact in the UK, Families, Relationships and Societies, 11(2): 192207, doi: 10.1332/204674321X16388097229006.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Zhu, Y. (2022) Displaying intimate friendships: Chinese children’s practices of friendships at school, Families, Relationships and Societies, 11(2): 25873, doi: 10.1332/204674320X16047229586741.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 1 Open University, , UK
  • | 2 University of Edinburgh, , UK
  • | 3 NatCen Social Research, , UK

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