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Blog:14 Jan 2011

Who’s in, who’s out? What exactly is the diasporic family?

When I tell friends and colleagues that I am working on far-flung families in film, I often get asked whether I include films depicting 'families of choice' or 'surrogate families', which are more or less closely knit friendship groups, often consisting of gays and lesbians. In what Anthony Giddens has referred to as 'the emerging democracy of emotions' (1999),  affectionate bonds and love have been identified as the defining feature of the family. ‘Love makes a family – nothing more, nothing less’, has after all been the rallying cry of those advocating family diversity, in particular, gay and lesbian civil rights movements. 

Yet, while anthropologists and sociologists who are researching 'the family' have gradually whittled down Murdoch's definition of the family as ‘a social group characterized by common residence, economic cooperation, and reproduction. It includes adults of both sexes, at least two of whom maintain a socially approved sexual relationship, and one or more children, own or adopted, of the sexually cohabiting adults’ (Murdoch 1949), there still remains a general consensus that the nurture and socialisation of children is essential to the concept of the family. Marriage, heterosexuality and common residence are features that can all be dispensed with -- but not the presence of children. Ingoldsby (2006) defines the family, in the broadest possible sense, as ‘a kinship group providing the nurturant socialization of its children (natural or adopted)'. But then, 'empty nesters', whose children have left home, would not longer constitute a family, or would they?  

Let's think of the family on screen for a moment. The Kids Are All Right (dir. Lisa Cholodenko, 2010), a film about an upper middle-class, married lesbian couple with two teenage kids, whose family life is reasonably happy and stable until the donor father suddenly appears on the scene, would definitely fit the bill (not a far-flung or diasporic family, though). But how about Ang Lee's The Wedding Banquet (1993)? Wai-Tung left his parents and Taiwan long ago and is now living with his gay partner in Manhattan. Yet there is no question that this film is centrally concerned with the diasporic family: Wai-Tung's parents travel to Manhattan to attend their son's (sham) wedding.  The father desperately wants Wai-Tung to produce an heir to continue the family line. Although one could argue that Wai-Tung's parents are still engaged in the process of  'nurturant socialization', exerting considerable influence upon their grown-up son, it seems to me that what determines whether a film is about 'the family' or not is the presence and interaction of at least two generations (whether linked by descent and adoption). 

So what about the designation 'far-flung', a nice alliteration that, in combination with 'family' rolls over the tongue more easily than 'transnational', not to mention the more scholarly term 'diasporic'. 'Far-flung families' are dispersed, they are all over the place. While the nuclear family may or may not be living under one roof, the image 'far-flung' implies that at least the extended family (uncles, sisters, grandparents, etc.) are geographically separated by considerable distances, they live far apart from each other, probably scattered across several countries or even continents. The concept of the 'diasporic family' is often subsumed under the more general term 'transnational family', defined by Bryceson and Vuorela (2002) as a family living ‘some or most of the time separated from each other’ yet that is held together by ‘a feeling of collective welfare and unity, namely, “familyhood”, even across national borders’. While multi-locality, transnational mobility and the extensive use of modern communication technologies to maintain social networks  are common to the 'transnational' and the 'diasporic family', the two terms are not completely synonymous. They are distinguished from each other by connotations of class ('transnational' connotes 'transnational elites' and 'cosmopolitans'), whereas diasporic communities are settler communities that have evolved out of mass migration movements, such as postcolonial and labour migrations (i.e. not part of the social elite). The adjective 'diasporic' inevitably implies sharing in the collective experience, memory or postmemory of migration. It also implies that, in relation to the majority culture of the host society, where these migrants settled, the diasporic family belongs to an ethnic minority. 

Edited on 15 Feb 2011 around 10am


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