Regulating families: a public affair

The regulation of contemporary families has been at the heart of the French political agenda for many years. What to allow? What to forbid? How to proceed? Familles: nouvelle génération provides an illuminating take on these and other topical questions, by scrutinizing the daily work of the many institutions involved in the creation of families. Focusing on experiences that are often noted but rarely studied, this book shows how private lives are shaped by diverse and numerous institutional interventions. More precisely, by looking at the knowledge and practices of professionals involved in the construction and regulation of families, Familles: nouvelle génération puts into question contemporary forms of “supervision” and “support” in terms of power relations, while examining the many situations where notions of “good” serve as tools and means for regulating lives through constant invitations to normalcy.

The speech of a French adoption bureau, charged with the welfare of children. Paternity tests, required by the American administration for visa purposes. And the medical care of new mothers who do not bond with their infants. What do these things have in common? They all reveal that the family is neither a natural entity nor a private matter. On the contrary, family is an “issue” often requiring an administrative response, and an institution subject to various attentions and continuous interventions that are often invisible and unnoticed.

  • Roux R., Vozari A-S. (dir.), 2020, Familles : nouvelle génération, Presses Universitaires de France, collection « La vie des idées ».

Order and intimacy

Professionals from many fields are responsible for supervising, regulating, monitoring, helping and supporting families: doctors, social workers, judges, prosecutors, psychologists, marital counselors, nurses… Surely, their missions, their views and their interventions are not necessarily equivalent, or even consistent. The investigation of a prosecutor who suspects parents of having resorted to surrogate motherhood (which is forbidden in France) is not at first glance similar to the childcare training that every parturient receives at the maternity hospital, nor to the demand of a consular official for biological proof of kinship by means of a DNA test.

Yet while these situations differ, they also share a number of similarities. After conducting long-term, immersive, and ethnographic research within various related institutions, a team of sociologists and anthropologists have proposed, in Familles: nouvelle generation, to question these and other cases together, in order to understand the regulation of contemporary family issues through comparison and dialogue.

Such interventions as those mentioned above are part of a long temporality that renders the “family” self-evident, even if the arbitrary nature of the term “family” is revealed when submitted to question. Indeed, and contrary to both common sense and the ideological assumptions conveyed by it, the family is not – and has never been – a fact of nature. It is rather the product of successive actions and operations which, over time, have drawn the contours and boundaries of units designated as “familial” while naturalizing their perception as such.

This work requires agents, projects or wills – that is to say, policies – that consecrate some arrangements over others, assign their relative legitimacy, and transform intimacy into a privileged locus of power. If these policies have varied with times and preoccupations, they have nonetheless realized the family as a “category” – justifying in turn their own attentions and actions.

Institutional interventions produce a specific order

The various studies presented in this book show that professional interventions are never limited to the “policing” of families, nor do they regulate the lives of their subjects in a univocal way. Of course, this dimension is real and can be observed. To cite several examples: support for infertile candidates’ renunciation of their own desire for in vitro fertilization (IVF), which partly finds its source in a social concern for “normalcy”; treatment for mothers who suffer from not loving their infant “enough,” which pathologizes and corrects any deviation from the supposed evidence of maternal affection; the dismissal of “atypical” adoption candidates, which serves to consecrate and valorize a situated definition of the “good family,” etc.

In fact, these institutional interventions are both normalized and normalizing actions, which produce a singular order, itself all the more effective and accepted because it never appears produced as such. For some, these interventions involve personal habits and attributes; for others, expectations and demands; for all, social positioning and related behaviors from which any deviations are socially corrected.

The actions of professionals, however, are not necessarily presented in a coercive or imposing mode. Today, the ordering of family life is mostly done through work on the psyche – or, to put it another way, on an individual’s sense of “interiority.” For example, and in accordance with the law, no official would explicitly refuse an applicant to adopt a child if such a candidate’s profile were judged less “attractive”; rather, professionals will instead invite prospective parents to question themselves about the child’s needs and their ability to respond to them.

In the same way, a professional will avoid inflicting feelings of guilt onto a mother who does not feel love for her newborn; instead, s/he will try to work with her to cultivate the feeling she craves – the maternal love that all are convinced is necessary for the fulfillment of both children and adults. Similar examples are numerous: very often, power dynamics that are woven in the relationship between subjects and institutions are not obligations but invitations, formulated so that those who are administered become the agents of their own transformation.

The framing of family desires

Familles: nouvelle génération examines the framing of family desires, in order to consider jointly both expressions of individual will as well as their management by institutions. To do this, our studies have focused on techniques used to encourage subjects to transform themselves. First and foremost, we show how professionals are constantly inviting subjects to put their desires and thoughts into words. Through such dialogue and, above all, through the constant work of reflexivity to which they submit, subjects are regularly encouraged to reconsider their lives.

What does it mean for them to be a parent? How should they consider their wills? Are their desires legitimate and/or justified? What kind of child are they looking for? Do they have normal feelings towards him or her? Etc. Through this never-ending process, individuals are constantly questioning themselves (and being questioned), which is not without consequences: this interrogation puts into question the previously unquestioned, and frames issues that were not considered problems as such.

Further, we paid particular attention to social positioning in the formulation of these exchanges – and in the ways in which it is acknowledged. Indeed, the vast majority of the professionals we met considered their own expectations as universal, and viewed them as realities disjointed from history and society. The incentives to question one’s own self, skills, desires or abilities are formulated in terms of a body of knowledge thought to be independent of contingencies. This knowledge, however, is often conceptualized by individuals occupying determined social positions, whose specificity is itself erased by the claim to universality.

All children are supposed to have similar needs, independently of their individual circumstance; all parents should have similar emotions about their children; all the “best” families, despite claims in favor of diversity, benefit from the complementary presence of a mother and a father; etc. Yet these discourses are formulated by agents who often occupy similar social positions, and who regularly share similar ideological views about the “truth” conveyed by mainstream psychology. In short, and despite a plurality of observed situations, we have identified a strong regularity in the social origin of “universal” expectations: psyche-related knowledge drawing its strength partly from its (granted) capacity to make subjects forget about the social conditions of its production, diffusion and reception.

Contemporary ethopolitics

To qualify these institutional power relations – where subjects are induced to work on their own subjectivity, both freely and according to directions they are expected to follow – the British sociologist Nikolas Rose has proposed the notion of “ethopolitics.” He modelled the term on biopolitics – the famous concept defined by Michel Foucault as the exercise of power over life. However, by replacing bios (life) with ethos (way of being), Nikolas Rose intended to characterize “ways in which the ethos of human existence – the sentiments, moral nature or guiding beliefs of persons, groups, or institutions – have come to provide the ‘medium’ within which the self-government of the autonomous individual can be connected up with the imperatives of good government”.

This idea was particularly useful for us in understanding some of the logic at work in our different field studies. Indeed, when those we observed were invited to clarify their family desires – to refine them, to specify them, to verbalize them and, above all, to constantly interrogate themselves about the right and good way to achieve them – they experienced the process as a form of support and encouragement toward transforming themselves into better subjects – not only acting in accordance with their own ethos (their ways of being), but also exercising these actions ethically (by following the new guiding principles of which they were henceforth convinced).

Familles: nouvelle generation takes up and develops the concept of ethopolitics, here understood as an “action with a reflexive scope, giving itself as a primary objective the free and voluntary self-reform of the subject, oriented towards a transformed and shared ideal.”

Adoption candidature, surrogate motherhood practices, paternity tests, treatments for perinatal depression, and hospital IVF management: Their common object is the realization, the confirmation or the continuation of family life. And because such institutional processes regulate desires, their analysis reveals a new way of controlling subjects, of governing them, and of compelling them adhere to their own normalization.

  • Bourdieu P., « À propos de la famille comme catégorie réalisée », Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, n°100, 1993, 32-36.
  • Rose N., 2001, « The Politics of Life Itself », Theory, Culture & Society, n°18, 2001.

Crédits images en CC : Flaticon Freepik, iconixar

Citer ce billet
Sébastien Roux et Anne-Sophie Vozari (2021, 14 juin). Regulating families: a public affair. Mondes Sociaux. Consulté le 23 juin 2024, à l’adresse

Sébastien Roux et Anne-Sophie Vozari

Sébastien Roux, Cnrs, LISST-Cas ( et Anne-Sophie Vozari, EHESS, Iris (

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