The Disorganized Family: Institutions, Practices and Normativity

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This paper considers the value of a normative account of the relationship between agents and institutions for contemporary efforts to explain ever more complex and disorganized forms of social life. The character of social institutions, as they relate to practices, agents and norms, is explored through an engagement with the common claim that family life has been deinstitutionalized. The paper argues that a normative rather than empirical definition of institutions avoids a false distinction between institutions and practices. Drawing on ideas of social freedom and creative action from critical theory, the changes in family life are explained not as an effect of deinstitutionalization, but as a shift from an organized to a disorganized institutional type. This is understood as a response to changes in the wider normative structure, as a norm of individual freedom has undermined the legitimacy of the organized patriarchal nuclear family, with gender ascribed roles and associated duties. Contemporary motherhood is drawn on to illustrate the value of analysing the dynamic interactions between institutions, roles and practices for capturing both the complexity and the patterned quality of social experience.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)678-696
Number of pages26
JournalBritish Journal of Sociology
Issue number4
Early online date14 Sep 2016
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2016


  • Institutions, Practices, Social Norms, Agency, Family, Disorganized


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