Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Book Review
Global Families. Meg Wilkes Karraker. Pearson Education, 2008. ISBN: 978-0-205-50323-0.

Meg Wilkes Karraker is a professor of sociology at the University of St. Thomas with an interest in scholarship about families. Her book, Global Families, is the second in a series, Families in the 21st Century, edited by Susan Ferguson of Grinnell College, Iowa, for Pearson Education’s Allyn and Bacon imprint. Other titles in the series include Families in Poverty, Families and Social Class, and Remarriages and Stepfamilies, among others.

In her introduction to the book, Karraker notes that in all cultures and societies, “families provide a certain measure of universal experience for their members,” but she is careful not to fall into the trap of assuming that there is any one definition of what constitutes a family, or that the family is (or ought to be) the central social unit in any given time or place. Indeed she notes that in some times and places the family has not been all that central to the organization of society. Nevertheless, families in all cultures are being affected, often in profound ways, by increasing globalization, and by four other trends identified by family scholars L.B. Silverstein and C.F. Auerbach:

• Movement from homogeneity to diversity

• Movement from stability to change

• Movement from gendered parenting to transgendered families

• Movement from male dominance to greater egalitarianism

Families come in a wide variety of types and configurations in many societies, and “extended kin relations are less central…perhaps dangerously so in places where centralized governments have reduced or never supported social safety nets…” She warns several times against clinging to a mythic notion of a universal, traditional nuclear family as the most functional type of configuration, and she cites evidence that this has never really been the case.

The families that are the focus in this book are transnational, meaning that they “span borders, as those family members act, decide, feel and express identities across social networks that traverse two (or more) societies, often simultaneously.” Such social networking takes place in the context of globalization. Globalization is defined as a single global social order, “autonomous and independent of any single nation or region,” an interlocking web of cultural, political, and economic systems which result in a worldwide “system of dependency, in which nations are linked in exploitative global commodity chains of labor, production and consumption.” Without taking up space with the details, suffice it to say that there are a number of competing views on whether such a social order is a beneficial, problematic, or even a new thing; Karraker carefully delineates these varied views in a balanced overview, a practice which occurs throughout the book, accompanied by statistical analyses of various assertions where appropriate.

Global Families looks at five realities that affect family ties across borders: demographic shifts, employment, violence, cultural systems, and social policy. Each chapter presents a clear explanation of the issues, the relevant scholarship and ways of approaching it, and then concludes with an essay written by someone with expertise or experience in that particular area. The chapter on demographic shifts is followed by a description of life for women at a home for women in transition that is run by the Sisters of St. Joseph in St. Paul, Minnesota; the author of the essay is the director of the program. Most of the women there have arrived in the U.S. for various reasons – fleeing war, seeking education or citizenship, looking for work- and many are trying to maintain relationships with their families whom they have not seen for many years. Other essays include a detailed look at how the dispersal of Somali people fleeing war has resulted in changing gender practices; a study of men involved in sex trafficking in London, and an interview with an undocumented woman from Mexico. They, along with well-chosen photographs interspersed throughout the book, serve to ground the scholarship of the chapters in reality and personal experience.

While the book is mainly intended for use in a classroom, it gives such a comprehensive overview of an emerging global reality that anyone involved in policy-making, social work, education, news media or public health should be acquainted with it.
Today I am grateful for: Ignatian Exercises and my spiritual director; my home and housemates; for my brother's return to sobriety and a good and ordinary life; for my friends and co-workers; for the many people who keep raising issues and refusing to be cowed by fearmongering; for the photography of Berenice Abbott.
Holding in prayer today: CK and her father DK and family; my Uncle Barry; MEF having breast cancer surgery today; J and all immigrants; Archbishop Nienstedt; TH and family; people who work for ICE; Sisters of St. Joseph in Romania.

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