Globally, family values are going through changes. India is also showing signs of change, while holding on to ‘Indian’ values.
British sociologist Anthony Giddens once said that in order to understand families it is necessary to look beyond changes in household composition to the relationships within which families live.
Compositional changes — joint to nuclear, single-parent families, non-cohabiting couples, live-in relationships and so on — are not merely an adjustment to a changing context but also emerge due to the changing substance of relationships.
A close examination of these not-so-standard living patterns can offer vital clues to how a society is changing.
Most change in families and societies is marked by watershed developments such as industrialisation, colonisation, war, urbanisation and, in recent times, globalisation.
Each of these events has been marked by parallel changes in the organisation of the economy, of property, of law — and of families, and how families too divide labour and property, come together or evolve.
At the core of the traditional family is the idea of socially sanctioned cohabitation and procreation; a responsibility to raise young ones and invest in their growth as productive citizens; and altruism, responsibility and reverence for older generations.
Globally, these values are going through changes. India also seems to be showing signs of change in the composition of families, but is holding on to core ‘Indian’ values.
As a nation, we have been witnessing a great range of changes in the way we live, eat, dress, travel and communicate. We now live longer, have fewer babies, marry outside our core social group, live apart in small groups comprising only parents and children.
There is more premarital sexual activity, more divorce and separation, more single-parent families, more senior citizens living by themselves.
All these changes, though not sweeping, have class, caste and gender elements to them, as also urban and rural differences. The change in family composition in rural areas, for instance, is largely linked to fertility changes and migration patterns.
In the urban context, the emergence of the new urban middle class and the lifestyle and practices of this class has been a game-changer.
There is now increasing individualism, more liberal values, and this is now influencing areas of life such as family. Parental authority over adult children is weakening. There is a steady acceptance of homosexual offspring. Sexual and gender relationships within and outside families are undergoing changes, even within a larger context of uptight sexual mores.
Acceptance of these changes and making way for these choices will signal the evolution of a mature society, one that accepts diversity and change.
(Lakshmi Lingam is a sociologist and deputy director of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Hyderabad)