Short Article 5



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Short Article 5
The Post-Modern Italian Family

or the reality changes but the word stay the same
Flavia Laviosa ,Wellesley College, USA
[ Editorial note: In this article Flavia points out how the reality of the family has changed in Italy, while the word famiglia, in normal Italian speech has stayed the same.

This "reality shift" is common in all languages.

In UK university used to mean elite institution- today it mean mass institution.

Windscreen used to mean a sheet of glass in front of the driver in an open car- today it usually means front window in a closed car.

Over each of our life times many words have stayed the same while what they signify has

changed out of recognition. Flavia is making a major comment on semantic change.]

The Italian cinema is turning its attention to the family, detonating, contradicting, and mocking centuries of rhetoric on the beautiful Italian family. Populated with a choir of new members, the family presents itself with a modern genetic and ethic map, the product of a metamorphosis that, over the past forty years, has changed its structure and educational role. Tradition and modernity seem to coexist in a dialectic relationship where socio-cultural dynamics among people and institutions lead to reflecting on, elaborating and experimenting with newly established models of family. According to sociologist Anna Laura Zanatta, the Italian society is experiencing a "transition from the golden age of marriage to the dawn of cohabitation"1 together with a shift from the centrality of the parents-children binomial to a plurality of family forms. These are the topics at the centre of recent demographic studies, as well as literary and cinematic representations.

Nowadays sociologists tend to refer more often to "families than to family to point out the plurality of new ways of living, and family experiences."2 Rather than being concerned with the dissolution of the family, as the primary social cell and a place of loving and affectionate relationships, demographers use the plural form, families, to underline the profound transformations affecting this institution. Starting in the mid-1960s, Italians began experiencing the phenomenon of the post-modern family and felt increasingly estranged from the traditional family, which was founded on marriage and on a large number of offspring. Sociologists explain that this change has its roots in a number of interdependent socio-economic and cultural transmutations. The former can be identified in advanced industrialization, urban civilization, and the mass entrance of women into the work force. The latter can be traced to an erosion of Christian values, a greater acceptance of a pluralism of ideas, the attention paid to the needs of individuals and couples, and to an emphasis on the ideal of romantic love.

Marriages that were arranged for political, economic or social benefit usually guaranteed connubial stability in the past. Nowadays, the logic of romantic love has become the foundation of marriage and an indispensable ingredient for happiness. Paradoxically, a priority of this sort makes conjugal unions more fragile because the expectations of happiness become much higher. Romantic marriages lose their raison d’tre and fail when feelings of love die. Divorces become more frequent and people choose alternative ways of living together in diverse family structures. Zanatta argues, “in spite of the weaker stability of conjugal life, the forming of a couple, married or unmarried, stable or temporary, with or without offspring, is still the most preferred human condition.”3 Therefore, it is more appropriate to refer to the decline of a certain archetype of the family, rather than to a crisis of the family in general. This archetype in the 1950s has been defined as

Stable, harmonious, loving and reproductive, but governed by rigid rules of labour division and by a precise internal hierarchy between woman and man, parents and children, and often a potential source of strong marital tensions and generational conflicts. It is this model of family that is experiencing an irreversibly evolutionary process and that, if viewed in an idealized and uncritical way, can only feed an anachronistic regret of the past. 4


The decline of the institution of marriage and the development of a multiplicity of families have become concrete situations that can be neither contested, nor reversed. The contemporary family is not better or worse than the one of the past- it is merely different because its economic background and cultural milieu have profoundly changed. For this reason, the disappearance of the monolithic structure of the patriarchal family should not produce nostalgic regrets for the past or sterile efforts to re-establish a reality that has been modified irrevocably by the forces of history.

The post-modern family has become anthropologically multifaceted, sociologically variegated and psychologically complex. In fact, the concept of family has acquired a broader connotation and the word family needs further descriptors in order to be sociologically defined.5 A single person, young or old, and living alone, constitutes what has been termed the famiglia unipersonale. A single parent, living in a situation of independent parenthood, monogenitorialità, forms the famiglia monoparentale, while couples without children represent an example of the micro-nuclear family, famiglia micronucleare. Increasingly common is the phenomenon of the extended family, famiglia lunga, which is composed of two or more generations living in the same household, usually parents with their adult children who may be single or divorced. Paul Ginsborg explains that this "model of relationships between parents and children is not based so much on emancipation from the family, as on emancipation within the family"6 as its members establish new intra-family relationships, re-negotiate their private space and manage to protect their own lifestyles. The extended family has also been defined as a form of business, famiglia impresa,7 where parents and children elaborate an inter-generational exchange of emotional support, and strengthen their economic interdependence. As a complex support system of prolonged solidarity and shared resources, this family form takes on the responsibilities of a defaulting society and an absent state.

Psychologically and anthropologically, the Italian family is in the midst of a paradigm shift. Uncertainty appears especially when the family adds stepparents, genitori sociali, to biological parents. Defined as blended, famiglia ricostituita or famiglia ricomposta or as expanded, famiglia allargata or nuova famiglia estesa, or as a step family, famigliastra (term derived from fratellastro, step-brother and sorellastra, step-sister traditionally used in cases of a new marriage after the death of the spouse), or even as an open family, famiglia aperta8 this form of family sees its members, usually parents with children from previous marriages or relationships, living together with their own new-born children and experiment with different sorts of family structure to bring about a loving coexistence. The blended family attempts to define new caring roles and share responsibilities of co-parenthood, cogenitorialità.9 The emotional and physical presence/absence of the former spouse, together with the sharing of educational and financial responsibilities between biological and social parents, lead couples to explore forms of plural parenthood, plurigenitorialità. 10 This family structure is more like a clan composed of several father and mother figures cohabiting with siblings and half-siblings. The effort to function as an operational family in a new kind of kinship is the challenge that contemporary Italian society faces.

Therefore, the institution of the family no longer identifies exclusively with legally binding matrimony and religious marital vows; instead it acquires a richer landscape of options. The wide spectrum of possibilities, ranging from the one-person to the micro-nuclear childless household, to the expanded clan and the extended multigenerational family, indicates that the concept of family has acquired a richer connotation beyond its original meaning.




1 Anna Laura Zanatta. Le nuove famiglie. Bologna: Il Mulino, 1997. p. 7

2 Zanatta, p. 9

3 Zanatta, p. 16

4 Zanatta, 17

5 Elisabetta Cioni. Maria Carla, Meini. Alessandra, Pescarolo. Paola, Tronu. Famiglie in mutamento. Le fonti e i dati 1971-1991. Milano: FrancoAngeli, 1997.

6 Ginsborg, p. 157

7 Paul Ginsborg. L'Italia del tempo presente. Famiglia, società civile, Stato 1980-1996. Torino: Einaudi, 1998. p. 157

8 Zanatta, p. 169.

9 Valerio Pocar. Paola, Ronfani. La famiglia e il diritto. Roma-Bari: Laterza, 1998. p. 171

10 Pocar and Ronfani, p. 193


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