Center for Interdisziplinary Research

Fatherhood in Late Modernity. Cultural Images, Social Practices, Structural Frames

Date: April 19 - 21, 2007

Organizers: Ursula Müller (Bielefeld), Mechthild Oechsle (Bielefeld)

This ZiF-workshop is remembered by participants as well as by organizers as an extremely successful event with regard to the contributions and discussions, to the outcome and referring to their pleasant stay in then sunny Bielefeld, with the unique art exhibition presenting thematically-related works by Katja Sandler-Wedekind, and being cared for excellently by ZiF staff.
It was clear from the beginning, as organizers Ursula Müller and Mechtild Oechsle pointed out in their introductory paper, that the topic "Fatherhood in late modernity" would provide a broad range of theoretical and methodological challenges. This turned out to be especially true when not only a variety of disciplines-here: sociology of the family and of organization, German Literature, Social Psychology, Educational Science, Law, Media Sciences, Cultural Studies, History-meet, but especially when the topic demands for a gender perspective that claims to be interdisciplinary in itself. As a further challenge, the task of the workshop was to scrutinize relevant articulations of questions and concepts in the respective disciplines, with special respect to open questions that need to be addressed in further research. Some insights that cannot cover the full richness of results but address the most dominant features include theoretical, methodological, and topical perspectives:
Theoretically, many public notions of fatherhood, fathering and fatherliness are informed by dichotomous gender concepts. This leads to cultural representations of fatherhood where 'active fatherhood' seems only possible when mothers fail or are absent for other reasons (Lisa Gotto); where men, when imagining themselves as fathers, seem to enter 'female territory' (demonstrated from various perspectives by Walter Erhart, Richard Collier, Susan Halford) in a more or less heroic attitude, while otherwise being disconnected from their families, which are imagined as a mother-child-unit. Of course, a gender dichotomy with respect to housework and care work is factually still prevailing (Hans Peter Blossfeld, Florian Schulz), and among EU-countries, gender practices and orientations in Germany are among the most traditional ones (Norbert Schneider). But for research, a dichotomous perspective will direct scholarly attention to discover, in the first place, inertia and traditionalism, and eventually underestimate signs of change and the multiplicity of meanings (Ursula Müller). Therefore, a plead for more processual and more complex gender concepts (Martin Dinges, Michael Meuser, and others) was widely shared in the conference. This included the view that through various changes in the interface of work and home, the public-private debate is substantially questioned, as are, on the other hand, preference and bargaining models by the theoretical challenges of agency concepts.
Methodologically, it seems-with few exceptions-that large-scale studies disclose more traditionalism, whereas small-sized research with qualitative measures seems to point to changes and contradictions that may indicate change, or lead to it. But, as both Cornelia Helfferich and Norbert Schneider could demonstrate, tensions between practices and accounts do not run neatly according to methodological lines. In the 'big picture', there is nowadays a discrepancy between fathers' 'traditional' practices and their accounts on how they would want to 'father' if they could. The thesis that there is a connection between accounts and practices, or between culture and conduct (Ralph LaRossa), has as a consequence to treat persons' accounts not as reports of facts-be they 'practical' or 'cultural'-but as cultural products that are situated somewhere between thoughts, norms, language, and action. Topically, there were mainly two directions in which studying fatherhood, fathering and fatherliness should expand. One direction may be named an expansion in times, places and relations-including self-relations-in which fathering takes place, as William Marsiglio explored in his comprehensive research outline on three fathering trajectories, while accentuating aspects of the physical sites wherein men produce and express their father identities. This was also discussed by Susan Halford's contribution on employed fathers who were part of their time home-working, and observing the shifting notions of change and inertia in fathering (and mothering) that are given space to develop within these work-home-arrangements. Cornelia Helfferich completed these proposals by underlining the importance of status and age when studying practices and accounts referring to fatherhood. The second direction could be named 're-approaching subjectivity', while contextualizing it in new ways (Øystein Gullvåg Holter, Barbara Hobson). Holter pointed out that "caring masculinities" showed the importance of the situation rather than a specific 'new man' kind of biography: He identified three main motivating elements that may inspire a more active version of fathering-a 'child/caring' factor, a 'woman/partnership' factor, and a 'life quality factor', which may develop into agency towards 'social innovation'. Barbara Hobson outlined the dialectics of structural frames and men's or fathers' agency, with special attention to the situations where actors become aware of their entitlements and take up action to transfer them into their personal practices as fathers; an approach combining attention to structural constraints that may or may not facilitate fathers' actions, but likewise emphasizing the relevance of fathers' choices to gain rights and to develop the ability to exercise rights, given a frame of entitlement and risk.
Yet, there are master narratives, we learned, about the past and even the present of fatherhood that are part of the culture of fatherhood (Wiebke Kolbe), as Walter Erhart showed for German novels, Sabine Andersen for pedagogic discourses, Ralph LaRossa demonstrated for the US since the early 30ies, and Irina Novikova showed for post-socialist states, where traditional images of patriarchal fatherhood are re-established at the same time as it becomes trendy to be a 'new daddy', i.e. a fatherly father. But, as also Lisa Gotto could prove in her analysis of Hollywood blockbuster films, these master narratives are by far not free of ambivalence. Changing notions of fatherhood, changing or newly established forms of fathering, encouraging or inhibiting factors in the world of work and the modernisation of the policy and legal framework are mutually influencing each other, without a clear trend being discernible.
Many contributions showed that, in the various fields they study, a prominent feature is that of a competition of the genders when it comes to fatherhood. Here, 'modernization' of fatherhood comes along as a territorial issue which transports some military connotations of threat, conquest and defense. This became especially evident in Richard Collier's analysis of some traits of the New Fathers' Movement. Martin Dinges, however, pointed to the traps of narratological patterns. Fatherhood and families should be studied in their links to a broader context, including the relation of fatherhood to motherhood, and to the de- and re-masculinization of discourses in specific countries at a certain time. This led to the question of how fatherhood does relate to masculinity (Cornelia Helfferich, Michael Meuser, Ralph LaRossa, and others) and if it is a helpful concept at all to investigate fatherhood (Richard Collier, Thomas Gesterkamp).
To conclude: An interdisciplinary approach seems to be very fruitful to explore the complex interplay of norms and values, cultural representations, conduct and structural constraints within the social change of fatherhood. Communication across disciplinary boundaries disclosed to be less difficult than expected, facilitated by concepts like "cultural representation" to which history, media sciences, cultural studies, educational science, and sociology as well as social psychology may refer, as well as to a gendered concept of masculinities, and to the idea of "fatherhood in times and spaces" which already represent trans-disciplinary perspectives themselves.

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