What is a family and why does it matter?

Esther Dermott, Timothy M Fowler

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)
274 Downloads (Pure)


The family is increasingly a site of political intervention as a locus of pervasive social inequalities and a potential resource for resolving injustices. Contemporary political theory has engaged in extensive debate about what justice in the family requires, but rather less on how family is understood: ethicists have tended to use placeholder definitions which dismiss the need to engage with real-world practices. We show that this is problematic because it obscures morally important aspects of day to day family life and risks taking privileged positions as representative. The paper proposes that theorists could gain from adopting the sociological ‘family practice’ framework, which we argue can form the basis of a distinct and plausible ethical theory of family. This can provide a fruitful basis for further research and engagement in political debate because it better conceptualises contemporary family life. The paper therefore also illustrates how research from empirical social sciences can be helpful to the development of normative principles.
Original languageEnglish
Article number83
Number of pages11
JournalSocial Sciences
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 14 May 2020


  • parenting
  • family practices
  • ethics
  • normative
  • political theory


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