"Fit to parent" : psychology, knowledge and popular debate
This thesis examines the powerful appeals to psychology that are made in contemporary popular debate in Britain about parents. It focuses on the political implications of psychological discourse and the knowledge claims on which it rests. Using feminist and discourse theory, it critically examines psychological discourse, psychology as a knowledge practice, and considers the dilemmas of feminist knowledge production given the practices and relations it bolsters. Constructions of mothers and fathers in parenting magazines and news-media images of lone mothers, lesbian mothers and `absent fathers' are found to be profoundly gendered and conservative (hetero-gender normative) in spite of the rhetorical shift towards the genderneutral discourse of `parents'. Gender essentialist and identity/status-bound understandings are most striking where people's `fitness to parent' is questioned, often implicitly, which suggests that such understandings are naturalised in representations of parents who are not problematised. It is argued that the notion of `fitness to parent', rather than contributing to discussion of parent-child relationships, obscures how impoverished popular debate is, because it has little ideological coherence despite its mobilisation of judgemental scrutiny and powerful condemnation. Ideas about `unfit' parents do not, by exclusion, define a culturally ideal parent, but their implicit nature paves the way for common-sense appeals which deny their value-bases, reducing opportunities to challenge normative assumptions or superficial identity categories. `Second wave' feminist analyses of family ideology are employed, but are criticised from a feminist post-structuralist perspective which highlights the limitations of `identity' (for prematurely foreclosing understandings of subjectivity and desire), and of `social influence' as a model of individual-society relation. A critique of identity politics is employed to highlight how parental identities deployed in popular debate are imbued with psychological presumptions, without necessarily referring to psychologically/emotionally meaningful qualities of relationships between parents and children. Instead, a relational, performative approach to thinking about parents, and a psychosocial approach for considering the politics of cultural discourses are advocated. An examination of recent social policy debates suggests that the former may be gaining in persuasive value and impact on policy. Examining the authority of contemporary childrearing expertise suggests that arguments about parents are persuasive when they refer to psychological issues, whether or not they make explicit claims to expert knowledge. Paradoxically, as pop psychology becomes ubiquitous in Western cultures, the rising status attributed to the emotional realm can provide a means of contesting expert psychology, by undermining the valorisation of objectivity. However, the `psychologisation' of contemporary social life reinforces psychology's conceptual framework, which can, in turn, naturalise its conventional epistemology. This dilemma is explored in two spheres: feminist research and research with child participants. It is argued that feminists, and those critical of psychology's modernist foundations, might employ their `expert' warrant strategically in public debates about parents, but should also expose the politics of psychological knowledge. Similarly, despite theoretical limitations, identity politics might be put to good effect, such as to help children's voices be heard today. Finally, it is argued that, today, psychology is powerful, not only through experts or professionals, but as expertise, such that people draw on psychological discourses in their own reflexive projects of the self. Thus, psychological discourses, including implicit notions of fitness to parent, are implicated in the construction of contemporary parental subjectivities.