Doing and Displaying Gendered Boundary work among Blended Families in Israel


2017-01-16 /


This article seeks to introduce a more complex understanding of family change in Israel, through the case study of Israeli blended families. Going beyond the research on blended families in Israel and elsewhere, the analysis is focusing on how blended families are displayed in contemporary Israeli society. The analytical stress on displaying enables us to discern the fluidity and creativity in contemporary family life in Israel, as well as the boundary work through which family members present their family, to themselves and to other audiences. By analyzing data from over 40 in-depth interviews with parents who formed a blended family unit, we argue that family members embody a fuzzy mindset, which does not confine to a state of either/or, and at the same time negotiates traditional nuclear models of the “natural” family inherent in Israeli society.

  Over the last decade, the study of the everyday life of the family has become an established topic for research. The increasing diversity of family forms—that is, individuals living outside the conventional heterosexual bio-centric model—has led to a changing reality, in which more and more “people find themselves in chains of relations with several individuals across different households” (Smart and Neale, 1999: 72). As family forms undergo significant changes, they also give rise to the development of new analytical tools which seek to locate and re-conceptualize family life. Many of these studies

examine the family as a social construct, according to which individuals understand and ascribe new and old meanings to their personal relationships and forms of belonging and togetherness (Giddens, 1992; Jamieson, 1998; May, 2011). One of the most influential lines of analysis has been taken by critics who argue that “family” is something that people do and practice (Morgan, 1996, 1999, 2011; Smart and Neal, 1999), as well as display (Finch, 2007).

These important contributions to the sociology of family life have informed our research, which investigates the ways of doing and displaying blended families—that is, families in which at least one of the parents is rearing non-biological children—in Israel.

Indeed, the case study of Israeli blended families reflects some of the significant changes and continuities that family structures and familial relationships are undergoing today.

The research project on which this article is based incorporates data from 49 in-depth interviews, with parents who formed a blended family unit including members who are biologically and socially connected. Going beyond the research on blended families in Israel and elsewhere, we wish to focus our analysis on how blended families are displayed in contemporary Israeli society. This constitutes the first original contribution of this article. Exploring the family from this standpoint allows us to discern how family is

created through ongoing and dynamic interaction, while taking into consideration the relational and changing nature of family life in Israel.

A striking feature of many of the stories we heard is the heightened reflexivity concerning the everyday practices of the research participants’ families. All of them related to the fact that their parenthood includes active boundary work which was done and

displayed in what Signe Howell (2001) terms self-conscious parenting. Elsewhere, Allan et al. (2011) found that patterns of belonging and commitment in step-families can be more complex than in first-time families. For Allan et al., the idea of family

boundaries reflects experiences of inclusion and exclusion, which allows differing degrees of “flexibility” and “permeability”. By drawing on this study, we hope to demonstrate that the display of blended families in Israel consists of active boundary work (Lamont and Molnár, 2002) and a complex interplay between biogenetic and social family ties. Hence, the second contribution of this study is the development of this line of analysis. We argue that the displaying of families embodies a fuzzy mindset, which is not confined to a state of “either/or” (Zerubavel, 1991, 1995). Moreover, similar to

the work done by Allan et al. (2011) and Finch and Mason (1993), we found that the formation of the blended family in Israel reflects a continuing process of negotiation, in which its members reconfigure, challenge and adapt to the changing and continuing forms of family life.

So far, previous research has examined practices of displaying blended families mostly in Anglo-Saxon and European contexts. Here, we wish to extend and employ these theoretical perspectives to the Israeli context. Israel is a strongly pro-natal society, one that places high value on bearing children; the formation of a large family is still considered, in many ways, to be a patriotic act and part of the national mission (Berkovitch, 1999; Hashiloni-Dolev, 2007; Lahad, 2012, 2013, 2014; Lahad and Shoshana, 2015). Moreover, Israel is the only country in the world in which the national

health insurance system subsidizes all types of NRT (new reproductive technologies), and extensive use of assisted reproductive technologies is justified as an appropriate response to Israeli consumers’ need for biological parenthood (Gooldin, 2011). To a large extent, these pro-natal policies reflect Zionist, nationalist ideologies, and the primacy of the familial unit and childrearing in Israeli society. Daphna Birenbaum-Carmeli (2009) terms this cultural climate as the “natural family” paradigm, one which underlies the notion of Israel’s Jewish collectivity as a network of

biologically related kin (Birenbaum-Carmeli, 2009). Our analysis demonstrates that the significance of passing as a biologically related family in Israeli society is related to the heightened importance of biogenetic kinship in Israeli society. Thus, our article offers a unique case study which allows us to explore the active boundary work and everyday negotiations between biogenetic and social kinship in blended Israeli families.

In common with many European and American societies, Israel has been affected by societal trends such as the multiplicity of living arrangements, postponement of the age of marriage, rising rates of divorce, LGTB partnerships, single-parent families, and single-person households. Given this shifting normative framework, the various accounts that follow also tell us how the family is re-imagined and negotiated by members of blended families, while merging new and continuing models of membership and relatedness.



The article offers a unique lens through which the analytical perspective of displaying  the boundary work of blended families can be further extended and developed. Another major finding of this article is the high degree of attentiveness to what Howell views as the self-conscious parenting family, in which the family is de-biologized and biologized at the same time (Howell, 2001: 207). The need to negotiate conventional familial norms is reflected, for instance, in the questions, speculations, and default assumptions which members of blended families face in their everyday life. The difficulties in passing as a “first time family”—that is, a biologically related family—require a “convincing” display of their blended families to demonstrate in public that “this is my family and it works” (Finch, 2007: 67).

Yet, drawing on Gabb (2011) and Heaphy (2011), it is important to note the normative framework which defines what is considered to be a good family and good parenting. Indeed, in the different accounts we heard the family members work with the boundaries

of the natural family in Israel, employing voluntary and creative measures which both conform with and challenge its boundaries. Thus, we view the respondents as self-reflexive individuals who are highly aware of their own acts and the responses of others to

these acts. It is important to stress that during this process, their own normative concepts of what a family is and “who my family is” are contested and re-worked. This can be seen, employing another of Howell’s terms, as a process of “kinning”, in which family

ties are de-biologized and biologized at the same time (Howell, 2001: 207). Our findings support Howell’s research findings on adoptive parents, which assert that within the kinning process, the biological model lurks in the background. From all the above and by

building on Zerubavel’s insights, we also argue that all the blended family members we interviewed employed a flexible mindset and readiness to at least listen even if not always to take action on needed changes.

However, our contention is that this flexibility demonstrates the continuing and changing power of bio-genetic models in the Israeli cultural imagery. Indeed, the blended family is constantly evaluated against these models through active symbolic boundary work, and we found that most of the interviewees were aware of and attempted to evaluate and rework the boundaries between biological and non-biological families. Hence, on the one hand, the interviewees challenged the exclusivity and sanctity of biological relations as the sole basis for forming and maintaining strong familial bonds. But at the same time, they were extremely aware that blood ties are taken for granted, and of the privileged system of belonging in their social surroundings. In that sense, and continuing

Zerubavel’s (1991, 1999) line of analysis in relation to being situated within several mental fields at the same time, blended family members defy the either/or logic underlying the mutual exclusivity of conventional categories.

Consequently, our analysis could not be completed without paying attention to the socio-normative context which constitutes the politics of display, namely which family norms privilege certain families and exclude others. Jacqui Gabb (2011) and Brian

Heaphy (2011) rightly note the ways in which displays operate as socio-cultural constructs, in which some actors are more readily recognized and legitimated as family actors than others. Family displays cannot be separable from conceptions of “proper”

families which, in turn, are closely connected to conceptions of morally and socially “good” families—namely, adopting and displaying conformity to white middle-class heterosexual norms (Heaphy, 2011: 30–31).

In our case, adherence to the pro-natal heterosexist values of the Israeli family appears to be the standard. Differently put, doing and displaying cannot be disentangled from the normative ideals of the white, Jewish, heteronormative middle-class nuclear family

dominant in Israeli society. In closing, it is significant to acknowledge the limitations of this article as we only interviewed Jewish middle-class blended family members. As class and nationality are important correlates, we believe they should be included in future studies about blended and “new” families in Israel.

Thus, what counts as a good and convincing display is also dependent upon conforming to these norms; as Morgan (2011) insightfully notes, one has to take the audiences to whom displays are directed toward into consideration. These observations offer a

research agenda for future studies which takes into consideration the politics of display and social belonging in Israeli society and elsewhere.