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Discourses of Responsibility in the Everyday Health of Families: A CELF Working Family Health Portrait

Mara Buchbinder


Linda Garro

UCLA Sloan Center on Everyday Lives of Families
Working Paper No. 69


According to Healthy People 2010, a set of national health objectives for the 21st century, children in the United States do not get enough physical activity, and child obesity is on the rise (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services 2000). Yet, despite the many large-scale public health campaigns that have triggered policy reforms at the national, state, and community levels, relatively little information is known about how families manage children’s health and wellbeing and negotiate responsibility in the ordinary routines of their everyday lives. Using data collected from an interdisciplinary study of middle class American dual earner families conducted by the UCLA Sloan Center on Everyday Lives of Families, this paper provides an ethnographic and micro-analytic view of one family’s struggle to combat health-related concerns. More specifically, the paper describes the discourses of blame and responsibility surrounding the family’s efforts to improve children’s health and wellbeing. We examine three discourses of health-related responsibility that emerged in in-depth family health interviews and videotaped recordings of naturally occurring family interactions. They include: 1) children’s individual responsibility for their own bodies, 2) parents’ moral accountability for children’s wellbeing, and 3) societal liability for children’s health. Using this analytic framework, we consider how responsibility for children’s health is articulated, negotiated, and enacted within ordinary family activities. By sketching a portrait of a single family’s practices and attitudes concerning health and wellbeing, we argue that children’s health cannot be understood in isolation from the family routines and everyday contingencies that shape behavior and influence cultural ideologies about what it means to be healthy.

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