Mealtime conversations as cultural sites of socialization: solving the ’dependency dilemma’ within a cultural framework of autonomy and self-reliance

Carolin Demuth, Heidi Keller

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Family mealtimes are made up of dense social activity in which children are engaged in cultural practices and meanings. They are pregnant arenas for the production of sociality, morality, and local understandings of the world and a site for the socialization of children into competent and appropriate members of a society (Ochs & Shohet, 2006; Pontecorvo, Fasulo, & Sterponi, 2001).
An interesting aspect of family mealtimes is its function with regard to the dimensions autonomy and relatedness: conversations during mealtimes belong to the genre of mundane talk that is directed at sociability and building of rapport. However, they bring together persons who stand in socially asymmetric power relations: the parents whose responsibility is to guide and teach the child, and the child in the position of the novice. Within this particular configuration, parents need to balance what they consider to be a child’s appropriate need for autonomy with what they consider a parent’s responsibility for actively structuring the interaction. This often leads to a ‚dependency dilemma’ (Ochs & Izquierdo, 2009) in Western middle class families who are orientaed towards fostering the child’s autonomy and self-determination. The aim of the present study is to identify specific communicative practices used in German middle class families that serve to socialize children towards broader cultural models of autonomy and relatedness in light of this dilemma.

The study draws on data from a larger longitudinal study that covers a total of 28 years. We present findings from a re-analysis of 20 family dinner interactions video-recorded in 1980/1981 when the target children were 3 years old. The interactions were analyzed according to the procedures of dicursive psychology (Potter & Wetherell, 1987) and conversation analysis (Sacks, Schegloff, & Jefferson, 1974).

The analytic foci are:
1. Activity beginnings: is the child expected to follow specific rules or traditions, does the parent give directives or choices to the child?
2. Positioning (Harré &van Lagenhove, 1999): what kinds of subject positions are afforded and what kinds of rights, obligations and duties are accorded to the child?
3. The level of parents’ attention and preoccupation with the child’s self-determination, personal preferences and free choice: How much parental control is exerted over the child’s activity?
4. The child’s participation in this co-constructive process by either taking on or resisting the subject positions afforded.

Findings will be discussed with regard to broader cultural models of good child care and possible developmental consequences.
Original languageEnglish
Publication date2012
Number of pages2
Publication statusPublished - 2012
Externally publishedYes
EventInternational Conference on Language, Culture and Mind (LCM V) - Catholic University of Portugal , Lisbon, Portugal
Duration: 27 Jun 201229 Jun 2012
Conference number: 5


ConferenceInternational Conference on Language, Culture and Mind (LCM V)
LocationCatholic University of Portugal

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