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October 24, 2002 Sociologist  Daniel Dagenais examines the evolving family



Sociology professor
Daniel Dagenais

Photo by Andrew Dobrowolskyj

by Scott McRae

In a few weeks, many students will be waving good-bye to Concordia, degree in hand. Some will travel; others will go to grad school. But how many are thinking about starting a family?

“[Having children] used to mark a coming of age,” said sociology Assistant Professor Daniel Dagenais. “It was normal to become an adult through the founding of a family.”

This all changed in the 1960s. Suddenly, relationships became a meeting of individuals, not a joining of genders. Marriage ceased to be a fast track to baby carriages and became a gesture of commitment between two people.

“This didn’t produce a transformation of the family, it produced a collapse,” Dagenais said. It’s a collapse that he documents in his book La fin de la famille moderne, now being translated into English as The Unmaking of the Modern Family.

When the traditional family imploded, it brought down many social structures, including education. Once, parents were the educators of their children; now, they are supposed to be their friends. According to Dagenais, the family has abrogated its pedagogical role, and the state has too.

“The leading idea in all education reform is that we should help students to learn by themselves,” he said. “Rather than embody knowledge, we are asked to become tools, [but] in order to become a tool for training students, you need to reduce knowledge to technique and you lose its beauty.”

Dagenais is almost Platonic in his passion for knowledge. He once toyed with the idea of becoming a mathematics professor because he so admired the elegance of mathematical proofs. He went into sociology, instead, but continues to research in the old-fashioned manner. He does not conduct field work, play with numbers or do any type of empirical research; instead, he reads and thinks and theorizes.

Every aspect of his research revolves around the crisis of modern Western society. Currently, Dagenais is studying suicide rates. He says that the rates are alarmingly high in nations like Quebec that developed under foreign capitalists. In such places, a man’s two-pronged source of identity — career success and his provider role — are skewed because moving up the ladder was a form of social treason that meant integrating into the ruling class.

“The French-Canadian fathers thought of themselves as nothing but providers” and were therefore vulnerable to any changes to that role. With their wives now in the work force and birthrates in decline, Quebec men can no longer define themselves in a traditional manner. The suicide rate has soared.

Dagenais attributes this and most other societal problems to the modern “fantasy” of an individual-based society. A group of individuals is not a society, Dagenais explained, yet the individual is increasingly emphasized. Same-sex adoption is such an example. It represents the extreme individualization of parenting in that “it gives us an individual right to have children.”

The nature of love has changed, too. Once a way to legitimize founding a family, “now, love has become a medium through which you build yourself. It’s more narcissistic.”

How does someone who has spent years dissecting the modern family raise his own?
“As a sociologist, I have clear ideas, but as a father I’m a normal man,” Dagenais admitted. However, “if it was possible to raise them anew, I’d tell them to have fun, but warn them that at one point their youth has to stop. You can’t be 18 years old in your mind when you’re 45.”

There’s a sobering thought for this year’s graduates.