Thursday, January 15, 2009

Toward a nomenclature for "domestic status"

While the debate on gay marriage often focuses on narrow areas of specific responsibilities and benefits in narrow situations, the broader question around it seems to be not only the “family” as an institution, but the idea of recognizing in some systematic way the varying amounts of responsibility that people have for others who may depend on them in varying ways.

That reminds me of the early weeks of organic chemistry in college, where students struggle with the subject of “nomenclature” – giving the right names to compounds. Actually, that’s a system or almost like a foreign language with grammar, but maybe we need a little of that in the way we characterize different kinds of relationships people have.

Think of some of the terms we use to characterize familial or social relationships with varying measures of dependency or inter-dependency: marriage, civil union, domestic partnership, parent, guardian, foster parent, child, dependent adult.

Yes, this is normally a matter for states, and not federal government; but we need to start getting a common understanding of what all of these situations really mean.

The workplace, during the past decade, has changed as “individual contributor” jobs tend to go overseas and the market emphasizes people skills. I’ve seen some situations where employers seem particularly concerned as to whether someone can come across as a “role model” or “authority figure.” That’s true in teaching, but also in many agenting businesses where insurance or financial products or other professional services are offered at a personal level.

And, there is the issue of online presence and reputation. People do talk about their personal lives online, which may good or bad for the job, depending on the circumstances. But for jobs that are sensitive to “role modeling” it would be good if professionals had a universal vocabulary with which they could characterize (even in places like Linked In) their degree of responsibility for other people, if they aren’t in a conventional marriage with children alone. If they are involved in eldercare, do they take financial responsibility too, or just provide personal supervision and presence. All of these factors can influence how well a person can fit into some kinds of sensitive situations where others look to him or her for leadership. They are becoming “reputational” issues.

In September, 2008, I reviewed, on my books blog, a work by Nancy Polikoff in which the law professor advanced the idea that we need to recognize a wide variety of interdependency social relationships for what they are – sometimes necessary, outside of the control of choice.

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