Friday, May 15, 2009

The Colonization of the MomWorld

I know it's a bit late on a Friday afternoon to get all philosophical on ya, but this issue has been bumping around in my head all day and it won't wait for a more civilized time.

Jürgen Habermas is known for, among other things, his theories on the colonization of the lifeworld. The colonization of the lifeworld occurs when we lose the balance between our social practices, values, identities, etc and economic/political activities, goals, and structures. Habermas thinks that in advanced capitalist societies, economic/political practices and values inform or dictate our social practices, which negatively alters the cultural production of meaning, our communication dynamics, our identity formation, etc. All of this sounds more complicated than it really is. So here are some examples.

The conventional view of this process is that our cultural values guide or limit our economic activities. So if we as a society value wilderness and open spaces, for example, we will abstain from or prevent business practices which destroy wilderness areas, regardless of the profit that could be made by destroying them all. If we value human life and health, then our medical and pharmaceutical industries will be primarily guided by this concern rather than by the goal of maximizing profits (ahem, ahem). Although this is the conventional view, it's obvious that in the majority of cases (at least in our capitalist system), economic practices and values actually trump or usurp cultural values. Colonization can be seen in other areas as well. Identity formation relies increasingly on the material goods one possesses (are you a PC or a Mac?), and advertisements promise that the solution to any social/relational problem you might have is located in a product you can purchase, and every important life event, emotion, or shared memory you may experience can be perfected/completed/immortalized by simply visiting the right place or shopping at the right store or whatever. So these are all examples of colonization of the lifeworld.

So lately I've been thinking about how motherhood is constructed in our culture as a management job. As a mom, you’re the household manager and supervisor and purchasing officer and consultant. And so the necessary efficiency involved in managing and the outcomes that you’re supposed to be attaining (super smart, well-adjusted, charming, well-behaved kids) trump traditional parenting concerns like connecting with your kid, nurturing the attitudes and values you deem important, etc. It’s the colonization of the MomWorld. And while these objectives of motherhood-management don't initially seem to be economic in nature, in a capitalist society, functioning (being smart and well-adjusted) always boils down to being productive, right? See, it's the colonization of the MomWorld.

Not that this is a huge surprise or anything, just food for thought.


  1. This is really interesting. I can't seem to get a thing out of Habermas when I read his stuff, but you make it sound really accessible and relevant.

    1. Anonymous3/30/2015

      Hi Riley, I think the reason many find it hard to understand Habermas' work is that it is translated (and often written in a pretentious, academic way common amongst sociologists). But the concept itself is both very easy to understand, and evident in so many areas of our lives. Take the example mentioned in this post regarding pharmaceutical companies. This is evident in every area of medicine, but perhaps most in the treatment of mental health issues. Rather than coming to a consensus regarding a treatment method that works through discussion (the key idea in Habermas' theory is that discussion and the subsequent consensus is the way in which we should attain true democracy and solve social problems), we rely upon quick and easy, let alone mass-money-making, pills and prescriptions that not only often hinder recovery/worsen symptoms, but also offer an array of negative side effects.

  2. Anonymous5/21/2016

    It is written in an "academic way" as sociologists because THAT it is what it IS. Habermas in any language is not for all to read, as you will not find it in your corner book ship. It is not nice of you to call this group "pretentious' and say it "academic" as a negative thing. You invite counter criticism when you criticize a group of others, where you are not a member.