From traditional familism to utilitarianistic familism: the metamorphosis of familial ethos among the Hong Kong Chinese


Lau Siu-kai

TitleFrom traditional familism to utilitarianistic familism: the metamorphosis of familial ethos among the Hong Kong
PublisherSocial Research Center, the Chinese University of Hong Kong
Publication DateOctober, 1978


Abstract/ Concluding Remarks:

Delving into ideal-typical comparisons, which inevitably leads to a relative over-emphasis on differences and a relative neglect of similarities, we have analyzed the components of traditional familism and utilitarianistic familism, and the structural conditions in Hong Kong which are conducive to the transformation from the former to the latter. The process of transformation can be seen to be proceeding on in two directions: toward functional specificity and toward domain stretch. By moving toward functional specificity and, traditional familism has become a more specific form of familism in which relationship among family members tend to revolve more or less exclusively around utilitarianistic considerations, while affective-ritual ties are becoming muted and are generally restricted to the core members with closely intimate relationships. In heading toward the direction of domain stretch, traditional familism has forsaken the exclusively ascriptive criteria of member ship and thus allows for the use of utilitarianistic, achievement-oriented criteria for the recruitment of new family members, as well as the non-inclusion of those who should have been members by ascriptive definition. In such ways, the ethos of familism are not inhered in a pre-existing group, as in traditional familism, but has become the normative order for the regulation of the operation of a group deliberately organized for some specific purposes.


In a society such as Hong Kong, where the public institutional structure is inadequate to handle the needs generated from society first in connection of large-scale influx of immigrants and later due to rapid industrialization and urbanization, it is not surprising to find that private devices are designed, either deliberately or unconsciously, by the majority of the Chinese populace to enable them to cope with an environment which appears to them to be risk-prone, hostile and highly unpredictable. The continual salience of familism, (despite the fact that many critical conditions for the survival of traditional familism are no long existent) – in a society where social solidarity is low because of the colonial situation and the apathetic attitudes of the uprooted Chinese immigrants – means that familistic ties are the most handy organizational principles to form groups with larger resource bases in order to protect or promote one’s interests in society. Under utilitarianistic familism, the formation of these particularistic groups will enable individual Chinese to personalize his socio-economic environment through the personalization of his relationships to the critical individuals in his environment and the inclusion of them into his familial group. Personalization of the environment will, in turn, make his environment less unpredictable, and thus allows him to relax in a private circle of security amidst a society of insecurity. The predominance of utilitarianistic familism in Hong Kong, consequently, not only points to the continual significance of familism in a modern society, but also the elasticity and adaptability of Chinese familism even when it has been removed from its natural setting.

NoteIncludes bibliographical references
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