Book Review: Ethnicity and Family Therapy
By Christine Miles
Monica McGoldrick, Joy Giordano and Nydia Garcia-Preto (eds) (2005) Ethnicity & Family Therapy. New York: The Guilford Press, 3rd edition. xix + 796 pp.
This is the third edition of an ambitious book, now with 71 contributors, on a topic essential for professionals working with families in ‘multi-cultural’ situations. The editors find themselves struggling with a professional ‘mental health ethos’ that sees issues of ethnicity and culture as an ‘add on’ rather than as fundamental to family values and personal identities. They believe ethnicity must be center stage in work with families. By ethnicity the editors mean the shared values and customs within a family or community, arising from a commonality of ancestry and history. Everyone has ethnicity -- it is not just about the ‘otherness’ of non-dominant groups. They hope the book will help readers recognize the effects of their own ethnicity on their attitudes toward families they serve.
The background, cultures and needs of the US melting-pot or salad-bowl are addressed with 53 chapters in nine sections: American Indian and Pacific Islander Families (3 chapters); Families of African Origin (6); Latino (9); Asian (8); Asian Indian and Pakistani (3); Middle Eastern families (5); Families of European Origin (12); Jewish (4); and Slavic families (3). The goal is a road map to diverse cultures, not an instruction manual.
Most contributors share the ethnicity of the groups they describe. They write within a prescribed format, but the emphasis varies according to features significant for each group. For some, historical trauma fueled migration. For others, a key feature has been an experience of ambivalence or rejection after migration. For further groups the mode of arrival is significant, perhaps with illegal and high-risk border crossing. In some communities, members regularly visit their ‘home country’. Others only dream of eventual return. Chapters on long established groups aim to show how ethnicity and cultural effects continue through the generations. Some of these may be directed at readers, to challenge their prior assumptions that the ethnic values given here are accepted as universal values.
Space allocated to groups reflects the size of their US presence. Families of Latino origin are described through 103 pages, building a picture of what they have in common, and of local variation, while different writers add their own perspectives. ‘African Immigrant Families’ have 16 pages, giving little idea of the vast range and depth of African cultures. There is wide variation in the usefulness of the different contributions. It is polite, when meeting people of different ethnicity, to offer an assumption that they are somewhat ‘expert’ in their own culture and history. While some chapters do indeed present what seems like a strong community consensus view, others give a personal perspective, less well informed and unlikely to be shared by all their community. The writers are mostly therapists and social workers, not cultural historians. Some appear to be telling the mythology of a sub-culture rather than a balanced, evidence-based history or ethnography.
Religion and spirituality are treated briefly, and not always accurately, in some chapters. There is an acknowledgement of the dual allegiance of some South American and Caribbean communities to the Christian heritage and also to ‘traditional’ belief systems. Several chapters mention how Catholic practice varies geographically, so people found Catholicism in the US very different from what they had known back home. Other chapters, for example addressing South Asian religions, give a rather weak portrayal of their variety and vitality, or the ways in which family life can be imbued with spirituality.
More chapters look at the range of human values, such as the basis for respecting others and the centrality of serving others by providing hospitality. Some contributors display their confidence by describing how they have adapted their professional practice so as to meet the expectations and values of their clients, e.g. in accepting hospitality. Others stress how they find it important to maintain professional boundaries by refusing hospitality. Some describe their approach of using the familiar proverbs and metaphors of their community -- which requires a deeper knowledge of communities than is available in this book. The rush through so many ethnic groups tends to provide a superficial and sometimes inaccurate introduction. To help therapists see their own practice and values as being culturally derived, it would have been useful to invite more contributors working outside their own cultural heritage and willing to reflect on their conflicts, struggles and mistakes as they became learners and discovered the strengths of new value systems.
There is much of interest in the book. Closer editorial monitoring of contents, cited sources, and updating, would have been useful throughout. Readers interested in how religion and spirituality affect the health and disability services may need to find a book with greater depth in several major cultures and belief systems, such as: J. Hinnells & R. Porter (Eds.) (1999) Religion, Health and Suffering, London & New York: Kegan Paul International.