Human Studies

, Volume 26, Issue 1, pp 97-119

First online:

Exploring Patterns of Mother-Blaming in Anorexia Scholarship: A Study in the Sociology of Knowledge

  • Thomas Vander VenAffiliated withDepartment of Sociology and Anthropology, Ohio University
  • , Marikay Vander VenAffiliated withCollege of Education, graduate student in counseling education, Ohio University

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Mother-blame, the propensity to explain negative outcomes for children by focusing on the failures of mothers, has a long history in the social-scientific study of adolescent deviance. We examine trends in mother-blaming over time by performing a textual analysis of scholarly accounts of the etiology of anorexia nervosa. Our reading of these expert accounts suggests that mother-blaming for child pathology is interconnected with changing ideas about proper social roles for women. Deficient mothering, that is, was often linked to a woman's ambitiousness, willingness to abandon familial duties in favor of careers, or, conversely, her embracement of patriarchal proscriptions for what a woman should be. Poor maternal parenting was a consistent and dominant theme through much of the period we analyzed, however, the structural and cultural explanations appeared to change substance and form in synchrony with prevailing ideas about a woman's rightful relationship to the paid labor market. Other social explanations for changing rhetoric, including the gender composition of published accounts, are also explored.

anorexia nervosa deviance mother-blame social problems sociology of knowledge