Charities as symbolic families: ethnographic evidence from Spain

Jorge Grau Rebollo*, Paula Escribano Castaño, Hugo Valenzuela-Garcia, Miranda Jessica Lubbers

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

7 Citations (Scopus)


Purpose: The purpose of this paper is to explore the care provision of charity organizations that assist people in situations of economic vulnerability. After analyzing central theoretical elements of kinning, the authors contend that charity organizations function as symbolic families for people in need. Design/methodology/approach: Ethnographic fieldwork was performed in two sites of a large catholic charity organization in the outskirts of Barcelona. Ethnographic fieldwork included participant observations and informal interviews with individuals located under the official poverty threshold. Findings: Symbolic family bonds among different individuals are created through the entwining of interconnectedness, obligation and commitment, sense of belonging, interdependence and the projection of symbolic spaces of hearth. The authors propose the term of “disposable families” (akin to that of Desmond’s, 2013 for dyadic relationships) because a remarkable feature of these bonds is its short-term nature. Social implications: The consideration of charities as symbolic families offers new insights into their social role and may contribute to reshaping the social function within emergency situations. Originality/value: This research opens new ground for the understanding of charities as something else than care providers, as the relational dimension with clients extends beyond the conventional patron/client relationship. This fact has particular relevance in an economic context of post-crisis, with the Welfare State withdrawal and a deterioration of the traditional sources of informal support.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)25-41
Number of pages17
JournalJournal of Organizational Ethnography
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 20 Mar 2019


  • Charities
  • Poverty
  • Support networks
  • Symbolic family
  • Welfare


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