Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Social Sciences


Sociology and Social Policy

First Advisor

Prof. CHAN Hau Nung, Annie

Second Advisor

Prof. DAVID Roman


Family has been defined as a powerful and pervasive word in our culture, embracing a variety of social, cultural, economic and symbolic meanings. Its importance for the development and wellbeing of children cannot be overemphasized. How ‘family’ is conceptualized by both children and adults remains a highly-contested subject considering the many changes in the form, structure, and relationships that could be described as ‘family’. Few studies have examined the relational lives of children and young adults who grow up in institutional care from a sociological perspective. The thesis makes meaningful contributions to the literature with a study of children and young adults currently living in and from the non-normative setting of the institution or children’s home, which is an understudied area. The study based in Zimbabwe, also provides a sub-Saharan African context and voice of children and young people in vulnerable contexts. The study employed a mixed-methods research design combining a core qualitative component and a quantitative supplement. Utilizing an interpretive social constructionist approach, the study investigated the meaning of ‘family’ through examining ‘what is family’ and ‘who counts as family’, while also examining the factors that influence these meanings. Data were collected from 435 children currently living in institutional care, 99 orphans and vulnerable children in families, 30 care leavers and 39 residential caregivers in Zimbabwe. The study found that orphans and vulnerable children (OVCs) in institutions and in families do not have a single definition of family and that they include diverse characteristics to describe what family means to them. These include blood relations, co-residence, provision of love, care and support. Orphans and vulnerable children do not only consider consanguinity as the basis for their definitions of family. When compared to OVCs living in families, children in institutions included some unique characteristics which implied a need for belonging, continuity of relationships, protection and trust. Care leavers were found to have similar diverse descriptions of family, also including both blood and non-blood related relations. Care leavers included their former caregivers, past and present housemates, friends and community members in their family lists. Caregivers described the ‘family’ in institutional care as an artificial one because the children know that caregivers are not their real parents. The challenging behavior of children in institutions, particularly with the older children, were also mentioned as causing difficulties in the creation of a family environment in out-of-home care. This has several implications for social service practitioners and policy makers.



Recommended Citation

Gwenzi, G. D. (2019). Constructing the meaning of family in the context of biological family separation: A study of children in institutional care and care leavers in Zimbabwe (Doctoral thesis, Lingnan University, Hong Kong). Retrieved from