Home > guest post, rant > Guest Post: What is a family?

Guest Post: What is a family?

September 16, 2011

By guest blogger rwitte

The social structures commonly talked about when discussing finance and economics include individuals, governments and corporations. However the most social structure is family, since it is the structure that results in the perpetuation of society. I was reminded of this by a recent link that mathbabe posted here. And since she invited me to write a guest post, it inspired me to mouth off about family.

What do you think of when someone uses the word family? I am guessing that you think of the so-called nuclear family consisting of a husband a wife and a variable number of children. For sure their are many variants including one-parent families and gay families, but the ideal is thus. It wasn’t always so. I am a fifty year old male of Ashkenazi Jewish descent. In that community my generation is the first to have prioritise the needs of small nuclear families. My grandmother’s idea of family was a much larger group, extending over several generations, and with a healthy side-order of cousins, aunts etc. My wife is Jaimaican, and her mother’s conception of family is similar to my grandmother’s (except the Jamaican version is even more matriarchal because so many of the fathers are absent).

I don’t know if you have ever seen a family home from a hundred and fifty or more years ago. You will be surprised at the size; there are more rooms for a family, at any level in the social scale. This is because the experiences of my wife and I are not unique, they are just a few generations later than those of the majority. Until relatively recently, as in most ‘primitive’ societies, the family is the extended family, and you will commonly find three or four generations living together.

I think the organisation of society into extended families was a great idea, and that the fragmentation into nuclear families sucks. But before I explain what’s so terrible about them I want to take a paragraph to explain why I think the change occured in the first place. Nuclear families are small and relatively mobile. As industrialization progressed and first transcontinental and then transglobal corporations formed, it suited their purpose to be able to move and resettle employees between different sites in their empires. At the other end of society the pull of the factories was encouraging many to move from rural areas to the big city. This also fragmented extended families; the units that moved were nuclear. As a process in the developed countries, it probably peake in the 1950s or 1960s, but it is still going on now in developing countries such as China.

The original myth of the nuclear family was one in which the male was the breadwinner and married women stayed home to provide full time childcare. This idea, obviously sexually discriminatory, is certainly a myth. It has never been the case that poor couples could support themselves on one person’s wages. Manual labour has never been that well payed. And since the rich typically had access to nannies, only a thin stratum of society has ever organized childcare this way.

Today, in an attempt to paper over the cracks in this story, a new myth has arisen. Namely, the ‘superwoman’ who has it all: career, children, and social life (it only take 28 hours a day eight days a week!). In actual fact this myth is probably even more dangerous than the previous one, because millions of women are now trying to live up to this impossible ideal. When they don’t overachieve these impossibly demanding targets, they feel guilty and inadequate. For some, serious mental health issues can ensue as the buckle under the pressure.

We often complain about the poor quality of life our society offers to our elders. They get stuck in some retirement home quitely out of sight where they can slowly die of boredom. The middle classes must pay for child-care and the exorbitant prices push them towards poverty. Meanwhile poor parents simply cannot afford adequate child care and poor children roam the streets; ‘latch-key kids’ with no adequate supervision between the end of school and the parents’ return from the work. Some of these children get really out-of-control; getting involved with drugs, crime, and street-gangs in some combination. I don’t want to get too carried away with arguments about ‘the youth of today’ because the rose-tinted vision painted nostagia never was, but still I hear the cries, something must be done.

I believe that we can overcome all these social problems by returning to a social organisation based on extended families. The grandparents can look after the children while the able-bodied parents go out to work. This leads to an interesting and fulfilling retirement, in which they can pass on the wisdom that they have accumulated over the years to a willing audience. The children get an educational, loving and supportive home-life which will help them to grow up honest and secure. And the fittest adults can commit 100% to the workforce increasing social productivity.

Of course it may be that the grandparents are still too young to retire and the great-grandparents take on the responsibility.  Or maybe a cousin or Aunt who particularly enjoys childcare can set up a sort of family creche.  Perhaps all the adults work and coordinate their days off in a rota so that who looks after the children depends on the day of the week.  Nobody would be surprised to discover that while all families have much in common, every family is different.  The role of the greater society is as to encourage and enable relatives to remain geographically close to each other.  It would be up to each particular family to work out how to organise themselves for their own convenience (although there is some evidence to suggest that children brought up by maternal grandparents are more psychologically secure than those brought up by paternal grandparents).

Modern advances in information and communication technology may render a society with less geographical relocation of people possible. You don’t have to be in the same office to work with somebody (hell, you don’t even have to be in the same continent). Instead of workers having to move around the globe, they can stay with their parents and children while their information flows around the internet and other computing networks, more quickly, conveniently and cheaply.

Categories: guest post, rant
  1. Aaron Schumacher
    September 17, 2011 at 10:32 am

    “…there is some evidence to suggest that children brought up by maternal grandparents are more psychologically secure than those brought up by paternal grandparents” – What evidence does this refer to? I’d like to see it; seems interesting!


    • September 18, 2011 at 6:54 am

      I got that sentence wrong :S I should have said “…there is some evidence to suggest that children grow up to have more stable relationships with maternal than with paternal grandparents.’ (The words have hardly changed but the meaning is very different :S)

      The evidence for the corrected statement comes from
      Young Adults’ Relations with their Grandparents: An Exploratory Study and Young Adults’ Relations with their Grandparents: An Exploratory Study

      However, I think that my mistake came about because I was conflating these ideas with Opposite effects of maternal and paternal grandmothers
      on infant survival in historical Krummhörn
      , which suggests that infant mortality is higher among children brought up by paternal grandparents than among children brought up by maternal ones.


      • September 18, 2011 at 6:59 am

        Let me just pipe in here when I say that, as an observer of many relationships between children, mothers, and grandmothers, there is something much more natural about maternal grandmothers caring for their grandchildren than paternal grandmothers doing so. Something about competition between mothers and in-laws, or put a more positive way, something about the inherent trust between mothers and their mothers. Of course, it sometimes works beautifully to have a paternal grandma take care of grandchildren, I don’t want to be overly pessimistic; let’s just say it takes much more navigation to set up. This is the main reason I’m sad to have only boys, by the way (that and I love nerd girls).


  2. FogOfWar
    September 17, 2011 at 11:59 am

    It’s definitely an interesting question.

    Real estate people track what they call “household formation”, where a “household” is simply one purchasing/renting unit of people (this is important because it informs total demand for housing stock).

    During the recession this metric of ‘household formation’ declined because many people followed your advice (although that trend has started to reverse in the last year). More for economic reasons (can’t afford rent!) than social, but there could be positive social consequences to this trend.

    A number of newspapers commented on it in anecdote, but since this is a data analysis blog, I’ll link to our sister-in-spirit blog calculatedrisk.com:





    • September 18, 2011 at 7:33 am

      Interesting stuff, FogOfWar.

      However the extended family as an entity doesn’t need to be a single household. It can exist as a cluster of households in close proximity.

      My paternal grandmother’s mother, two sisters and a nephew all lived in their own houses on the same street (I think there was a cousin living who moved his household away from this same street shortly after I was born). My grandmother’s house, and another nephew’s house were both slightly further afield, albeit within walking distance. All of these households included spouses and children except for my grandmother’s. (My grandfather lived with the children, including my father, elsewhere) This group of households formed a very effective extended family unit

      I should probably mention that my great grandmother had arrived, almost penniless, in England from Eastern Europe for an arranged marriage at the age of twelve. However she rapidly became a successful businesswoman and was relatively wealthy and I believe she had originally bought most of these houses. This particular family was not a democracy; great grandma was in charge.

      However as you point out, it is cheaper to maintain one big household than several. My maternal grandparents managed to have the financial advantages of a single building while (mostly) gaining the privacy advantages of separate households. She and some of her sisters bought an old Victorian house and redeveloped it into one apartment on each floor. Each sister got an apartment.


      • FogOfWar
        September 19, 2011 at 8:34 pm

        Agree. I don’t think there’s good data on ‘staying closer in touch with your parents and having them babysit and help you out with your kids and sitting for extended family meals more often’ out there, but wouldn’t be surprised if that’s been on the upswing as well…



  3. Michelle
    September 21, 2011 at 2:02 am

    I think this is *hilarious* on a blog frequented by academics. As nice as it all sounds, I live 3,000 miles from my closest relatives, and have no real way to alter that in the current academic system.

    Even if I could move close… close to whom? Brother in academia, sister is a lawyer who can only practice in a couple of neighboring states (thanks, bar exam!), mom & dad live on opposite coasts. There is no reasonable way to be near (not just neighborhoods… I mean really hundreds & thousands of miles apart) more than one of my family members at a time.

    Any such model would mean a drastic restructuring of many current educational & business models. I don’t see it happening, like, ever.


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