The true meaning of family ties

September 24, 2020

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It's no secret that we are lonelier than ever. We have many complaints of modern society, but our growing isolation is a common one. There are two reasons for this unhappy accident—the difficulty of finding people in ever more crowded cities, and the fact that we have lost sight of what a community is really made of. This article is about the latter.


It's no secret that we are lonelier than ever. We are fond of talking about the perils of modern society, but of these threats the collapse of our communal impulses and our increasing isolation is the one that often concerns us most. It would be conspiratorial to suggest that this was by intent, but it is certainly by design. As a society, we continue to choose directions that draw us away from each other.

There are two reasons for this unhappy accident. The first, most obvious, and not covered in this article, is the difficulty of finding our people. As our cities become more crowded, our ability to connect becomes overwhelmed.

The second is more subtle, less well-known, and yet obvious if we were only to look in the right place. The second reason is that we've lost sight of what a community really should be, and thus what we need to do to maintain them. Disguised among our platitudes of family and friendship, it stares us in the face. Yet we seem to be unable, or unwilling, to make the commitment that is required.

The common explanations of community collapse are wrong

I've previously mentioned that the widespread dissolution of family and community groups seems a likely cause for the growing epidemic of loneliness in modern society. I also mentioned that the typical emphases on this problem seems misplaced.

The first emphasis is the oldest, tracing it's modern incarnation to the post-depression era. Here, it's proposed that communities are subject to increasing dissolution with the liberalisation of society. Rising autonomy increasing divorce rates, globalisation splitting families across geographic distance, alternative family structures interfering with stabilising (read: traditional) family norms. Secularism abrading the communal impulses that religion engenders. Liberal values promoting "unbridled pursuit of personal appetites at the expense of the common good". An argument that it is this "moral decadence and decay" that has eroded our communities.

That, quite literally, every piece of literature I have read on the topic, both in support and in critique will use this phrase—moral decadence and decay–should indicate that this position has been reified into something static, and should be treated with scepticism.

The alternative emphasis is a counterargument. The claim is that the erosion of the welfare apparatus has been the true driver of community collapse. Decreased funding of family programs, community initiatives, and welfare benefits force family and community units to scatter in search of opportunities. The lack of support for income protections make it impossible to form stable connections. In short, the problem is not social norms but social policy.

Though liberal and conservative critiques have validity, they are missing a more fundamental issue.

That this position is typically posed only in response to the former should also make us wary. Indeed, without having used the words, I assume many can immediately identify the conservative vs liberal bent to this debate, which should alert us to the likelihood that it is yet another artificial divide. But I'm going to go further than merely attempt to extricate the valid points of each argument. Rather I'm going to show you they're both wrong in a more fundamental way.

The modern family is contrived

Both arguments essentially centre on the vanishing of the "two-parent family", and this is our clue to the problem each position faces when trying to explain the collapse of community. Indeed, in a certain kind of way, the emphasis on the family is the problem. And unfortunately, we have to explore the modern creation of the "family" to understand this. Let's try to keep this brief.

The idea of the two parent, or nuclear, family ostensibly originated in sociological research in the mid-20th Century with George Peter Murdock and Talcott Parsons. They suggested that families were forced to change in the face of industrialisation. The shift from an agricultural lifestyle meant the centralisation of communities in urban areas and social pressures that reduced the size of families. Education and familial care could be delegated from the members of the extended family to institutions. Food could be bought, rather than produced, and thus the economies of scale that promoted large family sizes to work on the farm dissolved. And work was now contract labour, encouraging families to become more mobile—moving to those places that had work, rather than settling in a stable multi-generation home. In all of this, small families were far more capable than larger ones.

Parsons in particular was enthusiastic about this shift. Families could now focus their attention on socialising their children into societal norms, with benefits for the community-at-large. Children would learn their place, and grease the wheels of social order.

This doesn't perhaps do justice to the theoretical underpinnings, but we aren't here for a sociology lesson. A good starting point to read more might be here, an article that also highlights the issues with this viewpoint.

Industrialisation certainly shaped us into smaller families on average. But in many cases this is not true, it is often not for the better, and this still fails to explain the collapse of community.

Many of the subsequent critiques emphasise the messiness of families, and the fact that Parsons' model subjugates women to a servile role. To Marxist and Feminist scholarship, Parsons' "family" misses the fact that families are not always a mother and father. Some are bigger. Some are homosexual. Some fail to socialise children, but instead reproduce dysfunction. And so on.

But these critiques all miss an even more fundamental flaw in this kind of thinking—that family is somehow the most important community unit.

The notion of family at all is contrived

The anthropological community has historically been obsessed with the small family ideal, represented best by a rigid fixation on the 'norm' of monogamous relationships. For example, Owen Lovejoy's absurd assertion that male provisioning of food to females in monogamous pairs led to our evolution into walking on two limbs so we could carry more.

Less laborious, but no less erroneous conclusions come from a long chain of misunderstanding different community perspectives on marriage. From Ryan and Jethá's "Sex at Dawn":

people who consider themselves to be married can have strikingly different notions of what their marriage involves. The Aché of Paraguay say that a man and woman sleeping in the same hut are married. But if one of them takes his or her hammock to another hut, they’re not married anymore. That’s it. The original no-fault divorce.
Among the !Kung San (also known as Ju/’hoansi) of Botswana, most girls marry several times before they settle into a long-term relationship. For the Curripaco of Brazil, marriage is a gradual, undefined process. One scientist who lived with them explains, “When a woman comes to hang her hammock next to her man and cook for him, then some younger Curripaco say they are married (kainukana). But older informants disagree; they say they are married only when they have demonstrated that they can support and sustain each other. Having a baby, and going through the fast together, cements a marriage.”

The book goes on for a number of pages, and though it has broadly been critiqued for at times cherry-picking literature, the point is clear—the anthropological record is littered with examples of foreign researchers forcing the relational practices of various communities into the modern familial shape.

But this idea of family as some self-contained unit with critical importance simply does not hold up to scrutiny. Rather, the 'family unit' in most communities is the community. The whole community.

Alloparenting is the most obvious evidence for this. Alloparenting simply refers to cases in nature where parental care is provided by an animal to non-descendent young. It's common in the animal world, and it's common in humans. We might be most familiar with the idea of children raised by foster parents, or grand parents for example. But in smaller community groups, alloparenting is a function of resources. When parents are unable to provide resources for their offspring, the community members will step in to provide support. This can lead to cases where a female steps in to take on the role of the male, which is thought to be common when males in a community are scarce. Or when males step into feminine roles, often thought to come about for similar reasons.

But this again is missing the point. Another case of forcing modern familial ideals onto divergent communities. I just linked to the Wikipedia entry on the Fa'afafine, considered a "third gender" in Samoan culture. Researchers have enthusiastically attempted to demonstrate that Fa'afafine come about when there are not enough women to do all the woman-stuff. But Samoans, and indeed many cultures, from the Thai Kathoey to the South American Travesti, recognise a kind of spiritual fluidity of gender.

"Alloparenting" isn't anomalous. Alloparenting is a sensible, and common, feature of true community groups. Because in a true community, the community is the family.

Researchers continuously get caught up on these more spectacular cases, and ignore the fact that alloparenting is the norm in less urbanised communities. The popularity of the phrase "it takes a village to raise a child" is hardly vacuous. It's representative of the fact that no small family is equipped to meet the needs of children, and in smaller communities these care needs are outsourced to everyone. It's almost obligatory. Human infants take ages to mature and there is no logical reason to suspect that a small family could possibly devote the attention and care a child requires for the length of time a child requires it.

Somehow, we have lost sight of this fact. We've forgotten that the community is the family.

We can create family from our friends, but we then abandon them

Post-modernists take this idea and run with it to the extreme. Post-modernism is a movement that describes any knowledge claim as a social construction. For them, there is no truth but the truth we invent. In the case of family, post-modernists similarly claim that it is simply a figment of the modern imagination. Instead, in the sociology of family, they are fond of the notion that family is something that you create.

'Family' that are comprised of friends or members of religious or other community groups are called fictive kin. This idea is particularly popular in migration studies. As migrants move to new locations, they are thought to establish strong community links that serve the function of more 'traditional' family.

In this sense, it is claimed, anyone can be your family. That we hold onto the modern narrative of what family means is simply a function of social pressure, and for them, these social pressures are the reason that our communities are so beholden to collapse. This post-modern ideal is half-right, but the least important half.

Social pressures undoubtedly do have an effect on our communities. Many of our modern impulses act to pull communities apart, and in a way that prioritises the small family unit. Living at home into adulthood is seen as low status and autonomy is cherished in the young, so long as that autonomy is directed towards starting a family of their own (particularly for women). The cult of motherhood promotes a cruel fantasy that the mother-child bond is all that's needed to bring happiness and fulfilment to both mother and child often to the exclusion of our other social connections. And the complaints of the liberals and conservatives we mentioned earlier do likely impact community formation, but also modern liberal and conservative ideology encourages still the notion of small family units as the ideal, de-emphasising the role of other community links.

There is certainly social pressures that encourage small families, and we might be able to 'create' larger ones, but there is still something missing here.

These social pressures are evident in the way that various life stages draw people into new social circles, who then habitually leave the old ones behind. Students enter college and lose contact with their old schoolmates. People find partners and form new social circles, withdrawing from others. New families are attracted to parenting groups and daycare bubbles, with both new parents and old family-less friends finding increasingly little common ground.

And thus, social pressures emphasise the small family unit as the thing to be maintained above all else, with our fictive kin as something to be created or abandoned according to the whims of our various life stages. And herein lies the rub.

The key to creating family is obligation

Unfortunately for the post-modernists, it's simply not enough to say that anyone can be our family. We do indeed often go about creating fictive kin. But there's something missing from these post-modern creations of ours. What is lacking here, as it is not in smaller, less "modern", communities, is obligation. There is no commitment to the family we create, and they are abandoned with the changing fortunes of time. Our needs are met by corporate services, and as the average wealth of individuals in urban centres increases so too does our access to resources—parachuted in, as if from nowhere.

In contrast, in more traditional small community groups, one cannot simply leave to form a new one or buy the resources they need. Typically this is due to geography or wealth as is the case for many modern rural communities. But it might also come about because of their ideals. Think of indigenous peoples all over the world. Or groups like the Amish and Kibbutzim. Small, traditional community groups are reliant on one another, and to one another they remain reliant.

If we are truly worried about the state of modern community and its tendency to dissolve; if we're lonely and isolated, or care about those who are; if we're seeking the kind of connections that are so often lacking in modern society; we must make a conscious effort to make an obligation to the people we want to have around us and to seek that obligation from others. We have to create ties that cannot be severed, by fortune or by whim. We have to go further than simply creating fictive kin. We have to make them real.

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