It’s not personal, it’s family: Kin, strangers, guests, and the complexity of social obligation


Brooks on the alternatives to nuclear family

Tyler Cowen called the extended essay by David Brooks called ‘The nuclear family was a mistake’ a “so far the best essay of the year with many fine and subtle points”. And he’s not wrong. Brooks who has frequently been caught embellishing data to make a point does a very good job with his sources. And most importantly he transcends his natural middle-of-the-road conservative leanings to modify his views to fit the data rather than the other way around.

His portrayal of the current social environment is well worth reading and rereading:

“If you want to summarize the changes in family structure over the past century, the truest thing to say is this: We’ve made life freer for individuals and more unstable for families. We’ve made life better for adults but worse for children. We’ve moved from big, interconnected, and extended families, which helped protect the most vulnerable people in society from the shocks of life, to smaller, detached nuclear families (a married couple and their children), which give the most privileged people in society room to maximize their talents and expand their options.”

But he avoids and indeed criticises the conservative instinct to demand a return to the traditional family:

“Social conservatives insist that we can bring the nuclear family back. But the conditions that made for stable nuclear families in the 1950s are never returning. Conservatives have nothing to say to the kid whose dad has split, whose mom has had three other kids with different dads; “go live in a nuclear family” is really not relevant advice.”

And he also points out the deficiencies in the liberal response:

“Progressives, meanwhile, still talk like self-expressive individualists of the 1970s: People should have the freedom to pick whatever family form works for them. And, of course, they should. But many of the new family forms do not work well for most people—and while progressive elites say that all family structures are fine, their own behavior suggests that they believe otherwise.”

His summary feels very apt to the situation (although it is important to note, that there are many progressive thinkers who are much closer to his ideas than he admits):

“while social conservatives have a philosophy of family life they can’t operationalize, because it no longer is relevant, progressives have no philosophy of family life at all, because they don’t want to seem judgmental”

Brooks also very aptly formulates the current state as a paradox:

“Our culture is oddly stuck. We want stability and rootedness, but also mobility, dynamic capitalism, and the liberty to adopt the lifestyle we choose. We want close families, but not the legal, cultural, and sociological constraints that made them possible.”

In fact, the solution he proposes, created, forged families – a redefinition of kin, is more socially progressive than conservative.

“This is a significant opportunity, a chance to thicken and broaden family relationships, a chance to allow more adults and children to live and grow under the loving gaze of a dozen pairs of eyes, and be caught, when they fall, by a dozen pairs of arms. For decades we have been eating at smaller and smaller tables, with fewer and fewer kin. It’s time to find ways to bring back the big tables.”

This is an essentially progressive vision tinged with a fair bit of the conservative communitarian nostalgia. It is the same nostalgia for the imaginary of togetherness that drove ‘Bowling alone’ to such popularity 20 years ago. It is neither venal, moralistic, nor unrealistic. Brooks is merely describing what exists and has always existed in one way or another. He then takes a turn reminiscent of Margaret Mead and says, let’s make that the new normal. And he seems to find the sweet spot that has the potential of becoming a meeting point for the utopian imaginaries of both conservatives and progressives.

What Brooks leaves out are the limits of these family-like structures when it comes to dealing with those outside them. And unsurprisingly he also fails to mention the possible role the state can and perhaps must play in tying them together.

Brooks does an admirable job of engaging with the anthropological literature. He does not just insert the obligatory James C Scott reference so beloved of certain kind of libertarian thinker, he reads more widely and more deeply. But, as always, there’s more. Here I’d like to bring in some more anthropological perspectives to enrich and somewhat complicate Brooks’ vision. This is not to negate what he says or dismiss it as erroneous. All I’m trying to do is expand the picture slightly.

Kin, guests and strangers: From baseline communism to complex webs of social obligation

The one anthropologist he does not mention is David Graeber. Graeber called the kind of mutuality Brooks is after ‘baseline communism’. When communism is defined as ‘to each according to their needs, from each according to their abilities’ it is often decried as unworkable because it ignores human proclivities for cheating. But, in fact, as Graeber points out, it describes perfectly one very familiar environment: the family. Communism is not a question of property, it’s a question of obligation from one to the many and the many to the one. This always exists on some sort of spectrum. As Graeber describes, there’s never complete abandonment of private property (even in the most egalitarian societies, there are some things people can call their own), nor complete abandonment of supporting people’s needs (even hard-nosed captains of industry will give each other breaks under certain conditions).

This obligation is unconditional but it is also constrained. To help us understand the constraints, we could simplify the sources of obligation by dividing the social world into three classes: ‘kin’, ‘guests’, and ‘strangers’. Kin and strangers are mostly stable categories whereas ‘guests’ are inherently dynamic and transient. ‘Guest’ is a stranger who becomes temporary ‘kin’ in the sense that the obligations for ensuring the wellbeing of ‘kin’ transfer to them on a limited basis but often in a ‘lavish’ manner. One of the inventions of the ‘post-industrial world’ is our ability to deal with ‘strangers’ without having to confer kin-like privileges on them. The ability to associate and collaborate with strangers who are not your guests is what made industrial capitalism as we know it possible.

But it is also what makes socialism possible. Once the complex webs of mutual support through extended kin networks have been torn up, the state can step in and substitute for this obligation. When many progressives talk about the duty of care of the state (or smaller collectives), they essentially claim this sort of familial role for the state. Conservatives, on the other hand, view the state more as a meeting ground for groups of strangers. For them, the state as such should have no power to treat anyone as guests.

This tension is present even in socialist-leaning countries such as Sweden or Germany which are willing to provide for their citizens – who are otherwise strangers to each other – some of the kind of support traditionally reserved for kin. They are also willing to provide hospitality to new arrivals but very much as guests. What they are struggling with is the process of conferring the kin-status on these guests.

Brooks mentions how many captives of the Native American nations in the 1700s did not want to return back to the ‘civilised’ world from which they were taken. But he omits to mention that these groups often had elaborate ways of transferring strangers from captives to guests to kin. Be it through marriage or adoption, even enslaved war captives could (sometimes enmasse) made into ‘one of us’. Japan, for instance, still widely practices ‘adult adoption’ which was also very common in Ancient Rome and is one of the ways of achieving this that is not available to the state.

Brooks talks about what was lost and he is not wrong. He is also not blind to the fact that the support the kin networks provided was often opperessive and frequently rested disproportionately on women. But he still perceives it from the perspective of a homestead – he talks about the individual groups as if they floated in a vaccuum.

This is where Brooks would have benefited from engaing with another precursor of his thinking Karl Polanyi. Polanyi critiqued our view of the industrial revolution as merely a matter of technology plus capital. He wrote his magnum opus ‘The Great Transformation’ over 80 years ago – long before the 1950s ushered in the nuclear family revolution Brooks blames on current ills. Polanyi traces the problem much further back to the needs of early industrial capitalism. And he also relies on the ethnography of his day to contrast the ‘mutual support’ of traditional societies with the manufactured individualism of the industrial age.

The emotional pull of the ‘mutuality of being’: For good or for ill

Polanyi does not dwell on the emotional aspects of the material support networks but the nostalgia is clearly there. Brooks, on the other hand, can’t get over the emotional impact of personally experiencing being a member of the kind of group of mutual support that he proposes. And he is not wrong to point out the strong emotional pull of the mutuality of the neighbourhood. Nobody does it better than 2PAC when he sings about the feelings of returning to his old problematic neighborhood in ‘My Block’.

My neighborhood ain’t the same
Cause all these little babies goin crazy and they sufferin in the game
And I swear it’s like a trap
But I ain’t given up on the hood it’s all good when I go back
Hoes show me love, niggaz give me props
Forever hop cause it don’t stop… on my block

and talking about what it’s like being away:

In my heart, I felt alone out here on my own
I close my eyes and picture home… on my block

Brooks quotes ethnographers such as Marshall Sahlins and Monica Wilson on the ineffable nature of the connection within kin groups. People in them experience “a mutuality of being” (Sahlins) and are almost ‘mystically dependent’ (Wilson) on one another. This is easy to overlook in more institutionally focused accounts of ‘kinship’, so Brooks is right to emphasize it but it’s not all there is.

The emotional support mutuality provides is well known and is present even in situations where it is harmful to the individuals. In describing a materially and, by his account, mentally and socially deprived society in a remote Apalchian community, Robert Edgerton, reports:

Despite the absence of any kind of ritual, ceremony, or community-wide activities, these people were fiercely loyal to their hollow and their way of life. Even those few who could emigrate, like a boy Gazaway took away from the hollow for a brief period of schooling, preferred to remain in Duddie’s Branch. They could also express great love for members of their families, and even for an outsider like Gazaway. They had pride, dignity, courage, and generosity.

The affective power of the nearly mystical ‘mutuality of being’ can exert a strong attractive force on a reader who is not enmeshed in such strong ties. This makes it easy to forget, that tightly-knit communities are not always idylic:

“some small-scale populations do not effectively solve the problems they face, and sometimes the very culture that should sustain them and enhance their well-being instead produces fear, apathy, isolation, and degradation.” from Sick Societies by Robert Edgerton

Edgerton also has an agenda of his own but his account is an important antidote to the opiate of anthropological utopia.

My main point is that while the emotional impact of mutuality is substantial, it alone is not enough to account for all the elements that we see in the tripartite ‘kin/guest/strager’ distinction. And neither are social norms as traditionally conceived; viz norms being the combination of unwritten rules, explicit laws, and various forms of enforcement. It is instead a cognitive perception of how the world is. It’s not that people fulfil obligations because of fear of sanctions. It’s because they cannot imagine not doing so. It is simply against a very basic fabric of their being.

It’s not personal, it’s family: Ties that moor us and bind us

I spent six month working on projects in Timor-Leste, one of the poorest countries in the world, where people frequently don’t have enough food during certain times of the year. Yet, there is almost no homelessness and festivals are common even in the poor areas. How can this be? The answer is extended family. The Timorese large family networks provide material and emotional support for all their members.

But this also makes working on projects quite difficult. The Timorese are no less intelligent or competent than any other people I’ve worked with. But their family always comes first. We’re not talking just about sick children or bereavements but also festivals and other family gatherings – which are not infrequent. Combined with what often seems like a sudden appearance of these events, running projects when a key staff member can disappear at a moment’s notice is often a frustrating experience.

And it’s not even that the person wants ‘go to a fun party’ instead of doing ‘dull work’. Often attending such events can be both emotionally and materially draining. Resisting the pull of the social obligation is like resisting gravity. Sometimes it keeps us grounded, sometimes it throws us flat on our face. To help my non-Timorese colleagues conceptualise this better, I came up with the mantra: “it’s not personal, it’s family”. In the same way that the American “it’s not personal, it’s business” is used to explain or excuse behavior against the norms of sociability, so can the Timorese “it’s not personal, it’s family” be helpful to understand the sort of behavior that the individualistic mindset perceives as a breach of contract.

This, of course, is not unique to Timor-Leste, nor is it unknown in the cross-cultural literature. These family networks can also be harnessed to economic benefit in the capitalist system. Many of the successes of the East and South East Asian diasporas around the world are due in large part to their ability to harness the mutuality of support across long distances. A small enterprise that can rely on the virtually free labor and trustworthy sources of credit or supplies provided by kin has a larger chance of success, particularly is the boundary between the work and personal life is very flexible. And the kin can expect mutual support back – extending across the globe through remittances and other forms of support. Not based on a simply return-on-investment calculus but on bonds unconditional mutuality.

But these same networks often do not work as well when it comes to economic production in environments where there are not enough strangers to work as a buffer. The same Cambodian or Vietnamese entrepreneurs who are successful in California or the Czech Republic struggle to achieve the same success in their home environment. This is not because they are any less industrious or surrounded by sloth when at home. It is because it is harder to escape the totality of obligations up close.

James C Scott observed that small shopkeepers in many parts of the world are often strangers (often of different ethnic or linguistic origin) who are not tied to local structures of kindship and obligation. It is impossible to run a small shop if it is impossible to refuse to simply give food to people with whom you have a strong bond. This is certainly true in Timor-Leste where many of the small local enterprises struggle.

This is common around the world, so much so that many of the small loan arrangements that have become popular in the development area function less as a way of advancing capital and more as a way of putting capital out of reach of kinship obligations. As another exmple, Leo Howe reports that many of the people working in the hospitality industry in Bali are actually Javanese because the native Balinese cannot be relied on to be always available. This is not because they are ‘unreliable’ in some essentially flawed way but because their obligation to family (often ritual) is too great to suspend through a contract with strangers. Marshall Sahlins’ essay on ‘Stranger Kings’ shows that this applies even to choosing to submit to a ruler.

The strong ties with kin and weak ties with non-kin can cause even greater problems which is why we find such elaborate hospitality rituals around the world. Tourists often misinterpret these under the heading of ‘oh, the people are so friendly here’ but in fact, this is a function of the culture not having a norm around dealing with strangers that does not rely on the notion of guest as temporary kin.

The ancient Greek concept of ‘xenia’ – hospitality to strangers can be very illustrative. We know the root from ‘xenophobia’ but the Latin equivalent gave us both hospitality and hostility. Xenia not only dictates extraordinary measures to take care of guests but it also strictly regulates the behavior of those same guests. Breaking the rules of hospitality has been the source of many problems from the Trojan War to the blood feuds in modern Albania – for instance, as described in Kadare’s “Broken April”.

These are not inevitable consequences of the sort of groupings Brooks is describing and advocating for. Not is he unaware of potential internal problems. But when the entire world is structured through strong kin-like ties, we have not just created an archipellago of utopias – as some in the Seasteading movement seem to imagine – we have a world that is fundamentally different from what we know. The demands of the trade-centred world dependent on industrial production and industrialised aggriculture cannot be entirely ignored in this vision.

Conclusion: The kin, the strangers, and the state

In conclusion,these rough sketches are not meant to diminish Brooks’ contribution. If I were asked to come up with an alternative to the nuclear family, it is almost exactly, what I would propose. Many ethnographic accounts of impoverished communities all over the world show that these networks often emerge organically. And we should be doing as much as possible to normalize them. They are not some lesser, last resort alternatives to the nuclear family. They are both natural and can be healthy and robust. But they don’t exist in a vacuum and are themselves not static nor do are they uniformly idyllic. There are cracks the size of valleys between them and sometimes even within them. And it’s very easy for individuals to fall through those.

That’s where we still must see a role for the state to protect both individuals and groups from falling to the ground without a safety net as well as adjudicate the parameters of their encounter. At the moment, the state support structure is entirely structured around the schemas and scripts of the nuclear family on the one hand, and the contract between strangers on the other. It needs to recognise a wider range of support networks and obligations which is only possible if we reframe the notion of family. Such reframings are always long and do not progress in a linearly predictable fashion. Brooks’ essay is an undeniably valuable contribution to this process. So despite any quibbles and caveats, I’m all for it.