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Where can you find a real family? Out and sideways, not up, with the Joneses

September 13, 2013
The Jones family of Birmingham. Photo by Jas Sansi; Ikon Gallery, Birmingham

The Jones family of Birmingham. Photo by Jas Sansi; Ikon Gallery, Birmingham

I’ve written before about matriarchs, and the social changes in families, but a news story this week has got me going again.

Apparently even in these enlightened times, anthropologists deny that any known societies are unquestionably matriarchal. Some make a case for the Iroquois, whose mothers have key political and moral responsibilities; the Padaungs; and the Kayaw; and an interviewer called Anuj Kumar recently staked a matriarchal claim for the society of Manipur, in India. (I’m talking matriarchal, where power and government lies primarily in the hands of women, as opposed to matrilineal, where descent is traced through the female line, or matrilocal, in which couples often live close to, or with, the ‘bride’s’ family.) But apparently all these cases are open to dispute.

In twenty-first century China, family remains more important than any other social structure, but so too does the traditional hierarchy within it: a stack, with at the top generation, then age, then gender. Thus it’s still the norm to show obedience to the eldest male in a family, because he is at the pinnacle of all three. Persistently, women are secondary to men: often dependent in status, and considered a bad economic and emotional investment. As for small children, they’re often sent away to be taken care of by grandparents or older relatives – or else their parents move away from them, in order to get the best chance of well-paid work. I have a Chinese colleague who plans to leave her two-year-old son back in China with his grandparents next year, even though in many other ways she is highly westernised. You could call such family structures highly vertical, but with the lower layer – at least temporarily – lopped off.

In Africa, a variety of ‘clan’ and cultural structures can be found – some patrilineal and/or patriarchal, some matrilineal (though never matriarchal) – , but in areas where there is a strong tribal heritage, ‘clan’ trumps these features. Family in Africa, even in the modern age, tends to transcend the nuclear. It’s community: it includes children, parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, brothers and sisters and their children, as well as other immediate relatives. Relationships in these vast, complex networks are based both on kinship (biological or blood) and affinity (marriages/links across blood-related groups). Even in matrilineal societies, authority doesn’t just lie with the woman but with her brother; and another historical/traditional feature, polygamy (more correctly, polygyny) weighs the balance further against the African female in such family groups. Basically, though, many traditional African families are outward-growing, radial structures.

India is different again, but still weighted towards the male. Cousins are considered siblings, biological aunts and uncles act like parents and strangers are referred to as ‘auntie’ and ‘uncle’, but the tradition is that on marriage, the bride becomes part of the groom’s family and will often live with them. A vertical structure that remains predominantly patriarchal: different sons’ families often get together and share a roof. What’s more, grandparents on the male side tend to end up joining the family as they get older.

Russians are meanwhile detecting new patterns of family life: that they’re undergoing an evolution from households with many children towards one-child families, and a psychological and geographic division between older generations, i.e. parents and grandparents, and the younger generations. These days, somewhere between 50 and 70% of young families strive to set up home for themselves. The result is more ‘horizontal’ than ‘vertical’ family structures. Also, as in most European countries, an ever bigger number of mothers now try to combine home making with employment outside the family, although this is far from easy for many as men compete fiercely with them to work.

And so to the UK. The General Lifestyle Survey Overview of 2011 reported that the number of single parent families had tripled over the previous forty years to 22%, and that the proportion of single women of childbearing age (20-49) who had never married had doubled to 43% in the same period. Of course, these days increasing numbers of British women have children ‘outside marriage’, as the quaint phrase goes – as in Russia, and elsewhere; while from 2002 in the UK, single sex couples – women and men – have had the right to adopt. In June this year, the Guardian did an interesting piece on Liverpool’s single-mother families, revealing, among other things, that they didn’t, as the ignorant might expect, live in a ‘man desert’, but were often supported by a rich backdrop of male influences from the wider community: football coaches and the like. More radial than vertically or horizontally impoverished, therefore.

Just this week, there’s been a brilliant story in the press about the Ikon Gallery, Birmingham (UK)’s quest to find a ‘real’ contemporary family to represent the diverse face of this ultra-modern, progressive city which, in addition to such iconic architectural statements as the studded, organic shape of the Bull Ring Shopping Centre, has just opened the new Birmingham City Library. After two years of nominations, the Jones family (pictured) were selected by a varied panel of community, cultural and religious figures for a bronze sculpture, to stand in Centenary Square in front of the library, and make a bold statement about what families are, can be, maybe even should be, today. The Birmingham-born and Turner Prize-winning artist Gillian Wearing will create the piece.

What heartens me is that the Jones ‘family’ consists of the mixed-race Roma and her sister Emma and – even better – their sons (not daughters) Kyan Ishann Jones and Shaye-Jones Amin. The women are single parents who ‘support each other and play a major part in each other’s life’. Although I can’t be sure, I like to think that they might have a similar radial support network behind them to those represented by some of the Liverpool families whose stories the Guardian so recently told. In any case, I love the affirmativeness of a family that has found a ‘horizontal’ path with such success.

This post is dedicated to all the extended and imaginatively structured families out there, especially any with women at their centre.

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