Thursday, 11 January 2007

3:3 How do families work?

Very few of us understand how our family works. Yet if we have some wider knowledge of this, it will put the conflicts and tensions I have discussed so far into context. It may make it easier to sort out the tangles if you realize that most of the difficulties do not have anything to do with our own particular personalities, but are generated by what turns out to be the particularly odd family system in which we live in modern individualistic societies.

In most human societies, it is believed that blood relationship can only be traced through the male line. In a few societies it is believed only to flow through the female line, and in a very few, including western Europe and the United States, it is believed to flow through both males and females.

If you had belonged to a society where people were convinced that you were only related through females, for example the Trobriand islanders of the Pacific, your father would not be a relative, just a person who lived with your mother. When a woman became pregnant, this was believed to be the result of the action of a ghost or spirit.

The belief that you are only related through males or through females, makes it easy to form into large, exclusive clans, like the Chinese or people in India. But if you trace your links through both of your parents you will find that there is no distinct family group. The ‘Bee’ clan does not exist. You just have a network of relations, cousins, nephews and nieces, uncles and aunts.

This is the flexible and rather hazy system in which you live. Without research, you will find it impossible to draw a diagram of your relatives going back more than a couple of generations and which includes more than about fifty people with all their names and relationships to you. Yet in many other societies, people can name hundreds of relations and tell you of ancestors of some five generations or more back.

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