|Lexicon: Enlarged Family|
The concept of the “enlarged family” traditionally refers to a way of living together, in a community, adopted by family groups, generally linked by ties of blood and by the unity of their life style. For human groups, this way of uniting themselves together in order to share responsibilities and resources, while maintaining a certain autonomy (unlike the “patriarchal” model), has always existed, in the course of history.
In the agricultural world it offers obvious advantages for self-defense, the organization of work and the allocation of tasks and jobs. It tends to disappear with the development of urbanization and industrialization. Today, the enlarged family no longer exists in developed countries with some few exceptions, while it still persists in countries with tiny developing economies based mainly on agriculture. Nevertheless, a new type of enlarged family has developed, in recent decades in the rich countries. A first secular model was proposed during the 70s’ social conflict, but it did not last long. Another model, of religious inspiration, also born from the 70s’ conflict, in California, took shape in the so-called Christian “new communities” inspired by the gospel model of the Acts of the Apostles. This last proposal seems to respond to a real expectation in modern society, which falls prey to the uneasiness of “anomie” [lawlessness], of depersonalization and of unbridled individualism. (Single Parent Family; Family, Nature and the Person; Recomposed Family; Traditional Family; New Family Models)
The “joint family”, the “extended family,” and finally the “family communes,” can all be linked to the concept of the “enlarged family.” In spite of the considerable differences that exist among these forms of family, they have in common the fact that they cannot be labeled as part of the traditional family, which, at least in Western culture, is the “nuclear” one, made up of the conjugal couple and its children, and only exceptionally integrating the presence of other persons.
Neither the “joint family,” nor the “extended family,” nor the “family communes” can be compared with the patriarchal family even if, in relation to the exercise of authority (in general with a strong male predominance), some analogies may be found: in fact, the patriarchal family, has as a typical characterization a strongly hierarchical power structure and is rigidly centralized, as is not necessarily found in forms of the enlarged family.
Therefore we could define the enlarged family as a cohabitation of several family groups not necessarily linked by ties of blood or bonds of affection. What makes of this particular human group a “family,” and not a simple and temporary cohabitation of different individuals, is on the one hand the unity (or at least the proximity) of residence, and on the other at least the relative unity of direction and the consequent placing in common, partially or totally, of resources, even if a relative amount of autonomy remains guaranteed to the several families that form the enlarged family.
The “enlarged family” in history
The history of the family, for the last 10,000 years, and anthropology, in the very long phase that preceded it, have for a long time tried to explore the particulars that led to the constitution of this specific human group. More than acquiring certainties - which is almost impossible due to the absence of documentation - working hypotheses have been formulated and some theories have matured progressively, some almost generally accepted and others the subject of debate among historians, sociologists and anthropologists. Among the data that can be considered well established, there are especially two, from a historical point of view.
The first one is that the enlarged family has always existed in human history, in all latitudes. Not even the modern industrial societies - which have exalted to the utmost the nuclear family - record the complete absence of this model.
The second is that the enlarged family is characterized by a very differentiated diffusion, in relation to the economic and productive organization of each social group, and it is therefore almost always present in predominantly agricultural societies. It is relatively absent in the advanced industrial societies, to the point that it appears as little more than a “residual” phenomenon in the areas, especially Western Europe and North America, more deeply transformed by the industrial revolution, where the enlarged families represent a very small percentage of the existing families.
Among the points that are still objects of debate are the origin, the significance and the value of this type of family.
About its origin there are those who, accepting the evolutionist perspective, consider the enlarged family as the first and elementary form of family (leaving out of consideration a hypothetical transitory early phase of “sexual promiscuity”). They think at the origins of mankind, the necessity to win the struggle against hunger and against external dangers, and so to guarantee the survival of the group, would have imposed the aggregation of several families under a unique authority. At the end of this long “emergency” phase, gradually the nuclear form of family would have prevailed. Therefore the enlarged family would belong to a relatively early stage of society and it would be progressively destined to be substituted by other family forms. From another perspective, at the beginning there would have been the circumscribed nuclear family, which proved durably dominant. Only later, and not everywhere, new necessities in the modes of production and living would have determined - not necessarily and not everywhere - the passage to the enlarged family. In the first perspective, therefore, the enlarged family would have been the starting point, in the second one the point of arrival of a series of evolutionary processes.
As regards the significance and the value of the enlarged family, there are those who still today see in it – going beyond the reasons determining its historical development - a possible antidote for the limits and risks of the accentuated process of privatization, and tendencies towards anomie, that characterize the last phase of development of advanced industrial societies. There are others who, on the contrary, point out its covertly or openly authoritarian components and consider the structure of the enlarged family an obstacle to the full development of new generations and something that injures women’s and children’s rights.
The enlarged family in today’s world
A large-scale analysis of the enlarged family in the contemporary world reveals that it is now marginal in the economically developed areas, even where, like in Southern Europe or in Japan, it had ancient roots. Moreover, the “prophecies” regarding a complete disappearance of this family form, have not been fulfilled: even in the most developed areas the enlarged family still exists, even though it is a minority. It even seems to be experiencing in some countries a certain revitalization due both to the phenomena of economic crisis that characterize some of the developed Western areas, and to the critique - ideological and also religious- of the dominant model of family, the nuclear one, considered too intimate and privatized. From this conflict was born the aspiration to experiment with forms of “alternative family”, such as the “family communes” or the “family communities” (quite particular is the case of Israeli kibbutzes, essentially motivated by reasons stemming from the need to safeguard and defend Jewish settlements, even if also at the beginning linked to the aspiration for a society with strong communitarian connotations).
The future of the enlarged family in the economically developed zones will depend both on the overall evolution of the economic and social dynamics, and on the cultures (and ideologies), that is to say the life styles, that predominate. Nevertheless, it does not seem that we can exclude the possibility of a revival of the enlarged family, in view of the phenomena of urban decay, of ecological disturbances, of social anomie that are motivating pressure in the opposite direction in order to go beyond the strict privacy of the nuclear family. The hypothetical case of a long lasting economic crisis could contribute to the revival of forms of the enlarged family through the need to take precautions against the risk of poverty and the observation of economies of scale that could derive from larger communities.
In the economically less-developed zones, the persistence of the enlarged family - which in many countries still represents a vast reality - appears strictly connected to the general dynamics of the economy and to the dynamics of the growth of cities. The enlarged family will continue to have an important role for a long time where models of a society with a tribal dominance remain (like in Sub-Saharan Africa) and where the problem of survival in the face of hunger and poverty is still severe. In some countries only marginally touched by the industrial revolution, there could be “returns” to a model of family that in some areas was too hurriedly abandoned, due to a rapid but superficial penetration of models imported from the West but extraneous to the culture and to local traditions. Nevertheless it is reasonable to foresee that, even outside the West, the enlarged family will experience in the near future a notable diminution, perhaps to the point of a position of substantial marginalization.
Possibilities and limitations of the enlarged family
The enlarged family presents a series of possibilities, but also of limitations that can sometimes make it preferred over other models of family, and sometimes determine its abandonment with the consequent passage to other family forms.
The advantages of the enlarged family are essentially summed up in the optimization of the use of resources and the community accomplishment of traditional tasks like upbringing, education, care, and assistance which are proper to the family. The presence of several families in one residential structure, or at least in one housing complex, allows appreciable economies of scale, a better division of social work, a more efficient and flexible utilization of group potentialities regarding different needs in agricultural work as well as in times of emergencies, crises, and natural disasters. It is not without significance that the enlarged family is normally seen as an agricultural reality in which the connection among the families in different forms of solidarity is spontaneous and natural.
As for the problem of child care, the enlarged family overcomes many inconveniences of the nuclear family: within this type of family neither single persons nor the aged are abandoned; widowhood is managed better; a potential crisis in a marriage does not mean the abandonment of the children; weaker members (physically or mentally handicapped, etc.) are more easily integrated within a group where everybody knows each other. Even social control is greater and less serious are the risks of anomie and deviance (the enlarged family generally defends itself from this by expelling members who do not comply with the group’s rules).
Nevertheless the enlarged family presents evident limits too. There are strong ties placed on individual freedoms, both in the organization of work and in the use of its fruits. This is also true in the area of affective and educational relations. There are coercive and sometimes suffocating forms of social control and a reduced capacity to adapt to new situations, including a substantial loss of mobility which roots the enlarged family in an area from which it can hardly leave. Young couples suffer from the close proximity to others while the role of the woman tends to be marginal because of a strongly masculine exercise of authority. The capacity for innovation and adaptation to new situations is significantly limited. It is not coincidental that the enlarged family almost always exists in an agricultural world characterized by low levels of development. Nevertheless, lower levels of consumption do not necessarily mean an inferior “quality of life” of the family, and the difficult situation of families in many urban realities would seem to bear out the opposite view.
On the other hand, from a sort of natural tendency for self-defense, the enlarged family runs the risk of becoming excessively self-referential, and so can be closed to the outside world. This gives rise to forms of “amoral familism,” that is to say to behaviors that only refer to the group of origin and to its interests, putting on a secondary level the general needs and requests of society.
If the community’s needs and those of the group prevail over those of individuals, the enlarged family persists; if the libertarian requests and the aspirations of single individuals prevail, the enlarged family enters into crisis, as the history of the industrialized West attests in the transition from the medieval family to the modern family and in the passage from the country to the city. The prevailing attitudes to support and sustain the community often leads to revolt in favor of the objectives of individuals and makes the pendulum swing from the side of the enlarged family to the side of the nuclear family.
A particular case: family “communes”
The re-emergence of the communitarian spirit–even in relation to its theorization through the recurring communitarian tendencies already present into the culture of the 30s (E. Mounier, J. Maritain, G. Gurvitch) – re-proposes in new terms in the West the theme of the enlarged family, just in the moment in which it seemed to be destined to abandon the scene definitively under the attack of industrialization and as an effect of the affirmation of an increasingly individualistic mentality. The evolutional course of the nuclear family (in particular because of its privatizing forces accentuated by the pervasive intervention of the mass media) has caused non-marginal social groups, particularly socially and religiously conscious ones, to react in a communitarian way. This has created wide-ranging experiments of alternatives to the nuclear family such as “family communes” (or “family communities”) that have re-proposed, even if in other forms, the enlarged family.
Compared with the “traditional” enlarged family, these new communitarian forms are characterized by a prevalence of “ideals” in living together as compared to the “practical” reasons prevalent in the past (connected to the agricultural world, and orientated towards the maximization of resources and to the defense of the group). The motivations of the past are abandoned in order to seek more intense relationships that are able to oppose the currents of anomie present in a society in which significant numbers of families feel alienated.
Religious motivations assume a particular importance in these choices. They revive the Christian communitarian spirit that never really disappeared through the ages, that is, the communitarian life style proposed, even if with some utopian connotations, by the Acts of the Apostles. This communitarian spirit was for a long time present in non-marginal components of Protestantism like the Quakers and Puritans. At the same time it is not absent in the Catholic world (among the most recent cases one can recall in Italy the experience of Nomadelfia, and in the world, the different experiences of the Focolare movement, etc.). These neo-communitarian movements have seen during the last three decades of the twentieth century a significant revival strictly connected to the evolutional process that has often characterized the nuclear family.
Even if probably destined to remain a minority from a numerical point of view, these experiences of “community families” with a religious basis, in a broad sense connected to the old model of the enlarged family, nevertheless have a strong symbolic value and have considerable charm for non-marginal components of new generations of believers; while it does seem that the long wave of “secular communitarianism” that characterized the 1968 conflicts has subsided. The future will say if and in which measure these new forms of the enlarged family will be able to represent an alternative to the nuclear family.
The Christian message proposes a “theological model” and not a “sociological model” of family: what is essential in fact is the uniqueness, the exclusivity, the permanence of a couple’s relation founded on love and oriented to the service of life. Within this (theological) “model,” different (sociological) “models” of family can coexist, and in fact they have coexisted and continue to coexist in the different ages and cultures, and among them is also the enlarged family. It will be to the mature Christian conscience of different generations to evaluate - except for the main theological positions - which form of family is concretely better in harmony, in every period and in each specific contest, with the complete realization of man and with the accomplishment of his humanizing mission in the world.
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