Highlights

Print Post
  • Brooks is, in effect, asking Americans to learn from the kinship work done by those who are outside of the mainstream and who have had no choice except to innovate.   Tweet This
  • One must recognize that forged families have some limitations. These kinship ties are easier to break because they are voluntary. Tweet This
  • The large extended family existed as a sentimental ideal that was rarely achieved—what sociologist William J. Goode once called “the classical family of Western nostalgia.” Tweet This

Editor’s NoteThe following essay from Andrew Cherlin is the fifth response in the Institute for Family Studies' week-long symposium on David Brooks' new essay on the nuclear family. We will be publishing more responses to David Brooks throughout this week, so stay tuned.

In The Atlantic, David Brooks presents his thought-provoking proposal for addressing the ills of the American family—what he describes as forming “forged families”—as if it were a return to the family patterns of the past. It’s more accurately seen, however, as an embrace of newer forms of family life that have been developed by particular groups—African Americans, LGBTQ individuals, remarried people, and so on. They are the innovators in developing kinship-like relationships that go beyond the bond of biology and the legally-recognized ties of marriage and are sometimes referred to as families of choice.

As Brooks acknowledges, these groups have been blazing the trail that he now wants more Americans to follow. For African Americans, the destruction of family ties under slavery and the discrimination faced since then have made reaching out to grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins imperative. For LGBTQ individuals, the rejection they sometimes face from their families of origin and, until recently, their exclusion from the institution of marriage have led them to build their own families, where they combine any biological kin who may accept them with partners and close friends whose long-term relationships take on the character of kinship. For divorced and re-partnered individuals, multi-partner fertility and stepfamily ties necessarily take them beyond the nuclear family. 

But in the past, white families were rarely centered on large family groups. To be sure, there were more “corporate” families, as historian Steven Ruggles calls them; yet these were primarily farm families in which an older parent might be present but that rarely included more than one married child or any uncles or cousins. When British historian Alan Macfarlane went searching through centuries of records for evidence that large extended families commonly existed in the English past, he could not find any. In the United States, although the greater extended clan might gather for holidays, weddings, and funerals, they were not a presence in everyday life. The large extended family existed as a sentimental ideal that was rarely achieved—what sociologist William J. Goode once called “the classical family of Western nostalgia.”

Brooks is to be commended for arguing to conservatively-minded observers that a large-scale return to the nuclear family is unlikely except among the privileged, while also maintaining that the alternative families defended by liberals have worked out poorly for the unprivileged.     

Still, Brooks is right to recognize that nuclear families today work best for adults who can find stable employment at decent wages—a shrinking group that includes most college-educated people but a decreasing proportion of those without college educations. And he is correct to note that the cultural tide of individualism has eroded the formation and maintenance of life-long marital ties. He is to be commended for arguing to conservatively-minded observers that a large-scale return to the nuclear family is unlikely except among the privileged, while also maintaining that the alternative families defended by liberals have worked out poorly for the unprivileged.     

As a way out of this dilemma, Brooks is asking mainstream Americans to broaden the scope of their families—not because they must but because alternatives, such as nuclear families and single-parent families, are too limited to succeed in today’s economic and cultural milieu. He urges Americans to undertake the work of creating and expanding kinship as a way to make their families stronger and more resilient. He is, in effect, asking them to learn from the kinship work done by Americans who are outside of the mainstream and who have had no choice except to innovate.  

But one must recognize that forged families have some limitations. These kinship ties are easier to break because they are voluntary; neither strong norms nor laws stand in the way of ending them. They also take continual work to maintain: Although your sister is always your sister and your spouse is always your spouse, your close friend is part of your forged family only as long as you and she actively support each other.  

Nevertheless, Brooks’s intriguing proposal deserves our consideration. It could provide a way forward for the many working-class and lower-middle-class individuals who want strong, stable family bonds but who can’t maintain—or at least believe that they can’t maintain—the model nuclear family of the past.

Andrew Cherlin is Chair of the Department of Sociology and Director of the Program on Social Policy at Johns Hopkins University. His most recent book is Love's Labor Lost: The Rise and Fall of the Working-Class Family in America.