What is ‘a Family’, colonial or otherwise?

One of the questions that came out of Imperial Families was the pretty fundamental issue: what actually constitutes a ‘colonial family’? Whilst there was a general sense that the organisers and participants each knew what they meant by ‘the family’ it was clear that these meanings were not collectively shared by the thirty or so people in the room, let alone the millions beyond it.

The biological construction of the family (genetic parents, offspring and siblings) seemed to come most obviously, but it inadequately captures the emotional, social and economic bonds of family life. Marriage has long been the main way in which society recognises contractual bonds between individual as ‘familial’, but what about other long term relationships and partnerships? Homosexual, extra-marital or asexual relationships can equally be pivotal to a person’s sense of self, home-life, and place of belonging but seem to be less keenly recorded in the careful plotting of the family tree. If friendship can mean the giving and taking of love, the allowing of physical and emotional intimacy, and social and economic support, then it too can feel ‘familial’, even beyond the confines of what we might loosely describe as ‘a relationship’. Adopted families and foster families can (and sometimes cannot) nurture, support and sustain, as much as biological families. Institutions such as boarding schools, children’s homes, or ‘asylums’ for people with disabilities, can also act as surrogate families, feeding, clothing and sheltering a person, guiding the values one forms, and providing a home to live in. Religious communities, political communes and other social movements have also deployed the language of kinship to reflect and to strengthen shared cultures of belonging.

And then there is the flip side, the biological kin with whom one does not have a relationship or other social connections: siblings who have never met, estranged relatives, fathers who have never met their children, mothers who died at birth, aunts and uncles one cannot recognise.

Of course these are tensions and contradictions which many of us have experienced in our everyday lives and which feminists, sociologists, historians, and other thinkers have long explored, but what are the implications of this question in our particular context of researching the ‘colonial family’?

The colonial archives are full of both these potential challenges to narrow definitions of ‘the family’. Colonial, transcontinental and other geographically disparate ‘families’ sometimes experience magnified forms of these challenges, not least before the fairly recent improvements in remote communication. My research on nineteenth-century Protestant missionaries (who one may consider to be in some ways relatively conservative in their understanding of the family), were certainly very flexible in their interpretations of the familial, creating orphanages they described as ‘families’, remarrying on the death of a spouse (and hence creating complicated networks of step-parents and siblings), adopting waifs and strays, and ostracising those who ‘transgressed’.

Such examples warn us against reifying or naturalising the family as something inevitable, urge us to be flexible in our research, and throw up many questions pertinent to our network. What do we mean when we discuss a ‘colonial family’? What do genealogists and other family historians do when they come to a relative who has been adopted, or may not fit into a genetic rendering of the family? Why does the assumption of a biological foundation to the family come so readily and prove so resilient despite all the qualifications to this model with which we are familiar? And how do we allow for all the multiple and contradictory renderings of ‘the family’ without diluting it as a category of understanding and unit of research?

Responses welcome!

Esme Cleall, January 2011, e.cleall@liv.ac.uk

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3 Responses to What is ‘a Family’, colonial or otherwise?

  1. Emily Manktelow says:

    Many thanks for this thought-provoking piece Esme. I was particularly interested in your questioning whether, and in what ways, the problems of definition would have a particular kind of resonance with colonial families. It seems to me that the problems of defining family can be particularly acute for colonial historians, especially when you put questions of race, legitimacy and recognition into the frame.
    The question of recognition was one that came up a few times during the conference – how important is it for (illegitimate and legitimate) family members to be recognised by families? Obviously this could have profound social and economic consequences, but we perhaps pay less attention to the emotional impact of recognition, or lack thereof.
    Having taught an MA class on ‘The Emotions’ last term, I have been thinking a lot lately about that recurring question of how to draw emotions into history – and this is probably quite a good example of the difficulty. If we were to prioritise emotional connection in our definition of family, as perhaps we are more wont to do in a modern context (or in a colonial context, as you point out in your blog), does that change our sense of what the family means, and indeed what function is serves?
    And of course an emotional definition of the family, or the idea of the ‘chosen’ family, will inevitably rub up against biological, legal and economic definitions of the family. Indeed, perhaps that is where the interest lies, particularly in colonial cases: in the gaps and dissonances between emotional, legal and economic understandings of family. There must be a lot of scope for further thought there…

  2. Emily Manktelow says:

    Just to let you know I have continued this comment-thread as a new blog post so that I could attach an image… check it out!

  3. Pingback: Slavery, Family and Empire, some reflections on Andrea Stuart’s Sugar in the Blood: A Family’s Story of Slavery and Empire (Portobello, 2012). | Family & Colonialism Research Network

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