Author meets critic: Margaret K. Nelson, Like A Family

Like Family

These are notes for my discussion of Like Family, Narratives of Fictive Kinship, by Margaret K. Nelson. Author Meets Critics session at the Eastern Sociological Society, 21 Feb 2021.

Like A Family is a fascinating, enjoyable read, full of thought-provoking analysis and a lot of rich stories, with detailed scenarios that let the reader consider lots of possibilities, even those not mentioned in the text. It’s “economical prose” that suggests lots of subtext and brings to mind a lot of different questions (some of which are in the wide-ranging footnotes).

It’s about people choosing relationships, and choosing to make them be “like” family, and how that means they are and are not “like” family, and in the process tells us a lot about how people think of families altogether, in terms of bonds and obligations and language and personal history.

In my textbook I use three definitions: the legal family, the personal family, and the family as an institutional arena. This is the personal family, which is people one considers family, on the assumption or understanding they feel the same way.

Why this matters, from a demographer perspective: Most research uses household definitions of family. That’s partly because some things we have to measure, and it’s a way to make sure we only get each person once (without a population registry or universal identification), and correctly attribute births to birth parents. But it comes at a cost – we assume household definitions of family too often.

We need formal, legal categories for things like incest laws and hospital rights, and the categories take on their own power. (Note there are young adult semi-step siblings with semi-together parents living together some of the time or not wondering about the propriety of sexual relationships with each other.) Reality doesn’t just line up with demographic / legal / bureaucratic categories – there is a dance between them. As the Census “relationship” categories proliferate – from 6 in 1960 ago to about 16 today – people both want to create new relationships (which Nelson calls a “creative” move) and make their relationships fit within acceptable categories (like same-sex marriage).

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Methods and design

The categories investigated here – sibling-like relationships among adults, temporary adult-adolescent relationships, and informal adoptions – are so very different it’s hard to see what they have in common except some language. The book doesn’t give the formal selection criteria, so it’s hard to know exactly how the boundaries around the sample were drawn.

Nelson uses a very inductive process: “Having identified respondents and created a typology, I could refine both my specific and more general research questions” (p. 11). Not how I think of designing research projects, which just shows the diversity among sociologists.

Over more than one chapter, there is an extended case study of Nicole and her erstwhile guardians Joyce and Don, who she fell in with when her poorer family of origin broke up, essentially. Fascinating story.

The book focuses on white, (mostly) straight middle class people. This is somewhat frustrating. The rationale is that they are understudied. So that’s useful, but it would be more challenging – I guess a challenge for subsequent research – to more actively analyze their White straight middle classness as part of the research.

Compared to what

A lot of insights in the book come from people comparing their fictive kin relationships to their other family or friend relationships. This raises a methodological issue: These are people with active fictive kin relationships, so it’s a tricky sample from which to draw for understanding non-fictive relationships – it’s select. It would be nice in an ideal world to have a bigger sample without restriction and ask people about all their relationships and then compare fictive and non-fictive. Understandable not to have that, but needs to be wrestled with (by people doing future research).

Nelson establishes that the sibling-like relationships are neither like friendships nor like family, a third category. But that’s just for these people. Maybe people without fictive kin like this have family or friend relationships that look just like this in terms of reciprocity, obligation, closeness, etc. (Applies especially to the adult-sibling-like relationships.)

Modern contingency

Great insight with regard to adult “like-sibling” relationships: It’s not just that they are not as close as “family,” it’s that they are not “like family” in the sense of “baggage,” they don’t have that “tarnished reality” – and in that sense they are like the way family relationships are moving, more volitional and individualized and contingent.

Does this research show that family relationships generally in a post-traditional era are fluid and ambiguous and subject to negotiation and choice? It’s hard to know how to read this without comparison families. But here’s a thought. John, who co-parents a teenage child named Ricky, says, “To me family means somebody is part of your life that you are committed to. You don’t have to like everything about them, but whatever they need, you’re willing to give them, and if you need something, you’re willing to ask them, and you’re willing to accept if they can or can’t give it to you” (p. 130). It’s an ideal. Is it a widespread ideal? What if non-fictive family members don’t meet that ideal? The implication may be they aren’t your family anymore. Which could be why we are seeing so many people rupturing their family of origin relationships, especially young adults breaking up with their parents.

It reminds me of what happened with marriage half a century ago, where people set a high standard, and defined relationships that didn’t meet it as “not a marriage.” Or when people say abusive families aren’t really families. Conservatives hate this, because it means you can “just” walk away from bad relationships. There are pros and cons to this view.

Nelson writes at the end of the chapter on informal parents, “The possibility is always there that either party will, at some point in the near or distant future, make a different choice. That is both the simple delight and the heartrending anxiety of these relationships” (p. 133). We can’t know, however, how unique such feelings are to these relationships – I suspect not that much. This sounds so much like Anthony Giddens and the “pure” relationships of late modernity.

This contingency comes up a few times, and I always have the same question. Nelson writes in the conclusion, “Those relationships feel lighter, more buoyant, more simply based in deep-seated affection than do those they experience with their ‘real’ kin.” But that tells us how these people feel about real kin, not how everyone does. It raises a question for future research. Maybe outside this population lots of people feel the same way about their “real” kin (ask the growing number of parents who have been “unfriended” by their adult children).

I definitely recommend this book, to read, teach, and use to think about future research.

Note: In the discussion Nelson replied that most people have active fictive-kin relationships, so this sample is not so select in that respect.

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