Dr. Elise Boulding was a founding thinker behind the work of the Vanier Institute, a family sociologist and author whose work informed (and continues to inform) our understanding of families and family life. In 1981, she delivered a public lecture that was published by the Vanier Institute entitled The Place of the Family in Times of Transition: Imagining a Familial Future, which explores the role families play in the lives of individuals and society at large. While she delivered these words more than three decades ago, much of the content is timeless and still provides insight into how families serve as a cornerstone of our ever-evolving society.

The following is the first of two excerpts, the second of which will be published on the Vanier Institute blog next week. The full lecture can be downloaded by following the link at the bottom of the page.


Families and society adapt and react to each other

Each era invents the familial forms it requires. The particular family form consisting of mother, father and children, which we tend to think of as “the family” in our age, is one of those forms. There have always been single-parent households, there have always been extended-family households and there have always been households composed of people who were not related to each other but grouped together because economic, political and social conditions made the grouping useful.

The family is the adaptive mechanism in society that helps us get over the rough spaces as we move from one era to another. It provides elasticity in the social order so we can stretch and contract, make shifts in size, grouping and organizational patterns. The family is a setting in which we can create the other, the different, the alternative. It is both the adaptor and the creator of the new. The family is an instrument for imagining futures.

When I talk about the family, I am talking about any type of group that provides a family-type setting. I include in that category single-person households, since many single persons in a sense maintain a familial network of relationships; that too is a type of family. Anything human beings construct or nurture over time is a family. Attention to this – attention to the craftwork of human relationship – is the new emphasis in our time. The family grouping has enormous advantages for doing this crafting of persons, particularly because the family becomes an instrument for analyzing the complexity of the planet.

If you stop and think about growing up in a multi-age family group where you have older people, middle-years people and children, what you have is the most complex type of human experience possible. It comes directly from one’s own most intimate environment. Each person in a family grouping is older each day than they were the day before. People change ages almost daily, particularly when they are children. As we grow older, we start shrinking; when we are younger, we grow up. Either shrinking or growing, whatever it is, we are changing size and shape: we get heavier, we get lighter, we need different clothes, we have different friends, our aspirations change, our understandings change, our processing of information about the environment changes. Each person in a family, whether we are talking about a three- or five-person family or more, is in themselves a host of complex wishes, aspirations and needs.

The fantastic thing within the family setting is that everybody negotiates those changes every blessed day. You cannot react to the others in your family as if they were yesterday’s person without causing trouble. You will get called down immediately if you are treating a sibling or a parent or a child on the basis of what they didn’t know yesterday, instead of on the basis of what they understand today. You cannot treat them on the basis of yesterday’s understandings. They know more about the world today and they resent being treated like children, like someone who doesn’t understand. We watch the transitions from a tricycle to a two-wheeler, from the two-wheeler to the family car. Those are the big transitions. Little transitions happen every day.

In family groupings, without ever stopping to think about it, we are negotiating extraordinary changes in every person around us and changing ourselves, adapting our behaviours to others. At this moment I am making analytic statements about the process. Normally, we don’t talk about it that way.

Families are teachers of complexity

One advantage of the family as a teacher of complexity is that it provides instantaneous feedback. In the larger social system, you can do all kinds of strange things in your workplace, in the schoolroom, in the community. You may never get feedback on the mistakes you have made or the good things you’ve done. In the family, feedback comes quickly. “That was crummy!” Or “Gee, that was neat!” You get it very fast. We only learn to the extent that we get feedback on our behaviour. In this microcosm of the family, we get continuous feedback as to how good our judgments are and where everybody else is at in the family.

It sounds as if I’m talking about some ideal family where everybody understands everybody else, but I’m not. The mistakes, the fights, the conflicts, the struggles over who gets the family car, what allowance I have this year as compared to last year and all the accompanying hostility is nevertheless part of a feedback system that helps us to grow up being able to assess a rapidly shifting complex environment. Most of us don’t realize what it is we are learning in the family, however. We can carry that complexity with us out into the larger world and consciously make judgments about other people’s shifting needs and aspirations. All the time, we are drawing on knowledge we gained in the family, but we aren’t taught to acknowledge our family-based knowledge. I think we should make that acknowledgement and begin to draw on that basic learning about complexity.

The family has an enormous advantage in its size. I am involved in several projects researching how we adapt to catastrophe, such as climate change and war-incurred disasters. Every time you try to design a larger scale system that is going to meet the individual needs of all the people in it, you miss, because the more people you are trying to plan for, the more individual differences you are simply glossing over. If you look at where adaptation is occurring, whether it is flood or famine or drought or recovery from war disaster, the groups that are making the adaptations are the familial types of groupings. They are the ones that can regroup; they can redistribute roles. A family group can reorganize its way of utilizing its environment more rapidly than any other size of group. It is the ultimate adaptive group.

In every country, family skills are crucial for societal survival. The family does more than adapt, however. It is itself an instrument of change. As society struggles with new conceptions of gender roles, it is in the family unit that actual behaviour is reshaped. While it is important to change our textbooks to present more diverse images of men and women, so that not all women have aprons in our school readers, nevertheless, the practice of the sharing of work and the sharing of parenting – the practices that change the person and reshape the person – happen in the family.

Families live in a “200-year present”

A special feature of the family, apart from its size and its value as a social laboratory that makes it an instrument of change, is that its cross-generational structure provides a way of grasping social time and social process. One of the things that is true about us particularly in this era in history is that we have a very truncated sense of social progress. There is a sense that every important happening has taken place in the last 10 years. If it happened before 10 years ago, it’s ancient history. But a decade or two decades is too narrow a slice of time to give us an understanding of the nature of the changes that are taking place in society. The intergenerational nature of relationships in the family enables us to get hold of larger chunks of time.

I offer for your consideration a concept that I find very useful, that of the 200-year present. This is a very real “present” in the family context. To explain the concept: today is March 19; one boundary of the 200-year present is March 19, 1881. That is the day of the birth of the people who are celebrating their 100th birthday today. The other side of that 200-year present is March 19, 2081, which will be the 100th birthday of the babies born today. Now, you may not have any centenarians in your family, and you may not have any babies born in your family today. Nevertheless, within your extended family and among those close to your family, someone will have been born somewhere close to 100 years ago, and some child you know will be alive 100 years from now.

By thinking about that span of time as encompassing the living present reality of people you know and care about, that span of time becomes accessible. It becomes our time in a very profound sense. This 200-year span belongs to us: it’s our life space. It’s the space in which we should be thinking, planning and making judgments, evaluating, hoping and dreaming. This opening up of what we normally think of as our future and our past and making it a part of our present experience, makes changes more comprehensible.

An enormous expansion of personhood becomes possible by drawing on the life experience within the family. Many people don’t experience their family as history-in-the-present in this way. We don’t share across generations in the family to the extent that we could. I am talking about an instrument that is available to us for this kind of sharing, and shortly I will talk about how we can make it work that way. It doesn’t necessarily work that way, but when it does, it becomes an enormous strengthening force in a period of very rapid change.

The full lecture can be downloaded here.