Last week, Steve Sailer and then Razib Khan had a couple of very interesting posts on the negatives of large extended families. Their arguments are essentially that having lots of relatives with whom you socialise, means that discussion is reduced to a mind-numbing, lowest common denominator i.e. family gossip, at the expense of creativity and individuality. However, I’m not convinced that their link holds up.
At a certain level they are correct. In fact, at least among men, I think that banal discussions of politics, cricket, hindi films and religion probably come before family gossip.
Like Razib i do try and seek out family members with unconventional and interesting ideas, or who have interests similar to my own. However while there may be a correlation, I don’t think that there is a causation between large extended families and dumbed down social interaction.
Instead I would suggest that it is Razib’s own interests which are quite unusual amongst all types of social groupings that leads to his frustration, rather than the fact that he happens to have an extended family. I remember Ezra Klein commenting on bloggingheadsÂ a couple of weeks ago about how he generally hated the people he grew up with in Orange County and I doubt he interacted with a lot of extended family. Similarly, responding to some of the comments in Steve’s blog, I’m struggling to believe that west asians stick out as being very materialistic in Southern California of all places, although I’m happy to be proved wrong on this.
Admittedly, from what I know Orange County is extremely wealthy, but I suspect that the average white, middle/working class man spends, most of his time watching, discussing, or watching people discuss sports. My guess is that people who end up interacting a lot with their family have a lot in common with them, especially in the UK/America where although there may be some pressure to interact with family, its not so much that people can’t choose who they want to invite to their dinner parties.
Moving on to some positives, I didn’t really experience this but it can also be a lot of fun to grow up with cousins who are a similar age to you. Especially for people who are more introverted, it can provide great experience in learning how to socialise and interact with people from your age group in a non-school environment. Apart from this, as much as I despise going to random weddings, I pretty much always have a great time when someone closely related is getting married and there are a bunch of relatives around from all over the world who you haven’t seen in a while. On the other hand, the mandatory dinners after a wedding in which you see the same people again and again and again aren’t so great. This makes me the think that the key to enjoying your relationships with your extended family is to ensure you see them in suitable doses.
On the whole, I accept that the extended family may stifle creativity and individuality in third world, west asian countries. However they also help provide essential stability in otherwise fragile environments. This is probably something for another post, but it could be that one of the reasons people in the West think things are worse off in developing countries then they actually are is because they under-estimate the role of the larger family unit in keeping things sane.
I think that as these countries become more prosperous, people will be able to afford familial bonds becoming weaker. This is probably already happening and can be most clearly witnessed amongst the rich, for whom socialising in the right circles is far more important than keeping very close bonds with second and third cousins. Also as people are more affluent they could also probably afford for their kids to engage in more creative activities.
To finish, I want to make clear that I don’t fetishise south asian culture in anyway and I do think that there are cultural mores which need to evolve. However, I strongly doubt that the extended family is the root of the problems which Steve and Razib have identified.
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Filed in: Culture,South Asia