The lonely family tree has become a sprawling ecology. The way we talk about family history needs to reflect that change, write Dr Sophie Scott-Brown and Dr Malcolm Allbrook.

Family history is in rude health. With people turning to DNA and the internet to unearth their roots, and the proliferation of courses, sources and television programs on offer, it seems that ‘doing the family tree’ has never been so popular. But the concept of family is changing and so is the way we need to think about its history.

The 2021 Australian Census counted 5.5 million couple families, 53 per cent with children and 47 per cent without. In 1996 only 41 per cent of couples did not have children.

Today, 8.7 million co-habiting couples are married, 7.8 million are not, and the Australian Institute of Family Studies notes that even when couples do go ahead and marry, 81 per cent have lived together beforehand. For the first time, the Census recorded more than one million single parent families, an increase from 14.5 per cent in 1996 to 15.9 per cent. In 2021 there were 25,000 same-sex marriages.

Digging beneath the statistics, never has the idea of family been subject to such intense interrogation. Since the Second World War, our entire experience of family life has transformed at every level.

We need histories that reflect and illuminate the complexity of the modern family.

For better or worse, external agencies — social services, health providers, schools — have assumed many roles once performed ‘in-house’. Similarly, many traditional practices of the household economy — quite literally the provision of food, fuel, clothes — have also become outsourced, brought back home rather than produced within it.

Emotional support is more often found outside the family and immediate community than in previous generations. Physically, the greater mobility enabled by technology and a globalised market economy routinely scatters family members across the world.

Finally, rapid cultural change has helped create stark fault lines between generations, which now confront each other with radically different views and aspirations, making common ground feel almost impossible.

The cast of the NBC series Friends. Photo: PictureLux/The Hollywood Archive/Alamy Stock Photo

We need histories that reflect and illuminate the complexity of the modern family. Among the ideas we should examine are ‘alternative’ families. These include constructed kin groups, a trend known colloquially as the ‘Friends syndrome’ after the American sitcom chronicling the lives of six young, co-habiting professional New Yorkers.

These groups are non-biologically based social units that assume some of the functions traditionally associated with the family, including economic or emotional support. They are distinct, however, in their pluralism. Individuals can simultaneously belong to multiple groups and experience similar intensities of connection.

Their emergence stems from several factors. The combination of expanded higher education and the prohibitive cost of housing has normalised housemate arrangements far into early adulthood. There are also the close-knit communities formed by people from minority or socially-marginalised groups, such as those identifying as LGBTIQA+.

In some cases, these groups actively compensate for strained or estranged biological family relations but even where that is not so, they provide a valuable source of validation at both personal and collective levels. The passing of marriage equality Acts in 33 countries (as of 2022) further indicates a wider recognition and acceptance of the social status and value of diverse relationships.

In a different vein, life in a highly technologised world facing an unprecedented scale of environmental disaster, including pandemics, challenges the very concept of ‘being related’. Calls for more ecological thinking draw our attention to the direct biochemical entanglement between the human and more-than-human world. Cybernetics, the techno-equivalent of ecology, also registers our technological dependencies and invites us to consider ourselves as agents in all-encompassing information networks.

The British Royal Family. Photo: Lorna Roberts/Shutterstock.com

At the same time, there has been a marked resurgence of family history in its more, if not most, traditional forms. The recent death of Queen Elizabeth II, for example, and the accession of King Charles III to the throne, cast the whole question — and ritual — of primogeniture (being the first-born child) firmly back into the public eye.

Similarly, appeals to ‘traditional’ family values have increasingly emerged as part of a counter-discourse against social movements, from access to safe abortion to support for transgender rights, which advocates worry are subversive.

Who we are, where we come from, and how we got here are questions that we will, and must, always ask ourselves. As such, we are all of us family historians, all of the time. What is less clear, and less determined, is how we recognise and represent our experiences of (inter) connection. As the family continues to reinvent itself, so too must the stories it tells of itself.

Dr Sophie Scott-Brown is an ANU alumna and Program Director for the Europaeum Institute (University of Oxford). Dr Malcolm Allbrook is the Managing Editor of the Australian Dictionary of Biography at ANU.

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