The nuclear family – a reflection on core concepts
Blog 4th June 2020
Author: Petra Tjitske Kalshoven, Dalton Research Fellow, School of Social Sciences, The University of Manchester
What has been fascinating for me as an anthropologist to observe in these days of Covid-19 is how core concepts about social life are reinvented or reinforced, or invoked differently, and how these are played out in action and on-line.
In particular, I have been musing about ‘the nuclear family’, in two senses of the term: one concerns the conventional social unit of a couple and their children, widely regarded as a core building block of society; the other the togetherness that the nuclear industry, and in particular Sellafield Limited, has been promoting on-line, embracing notions of kindness, facilitating volunteering in West Cumbria, and reinforcing its devotion to mental health. The relationality implied in ‘the nuclear family’ has ideological undertones that shape current experiences of lockdown.
Sellafield Ltd moving on-line – and into the community
After worrisome news in mid-March concerning an outbreak of corona cases at Sellafield Ltd, the nuclear industry in West Cumbria (so very used to rules and regulations) responded by instructing a large part of its workforce to stay home and connect on-line, with detailed communications about this extraordinary situation conveyed in long explanations and soothing video messages. Almost every day, an update from the Sellafield Ltd / Nuclear Decommissioning Authority website is sent to subscribers containing reassurances about continuation of essential work to keep the Sellafield site safe and secure by key workers, whilst many other employees work from home, or are given the green light to spend their time volunteering.
On 4 April, Sellafield Ltd CEO Martin Chown appeared in a video expressing his thanks to stakeholders and ‘the community’ for their continuing support. The next day, the company confirmed that any employee who is not a key worker could fill out a form to ‘volunteer to support their local community during work time’, subject to (as was clarified later) a maximum terms of 12 weeks.
Suspended activities at Sellafield Ltd have thus enhanced extension of its presence into ‘the community’. The close connections between the nuclear industry and West Cumbria that I have noticed during my fieldwork in the region, often expressed in terms of kinship relations, are reinforced and highlighted: the nuclear family becomes an extended one expanding outwards into its surrounding geography, bringing solace, support, and supplies to vulnerable people, a category that has gained special significance in these times of corona.
The company’s capability (as the management lingo goes) has been called upon to benefit West Cumbria in kind, in a move that resonates in interesting ways with calls for a new redistributive politics (but that’s a topic for another blog; see James Ferguson. 2015. Give a Man a Fish: Reflections on the New Politics of Distribution. Durham and London: Duke University Press). Suddenly, the economy (oikos + nomos, the law of the house) has taken on a different hue.
The household as a core concept
This Sellafield Ltd encouraged volunteering all happens whilst maintaining a respectful distance, of course: physical distancing underlies any engagement outside of one’s own ‘household’. Key in the UK lockdown (as in most other countries) has been the move to isolate households from one another so as to prevent the virus from propagating. Whilst the nuclear family in West Cumbria seems to have spilled out of specific physical work sites to embrace the surrounding context of its ‘community’ (a core concept in Sellafield Ltd discourse and practice), other social reconfigurations have occurred simultaneously.
When it comes to closer, in-person contact, a geographical shrinking and consolidating can be observed as a result of the household having been declared to be the primary unit, located inside the home, neatly separated from its physical surroundings. Social distancing has become the new norm. Couples and nuclear families are expected to practice physical detachment from friends and extended family. Young (and in some cases older) adults have flocked back to their parents and to a cosy (and probably more spacious) nest, recreating formerly dispersed nuclear families. In UK government statements and advice on the lockdown, most attention has gone out to vulnerable people, sometimes alone, self-isolating, and to families bogged down by the constant presence of demanding young children. Juggling home-schooling, child care, and working from home has become the standard topic of commiseration.
Less attention has been paid to singles now barred from meeting up with friends or lovers. ‘What do the government mean by ‘a household’?’ a friend fretted in the early days of lockdown, worried about a lack of companionship and intimacy, before hastily moving in with his girlfriend after years of conveniently living apart together. The mantra of social distancing privileges couples and the nuclear family, living under one roof. This has gone without saying as it seems to make sense to keep people from entering other people’s houses.
What about single households? A plea from overseas
And yet a different line of reasoning has made itself heard overseas. On 6 May, Dutch newspaper Het Parool published an op-ed piece by Linda Duits (a writer specialising in gender and sexuality), entitled ‘A plea for more flexible rules for singles: “sex is a human right”’ (my translation from this article). Duits argues that physical contact with other people is a life necessity rather than icing on the cake. With reference to the WHO, she calls it ‘a human right’. Not having any physical contact, she writes, and being subjected to ‘enforced celibacy’ is unhealthy.
Shortly after (albeit already well into the period of confinement, as measures in the Netherlands were slowly being relaxed), the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) showed itself receptive to this advice, stating that singles were welcome to find themselves a cuddle or a sex buddy. Reporting on this official stance in the Netherlands, The Guardian referred to a ‘typically open-minded intervention’, whilst The Sun spoke of ‘randy Dutch’.
RIVM’s explicit open-mindedness was short-lived, however. In a toned-down version of the advice that now eschews the term ‘sex buddy’, the institute writes: ‘Obviously, as a single you also long to have physical contact. When engaging in intimacy and sex, however, it is all the more necessary that you minimise the contamination risk. You should discuss together how this is best achieved’ (my translation from this article). What remains of interest, is the attention paid to human needs and desires that go beyond the conventional unit of the nuclear family – resonating with what The Guardian and The Sun recognised as Dutch values, each in rather different terms.
Covid, kindness, and kin
For now, in Britain, we have to content ourselves with the new core concept of ‘kindness’. As I cycled into Whitehaven, where many Sellafield Ltd workers live, on a sunny Tuesday afternoon in late May, I was surprised at the numbers of anglers neatly spaced out on the North Pier. Men and boys, fathers and sons – more than I had ever seen out there in almost three years on the town. Perhaps they were taking a break from home, or from volunteering – or perhaps they spotted a last chance to go out on a weekday before being called back into work. On the boulevard, couples were strolling, young parents pushing buggies. Conversations were struck up, always with that odd maintaining of distance, bridged by voices louder than usual.
Slowly, the nuclear family is moving back into its Sellafield Ltd workplaces. Slowly, more of a social life will become possible again, including friends, perhaps even lovers, somehow, for better or worse. Households will spill out and mingle again. Slowly, nuclear families will rediscover some breathing room, whilst society’s relational building blocks resettle and familiar patterns click back into shape. Somewhere along the line, it was said that a human right got suspended for the greater good. Somewhere along the line, the household was taken for granted, the economy seemed poised for change, and kindness was preached, a concept rooted in ‘kin’.
In Dutch, the English equivalent of ‘kind’ would be vriendelijk (like a friend) or lief – which also means ‘beloved’ or ‘lover’. Not that anything should be read into this rashly. There will be time and space to ponder how core concepts were rooted, raised, and uprooted in the now all too ‘familiar’ world of Covid-19.
About Petra Tjitske Kalshoven
Petra is a Dalton Research Fellow based in the School of Social Sciences at The University of Manchester where she was previously a Lecturer in Social Anthropology. With The Beam, she pursues her interest in human expertise and the skilled and persuasive ways in which people seek to engage specific materials and landscapes. Read more.