How WEIRD are you?
The nuclear family is atypical. Credit: Lambert/Getty Images   

WEIRD stands for Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic. The acronym is used by social scientists to remind us that contemporary westerners are extremely atypical of most people in most parts of the world at most points in human history.

For instance, when westerners refer to the ‘extended family’ they do so as if it were some special feature of certain societies, as opposed to what the great majority of human beings think of as just ‘family’. It is the standard western conception of the family – one or two adults plus a small number of children – that requires a special term. Some academics refer to the ‘truncated family’.

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In the not so recent past, having more than two generations (and/or more than one branch) of a family living together was commonplace, even in the West. It’s hardly unheard of today – but is regarded as a deviation from the norm, the result of some regrettable necessity or frailty. Almost always the expectation is that the ‘extra’ members of the household will, before too long, move on to somewhere else (either in this world or the next).

The ‘household’ is another concept that used to mean a lot more than it does today. In some ways, it is a broader idea than the extended family – because it doesn’t always depend on ties of blood, marriage or adoption.

In a fascinating and challenging essay for First Things, John Cuddeback reminds us just what a big deal the household used to be – and contrasts to the way we live today:

“The bustling little community that was the household—the context in which parents would raise their children to be responsible adults and citizens, even in seriously diseased polities—has practically ceased to exist.

“Not long ago, the household was a context of daily life. The arts that provided for the material needs of human life were largely home arts, practiced, developed, and passed on within the four walls, or at least in the immediate ambit of the home. Food, clothing, shelter, as well as nonessential items that gave some embellishment to life, were commonly the fruit of the work of household members, often produced with an eye for beauty as well as utility.”

He makes the provocative argument that “people [today] do not really live in their homes”:

“When we think of a family today, or even a home, we do not think of a real community characterized by substantial daily common action. Rather than a community woven together by common actions toward common ends, we have a kind of home base, a staging area in which to rest and refuel for remote daily activities. We should by all means attend to the sad realities of broken families. But too often, even married couples with children fail to live as a household.”

This isn’t entirely true, of course – but it isn’t entirely false either. Our ancestors would be amazed by the luxury of our homes, but also by what would strike them as their emptiness, passivity and disconnection.

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So many of the things that used to be the joint endeavour of the household are now undertaken separately and remotely. Not just ‘the household arts’ described above, but almost all work, education, healthcare, entertainment and hospitality.

Despite the existence of outside centres of religious practice, the home was also a place of collective prayer and worship. In ancient cultures around the world, we see people keeping an honoured place for ‘household gods‘ – an impulse faintly echoed in the present by garden gnomes and the fairy on the Christmas tree.

As well as what the household contained, there was what it kept out: at a time before modern policing, the household was the first, and perhaps only, line of defence. The single most important duty of the head of the household was to go round at night ensuring that all the doors and gates were secured and everyone safely inside.

But that brings us to the dark and stifling side of the household – its role in traditional societies as the primary instrument of social control. The modern era of individual liberty was first and foremost a liberation from the constraints of the household – for women most obviously, but also its other members too. With the partial exception of the parent-child relationship, western societies no longer expect individuals to subordinate their personal autonomy to the greater good of the family.

It wasn’t just the call of freedom that sparked the revolution, but also the demands of efficiency. We created the modern world by developing institutions that, one-by-one, supplanted the functions of the household. The factory, the office, the shop, the school, the nursery, the hospital, the police station, the restaurant, the theatre, the cinema, the hotel, the old people’s home: each offers a service that is more productive, specialised and varied than what we could ever hope to provide in our homes.

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That, by the way, includes the services provided by servants – whose role in most households was rendered obsolete by these new institutions and by new technologies. We may think of ourselves as all the more egalitarian as a result – most households now consisting exclusively of the co-equal members of the modern family; and yet we continue to be served by a multitude of poorer, less powerful individuals, both in our own countries and around the world.

The great difference is that they no longer live with us, we no longer have to look them in the eye, know their names or take responsibility for their welfare. The great retreat of domestic service was progress of a kind , but not towards a truly classless society. Indeed, one can make a case that people of different classes have never lived more separate lives than they do today.

The emergence of modernity is thought of in terms of developments such as industrialisation, democratisation and the growth of the welfare state. We shudder at the thought of living our lives without prosperity, freedom and security. And yet we so easily forget the other great change that brought the modern world into being – the unbundling of the household.