Thursday, August 15, 2013

Why Study Family to Understand History

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In her book about the New Zealand McCullough family entitled Kin: A Collective Biography (published in 2005 by Canterbury Press), Melanie Nolan challenges us to think about the relationship between broad social structures (her main interest is social class and gender), individual agency, and the nexus of family. She explains that, “We choose our friends, our social networks and, to some extent, our communities in a way that we do not choose our family. Yet . . . family can influence where you live, what work you do, your political allegiance” (p. 187).

A friend who knew of my interest in family history sent me this book. I kept putting it aside to get to “later” for quite a while. Part of the reason was probably that even though I have spent much time in New Zealand, I wasn’t sure how a history of a New Zealand family would speak to my own work in the U.S. Once I opened it and started reading, however, I realized that the book sheds useful light on the relationship between studying family and studying history.

Nolan is a labor historian who grapples with the tension between studying the large picture of class formation as it played out historically in a specific country, and the particulars of individuals within a working class family. She argues that histories, which tend to be broad and sweeping, obscure experiences of subgroups and individuals. On the other hand, biographies and family histories, while rich in detail, are usually parochial, saying little about the historical landscape in which people lived. Ultimately, she argued that there is tremendous normal variation in how people live and shape social relationships; that variation is part of history and important to understand. Family history can unearth what normal variation looks like.

The McCullough family, which is the subject of her book, was not her own family. As a graduate student, she delved into the biography of Jack McCullough, who was a New Zealand artisan working class leader in the late 1800s and early 1900s. However, as she carefully read his diary and reflected on it in relationship to her own academic background (such as her interest in gender and history), she began to see many more dimensions both in his life and in working class experiences. By expanding her inquiry to his four siblings and their families, she was able to present a complex portrait of the New Zealand working class.

The five siblings shared having grown up in a working class immigrant family, but their lives represent different ways to be working class in New Zealand. Jack McCullough represents the skilled working class, committed to activist unionism and an international socialist vision of society. Margaret McCullough Norrie, who became an evangelical Christian, represents a religious “other worldly” vision of a large number of working class women. Jim McCullough represents locally active “municipal socialists” who devoted their attention to quality of life issues, friend societies (especially the International Order of Oddfellows), and family economic independence. Sarah McCullough Kennedy represents the “ordinary” working class women whose domestic, non-activist lives of patriotism, conservatism, and religion formed the foundation of New Zealand working class family life. Finally, Frank McCullough represents white collar managers who worked their way up, and as managers espoused values of teamwork, personal development, and good character.

Situated within larger formations of class, ethnicity, and religion, families embed us in the experiences and ideological contexts of those interconnected social locations. Studying the family and its historic and cultural context can reveal roots of our own values and perspectives today. Yet those social locations do not determine an individual’s life – there is an interplay between individual shaping of consciousness and choices, and that shaped within family, which one does not choose. What I appreciate about this book is her probing of that interplay.

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