The Anthropology of Family
You might think you already know your family's stories pretty well-between childhood memories and reunions and holiday gatherings, you may have spent countless hours with your parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles, soaking up family anecdotes and lore. As a professor of anthropology, I have always been fascinated by the stories that families tell, and a few years ago, I started researching family stories that are passed down from generation to generation. I have been astonished to find that many people actually know little of the lives of their parents and grandparents, even though they lived through some pretty interesting decades. Even when I asked my students, some of whom majored in history and excelled at it, about the history of their own families, they were in the dark. Our elders may share some familiar anecdotes over and over again, but still, many of us have no broader sense of the world they lived in, especially what it was like before we came along. What kind of world did our grandparents and parents inhabit as children and young adults? And how can we get them to open up about it?
It wasn't until my mother died in 2014 that I realized how much I didn't know about her life. This was all the more poignant because I had recorded several interviews with her when she was seventy-nine. Back then, I was curious about aunts, uncles, and cousins, people she knew and I didn't, and about the knowledge of our family she had gathered over a lifetime that I worried would be lost. And I wanted a record of her voice (I knew I would miss her husky, glamorous voice). At the time, I thought that if she just started talking for the tape recorder, everything I was curious about would spill out in one coherent narrative. Yet that idea turned out to be a fantasy. Rather than bringing us closer together, the experience underscored how differently our respective generations looked at the world. So, in spite of my efforts to dutifully record what my mother knew about various family members, I never asked the questions that haunt me now. Questions about her. Only after she died and her aura of "mother" receded did I wonder, did I really know her? Before she died, I-like many children, I suspect-avoided any potential clashes, wanting to preserve harmony rather than ask sensitive questions. Now I wish I had asked what formed her different generational beliefs. I'm curious about what it was like to live in her time, in the places she did, what interactions she had. I wish I had a fuller sense of her as a person, especially how she was when she was young with a lust for life. How would I have structured such a conversation? What questions should I have asked?
I've since heard other people express, with an emotion I recognize, that there are things they wished they'd asked their late parents and grandparents. Like me, they wanted to know more about their elders as people. Why did their grandmother leave home to work as a housemaid so far away at a time when this was extraordinary? Why did their parents buy that house with the big garden they never seemed that interested in?
I started to research how knowledge isn't passed down in families and why family members don't know more about one another. I realized there were three flaws in my failed interviews with my mother (never mind that I hadn't even thought to interview my grandparents). First, I formulated my questions based on information I already knew, meaning that my questions were based on fragments my mother had previously shared with me. As a result, she didn't tell me things I had no clue about. Second, I asked her about people in the family, when now I wish I'd asked about my mother herself, and her relationship to the world. And third, I was trapped in our mother-daughter dynamic, with all my impatience and discomfort with oppositional generational attitudes, for example, concerning how women should dress and what my behavior signified to others. I didn't ask my mother the kinds of questions that would have enabled me to step out of my own frame of reference and to take her perspective in order to better understand how she came to see things the way she did, and something of the experiences that made her who she was. In other words, I couldn't leverage the difference between us into something that gave me a new understanding of the times, places, and people that shaped her and my family history. I didn't have a way to see her in any role other than mother. I missed out on learning what my mother saw through her eyes as a young person, before five children dominated her time and aspirations.
I thought about this problem of how to learn more about the history of a person, how to enter a parent's or grandparent's world from their perspective, how to honor the language they choose to describe their experiences. And I started to think about my work as an anthropologist. I'm trained to gather information about people who are different from myself. I've done research on a remote Pacific island, on the Deaf community's skillful use of technologies, and on design projects conducted by engineers collaborating from four countries. But when interviewing my mother, I didn't apply what I knew. Despite being trained in anthropology, I lost an opportunity to do what an anthropologist does-to enter a different world of experience and interpretation.
In developing this book over five years after my mother's death and thirty years after my last grandparent's death, I have used what I know about anthropology and about studying diverse people with diverse beliefs to develop a set of topics and questions that would have treated my mother not just as the person who raised me but as an individual of a certain society and time: as a girl, a teenager, a young adult, a member of a generation.
Even though my mother didn't grow up in a different country, the world she knew when she was young was so different from mine as to seem that way, due to cultural change. Culture is hard to define because it is so big in scope, encompassing large-scale societal practices as well as small material things. And its influence is subtle. Though people are irrevocably shaped by culture, they are typically unaware of its influence. Anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu famously described culture as a set of practices that train our bodies and provide us with "dispositions" that structure everything we perceive. By dispositions, he meant a sense of "how the game is played," how we make sense of and respond to what other people do. In researching this book, I've been surprised at the extent to which everyday aspects of culture have changed in just one or two generations. This rapid cultural change is what has given rise to the well-known phrase "generation gap." In fact, the phrase has only been a bellwether of people's experiences in America and Europe since the 1960s, when teenagers and their parents began to struggle with cultural differences. This struggle was recognized as something new or at least more common than ever before.
I started my research among families to find out more about this by interviewing people in the United States and other countries to find out how much they knew about their grandparents' or parents' early lives, such as how they were raised and what they experienced as young people. I soon realized that many of my interviewees, coming from a range of countries, knew hardly anything. Few could remember any personal stories about when their grandparents or parents were children, especially stories told from their point of view. Based on what people were telling me, it was clear that whole ways of life, and what made them unique within certain cultural and historical frameworks, were passing away unknown. A kind of genealogical amnesia eats holes in family histories as permanently as moths eat holes in the sweaters lovingly knit by our ancestors and grandmothers.
As I interviewed more people, many of them parents or grandparents themselves, I became interested in hearing their own stories and learning about their childhoods. I developed a set of questions designed to get a person talking about the past in a way they never had before. The answers I got to the questions I asked opened whole new worlds to me and reflected each person's unique place in history and the extraordinary things that had happened to them. I heard some things I expected, but I was also surprised and delighted by what I learned. I gained a new appreciation for those I interviewed-and for humanity as a whole.
As I interviewed people about their families and about their own lives, and as the power of their eyewitness accounts became clear, I was convinced that the reason many people didn't know very much about their grandparents and even their parents was because they'd never thought to ask and didn't have the right questions. When I saw how much I was learning as I interviewed families, I started to share this approach with my students at the University of Texas at Austin. I gave them the assignment of interviewing one of their grandparents using the questions and topics that I've included in this book. My students loved interviewing their grandparents, and this exercise brought the generations closer together. The students' moving descriptions of what they had learned convinced me to write this book so that more people could have this experience and wouldn't miss out on hearing family histories that otherwise wouldn't have seen the light of day.
I wrote this book for you to better understand the cultural changes in your family, in a way that's intimate and personal. The book provides a step-by-step approach to guide your research on your own family so you don't experience the same regret I did. I use examples and descriptions of everyday life from the interviews I conducted with parents and grandparents from several countries, as well as cross-generational interviews I facilitated between parents and their adult children. They gave permission to have their words included, but none of the interviewees' real names are used (as is required by university research protocols on human subjects); rather I've used pseudonyms. I also use quotes from papers written by some of my former students, whom I contacted as I was writing the book and who generously gave me permission to share their words, too. I've noted the titles of their papers in the endnotes, but I've used only their first names (in cases where they wanted to be identified) as we agreed. Both the students and the grandparents I interviewed were enthusiastic about being part of this book, and about sharing something of the experiences they had.
There are thirteen topics-and questions to support each of those topics-that I developed as I interviewed families and considered how to ask about their lives from an anthropological perspective, based on my years of research and teaching in the field. An anthropologist goes to a new place armed with curiosity and time. They try to shed the assumptions of their own culture and make the familiar strange, enabling them to see different perspectives of the same physical world. The goal with these questions is for you, too, to have the chance to see new sides of a world you've supposedly known all your life.
Getting to know your parents and grandparents on anthropological terms will enrich your understanding of your own beliefs and cultural habits, as well as the forces that have shaped your family history and, in turn, your own identity. The topics and questions are designed to lead to a new understanding of how the world looked to your elders when you weren't the center of their story. (If you're among the lucky ones, your grandparents have a tendency to focus totally on you when you're together.)
As counterintuitive as it sounds, the anthropological approach to getting to know someone near and dear to you can lead to their sharing details and anecdotes that many in your family have never heard. It's not only the questions in this book that help unearth stories about people, but the work you put into interviewing them, and the magic that happens when people get to talk about themselves to a curious listener who wants all the details. Cole, one of my students, explains this better than I could:
While I would consider myself very close with my grandparents (as they live a mere 10 minutes from my house), I do not think I have ever had such a candid, in-depth conversation with them as I did from this interview. I learned things about them, their lives, and their relationship that I had never heard before. . . . I was lucky to be able to do this and succeed at it as my grandfather has somewhat early-stage dementia. It has definitely started to affect his memory and cognition, though he still clearly remembers his childhood and adult life. I do not know how much longer he would be able to conduct an interview such as this one, so for that I want to thank you as I will always have this interview to hold on to as he progresses in his old age.
Interviewing your elders by using the topics in this book will give you a personal glimpse into lived history. You'll get eyewitness reports that create a picture of your ancestors' past in a way that a family tree diagram never could. Your parent or grandparent might share stories of hunting and fishing with their father, wearing clothes their mother made out of feed sacks, cringing at the sound of cruise missiles overhead during World War II, helping during washday, or going barefoot from June to September.
In one interview, a grandmother shared that when she was a girl in Germany during the Nazi era, none of the adults would tell her why her nine-year-old friend and her family, who lived across the street, disappeared one day without saying goodbye. And this now ninety-year-old Oma told us about a sign she remembered seeing in a streetcar at the time depicting a man with a finger to his lips. One student's grandma talked about having to wait at the back of a restaurant to have her food handed through a window because she was Cajun and couldn't go inside. These moments can create a sense of your grandparent's world. You'll recognize a child's uncanny feeling of living in a society punctuated with grim injuries to the spirit, and you'll learn how your grandparent still found the courage to go on. Or you may find your grandparent lived in a safer world, one where they roamed fearlessly, at least until the streetlights came on and they had to go home. You may suddenly see someone who isn't the frail person before you, but a lively teenager who was told that if she didn't hurry up and find a husband, the market for husbands would be gone; or a person who remembers his father's quiet desperation to put food on the table; or the young girl whose dream job to be a musician sustained her when she had to help her father run the farm during the war years, when the young men were away.
Copyright © 2022 by Elizabeth Keating, Ph.D.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.