The location of the Ditchley Foundation has to be seen, to be believed. 3550 acres of sustainably-managed land, dedicated to the conservation of greenery and wildlife.
This October, I had the wonderful opportunity to attend a conference about modern family structures, at the Ditchley Foundation.
The aim of this conference was to bring together a group of thinkers, from diverse backgrounds, to explore what should be required from the institution of the family and how it is both shaping, and being shaped by modern life.
The philosopher Isaiah Berlin was an early supporter of the Ditchley Foundation and had a strong influence on Ditchley’s approach, through his conception of liberty as a process as well as a state. More pragmatically, he wrote a letter that still today guides the Ditchley Foundation in framing its meetings; advising that it is important to include “all kinds of apparently irrelevant persons,” dreading otherwise “a lot of dull-faced men probably saying it had all been very interesting.”
I felt I may be one of those irrelevant persons as I reached the Ditchely house. I had been a political journalist in Pakistan and just recently started an MPhil in Modern South Asian Studies at the University of Oxford, but here I was among government officials, professors, psychologists and senior members of religious and secular institutions. That feeling quickly subsided, as I remembered that my scholarship mentors had chosen me to attend this conference because they believed I was a good fit. I belonged here.
I come from a society where the structure of the family is very different from what it is in the U.K. and the U.S. Most of the participants at the conference were from these two countries. Canada, China, and Pakistan (me!) were the only other countries that were represented there. In Pakistan we have “joint family systems”, arranged marriages are still a reality, and marriage is a rite of passage and the only way two people can legitimately cohabitate. I have written extensively about gender issues and legislation relating to women’s rights in Pakistan, and so I was able to contribute quite significantly to the discussions.
Do we want more lasting relationships and marriages because they are good for both individuals and society? Are they? Is the concept of family and romantic love beginning to lose its exclusivity and singularity, with more people choosing to float between different kinds of families and relationships? How does this affect families and their children? Should we be incentivizing stability or adapting society to the individuals’ appetite for change? These are some of the questions that were discussed. At the core of the discussion was the notion that any intervention had to result in more support and welfare for people, regardless of the family structure they lived in.
There was a difference in opinions at the conference, which was challenging, but refreshing. While some argued that all family structures (adoptive parent, single parent, etc.) work, as long as they are supportive of their children and each other, others felt that the true definition of a family is one where there are two parents who are biologically related to their children. These two views have diverse policy implications. For the former, laws have to be amended to recognise relations beyond “traditional” families so that state support and welfare can be directed towards everyone. The latter requires only changes to existing family laws, to create better mediation and support services in the cases of family breakdown. Choosing what is the best modern family structure is a political question, and if the definition is not one most people can agree on, the recommendations will be biased towards one ideal. This is the apprehension I came away with from this conference.
Some people were quite taken by the idea that families in my part of the world have more support because extended families live together., This communal support is what some found missing in western states, where life is individualistic, and monetary issues become the driving force behind how the elderly are cared for. However, extended family systems aren’t the solution policymakers may be looking for. Such structures often lead to strict hierarchical relationships within families inhibiting the freedom and expression of the young, especially women, who are hindered from working or going out or pressured into having more children. My conclusion from these discussions was that there is no ideal family structure to incentivize.
The fact is that we live in a technology-driven world today that is changing the way we build families. Online dating has changed the way we meet new people and create relationships. Though some considered this to be a problem where people were not making “real” connections, some felt that this was a normal change, something we will soon adapt to. The real problem, for now, may be loneliness. A life where work becomes a priority, for social prestige as well as economic survival, and eventually stressful and unhealthy. While in countries like Canada, Germany, and Sweden, workplaces provide leave to parents and flexible working hours, it is not the case is in most countries, including the U.K. and U.S. Some changes have to happen in the workplace, to ensure people are happier, relationships are healthier and marriages and partnerships can survive.