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Book Review: Families - Beyond the Nuclear Ideal

11 February 2013
Appeared in BioNews 692

Families: Beyond the Nuclear Ideal

Edited by Dr Sarah Chan and Dr Daniela Cutas

Published by Bloomsbury Academic

ISBN-10: 1780930100, ISBN-13: 978-1780930107

Buy this book from Amazon UK

'Families: Beyond the Nuclear Ideal' edited by Dr Sarah Chan and Dr Daniela Cutas


'Families: Beyond the nuclear ideal' discusses various 'alternative' family forms in Western societies, examining the arguments behind the celebration and criticism of specific types of family that depart from the norm. The editors define the 'nuclear ideal' as 'a mother and a father romantically involved with each other, and their genetically related children that they have conceived naturally'. This model is used as a reference point in offering accounts of family configurations that do not fit this description.

Adding to a debate that has been ongoing for a while but does not seem to have lost its momentum, this volume considers the different family types 'from an ethical perspective'. With the debate dominated by sociologists, social anthropologists and psychologists, academic voices from philosophy and law aim to shed new light on the possibilities offered by contemporary changes in family structures.

As such, the coverage of the book is impressive – it encompasses families with more than two parents, families with children conceived through donor insemination and surrogacy, families with lesbian and single heterosexual mothers, polygamous and polyamorous families, and families that may emerge in the future as a result of human cloning.

It is an ambitious and challenging task to cover such a breadth of topics in a coherent way, considering the different geographical contexts of the contributing authors as well as the fact that, despite its primary focus on ethics, the book remains very multidisciplinary. However, the collection does not attempt to be exhaustive, but to offer a diverse selection of perspectives on what seems to attract most controversy, or excitement, in how families are changing.

In this regard, it fulfils its aim. What helps it maintain a relative coherence is that it specifically addresses the issues of reproduction and parenthood as these, explain Cutas and Chan in the introduction, 'raise heightened sensitivity and resistance to alternative lifestyles'.

The collection might be difficult to digest as a whole because the chapters vary greatly in accessibility. For example, readers without a background in the discipline of logic may struggle with the final section on moral and legal constraints on human cloning by philosopher Melinda Roberts. On the other end of the spectrum is a somewhat surprising addition by therapist Dossie Easton who, with a popular psychology tone, reflects on her own experiences of 'living outside the box'.

The parts I found most interesting and convincing are ones that offered a nuanced argument, which is understandable to a lay reader and points not only to what living 'beyond the nuclear ideal' promises but also to what challenges it entails. I would particularly recommend reading the section on 'single mothers by choice' by Susanna Graham, Maura Irene Strassberg's account of polygamy and polyamory, and the chapter on surrogate parenthood by Mary Lyndon Shanley and Sujatha Jesudason.

In another engaging contribution to the volume, referring particularly to human cloning, Kerry Lynn Macintosh makes a point that is sometimes overlooked in the academic debate on family: 'alternative' families do not threaten 'nuclear' families as such; instead they challenge the nuclear family as irrefutably ideal. With this in mind, reading the collection by Cutas and Chan helps to understand in how many different ways this ideal can be challenged and how fascinating it is to explore the evolving family landscape from various disciplinary angles.

I am more convinced about the value of this continuing exploration by those authors who, in a balanced way, show the complexity of new 'family developments' – less so by those who take a more prescriptive approach, suggesting what the 'non-nuclear family' should be. The latter style is uncomfortably similar to that adopted by 'family traditionalists', which not only makes specific arguments problematic but also distracts from the project's objective to 'critically evaluate the norms surrounding personal relationships'.

Another tendency by some authors that I find unhelpful and unnecessarily confusing is a redundant use of abbreviations such as RCU (reproductive caring unit) and CC (conventional conceivers), which do not seem particularly common in literature elsewhere.

Despite some shortcomings, 'Families: Beyond the nuclear ideal' is a valuable addition to the growing scholarship documenting changes in parenthood and intimate life. One issue that the meeting of different academic disciplines definitely highlights is the tension around biology and genes, with the book's various arguments interchangeably drawing attention to how significant or insignificant it is for a family to be genetically related.

This publication will certainly be useful to those readers who would like to expand their 'everyday' understanding of 'non-traditional families' by looking at what ethics, philosophy and law have to say about them.


Buy Families: Beyond the Nuclear Ideal from Amazon UK.

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