Review: Everyday Utopia

For our November event we watched online and then discussed an interview given recently by Kristen Ghodsee, following publication of her book Everyday Utopia: in praise of radical alternatives to the traditional family home. She is Professor of Russian and East European Studies at the University of Pennsylvania and her research interest is in the area of humanistic anthropology. This is research that takes a ‘bottom up’ view of society, starting with the individual and working up to study their impact on groups, societies and cultures. It thus has obvious parallels with the beliefs and philosophies of the Humanist movement.

She said at the outset that her book is based very much on her personal experience: as a teenager she left her family and went to live with her English teacher’s family. They treated her very much as their own child and gave her a loving and fulfilling upbringing. This experience led her to question the validity of the traditional nuclear family in today’s world.

She argued that the nuclear family, composed of two adults of opposite sex living together with their own children, is a relatively recent phenomenon. It has developed over the last two hundred years as a response to the need to combine romantic attraction, child-rearing responsibilities, and employment demands into one social unit. It was catalysed by capitalist ideas of preserving family wealth and by religious orthodoxies. However, she claimed that contemporary pressures, particularly climate change, political disruption and changing work practises, are making that ideal model unsustainable.

The book explores many alternatives to the nuclear family throughout the ages, all of them aiming at some kind of a Utopian arrangement. She described some of these in her interview and emphasised the research finding that while two parents in a stable family environment might be a good formula for child rearing, a set up with more than two adults could often be better. 

It was an interesting and entertaining session that left us with plenty to thing about.

Review by Tony Brewer