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Conceptual Baggage, Example III: The Heterosexual Nuclear Family

In the Caribbean interviews, many of the respondents' childhood and parental experiences, kinship relationships, and patterns of family formation, marriage and divorce are distinctly different from assumptions embedded in the conceptual framework of the heterosexual nuclear family.

Nuclear Family Pre-Conceptions

Interviewer: Are you married?

Carl: No.

Interviewer: Do you have any children?

Carl: Yes, I do. I have four; the youngest is 6, and then 10, 13, and 14. They all live in Montreal. Two (the youngest) live with their mother, and me and the other two have different mothers and live apart.

Interviewer: Are you divorced?

Carl: No, I was never married.

Interviewer:… Who is in your household?

Carl: The two children and their mother. A common-law marriage. Three and a half year ago. We have known each other a long time. The older one is 12 and the younger is 3.

The respondent's comments on having four children, two from previous relationships, and a common-law marriage, suggests that his familial experience in general, and his relationships with his children, his current and previous partners in particular would be very different from those of the conventional nuclear family. To capture his lived experiences, questions appropriate to his relationship with his older children and their mothers are needed. There is inconsistency in his reporting of the ages of his younger children. It is best to clarify it whenever possible.

Interviewer:… Do you want to have more children?

Carl: No.

Interviewer: What are the main things you want for your children.

Carl: A good education. During that process I want them to understand that they are fully... Believe in themselves.

Interviewer: If you could think of the job of your dreams for your kids in the future, what would it be?

Carl: I haven't thought of a career for any of them. Whatever they decide to do, I just want them to do the best that they can. They have to choose. Not everyone is cut out to go through university. Some have other things they should be doing. They should…

Interviewer: How much freedom should a child have?

Carl: Kids here grow up too fast. Talk to someone 9 or 10 years old, there is nothing they don't know. When I was a kid I didn't know anything, and we learned from experience from other kids. It was more fun. Through school we learned just so much, and certain things you don't need to know at that age. Kids get involved in drugs and sex at an early age, and so I guess by then they need to know stuff. But we made our own toys, and we played a lot, Here kids have a lot of toys and they don't know how to make them. You can't take kids to the store because they have to walk by all the stuff.

They have more freedom than I had at their age. At 14 or 15 years old, I had no parties to go to, and I had to go to church. I had certain responsibilities, and I could do sports after my work was done. Once in a while I may be able to go out and come back at 10 pm. If I was seen in the street at night, talking to a girl or kissing a girl, it was terrible.

Interviewer: Do you and your partner agree about raising the kids?

Carl: No, we often disagree. We need both quality time and quantity time with kids. How you talk to a child, I know a lot about the effects on children of how you talk with the child. Sometimes the things she says to the kids, like 'shut up', are things I wouldn't say to the child.

Interviewer: Are disciplining practices the same?

Carl: Pretty much the same. I do a lot of talking, and she doesn't involve me in discipline. My daughter, who is 12, is 5'11 and she overpowers her mother. So if she doesn't listen to her mother, she says 'wait until your father comes home.'

Interviewer: Do your children have any cultural education?

Carl: We have a camp, a cultural day camp, and my daughter learns her background from that. We started it 10 years back. It is catching on and has grown a lot. Lots of schools now have programmes for Black History month. Home and these camps are the main ways that the kids get cultural education.

Interviewer: Do you hope that your children marry a certain kind of person?

Carl: To me what's important is that they meet a lot of kinds of people and when the time comes to make their decision, they can make it on their own. They will automatically choose someone good if they had a good upbringing.

Interviewer: Would you expect your kids to be sexually experienced when they are at the age of marriage?

Carl: I don't know, its up to them to decide. They get sex education at camp, and at school, but they can come to me to talk about things if they want to.

The interviewer follows a structured interview guide which fails to recognize that the respondent has two children living separately with their mothers. These questions not only render their existence invisible, they also foreclose the possibility for the respondent to talk about his relationships with his children as an absentee father. The questions also lead to answers mostly assuming the quality of a public voice. This example illustrates how certain individuals and groups can be marginalized and their experiences made invisible in the process of research.

Interviewer:… What are your feelings about marriage?

Carl: I always wanted to get married, but the one I wanted to marry didn't want to marry me. It was one of those…

Interviewer: Would you ever consider living with your parents? Imagine that times got tough would you live with your parents?

Carl: Well, when I go to the Caribbean now I stay with my parents. But if I went there to live I would get my own place.

Apparently, "getting married" or "being married" means a great deal to this respondent. Questions such as "what does 'getting married' mean to you?" and "What have you missed the most for never having been married?" would encourage him to give meanings to abstract terms such as "marriage," "divorce," and "relationship." Such follow-up questions would have been appropriate because the respondent did not seem to have finished his train of thought, and seemed to be searching for words. Theoretically, they would de-centre the dominant paradigm of a monogamous, heterosexual marriage and family form. Until the nuclear family concepts are displaced, social realities and relationships that differ from the dominant paradigm are suppressed. There is no avenue for them to enter the conversation. Thus, subsequent questions seem abrupt and disconnected.

Interviewer: … What are your main thoughts on the family?

Carl: There are a lot of strains on the family. Especially the family in the islands has a lot of strains and, for example, I lived with my grandparents when I was a kid and my parents lived somewhere else. I grew up with my grandparents and they had more time. My grandparents had a store and I helped them there.

The respondent's childhood experience indicates that the researcher should seriously re-consider the appropriateness of the nuclear-family paradigm. Interview questions sensitive to diverse family experiences not only would substantially expand the notion of family, they would also make it possible for individual respondents to fully articulate their experiences.

Interviewer:… How is abortion looked at in the community?

Carl: It is more acceptable than being a homosexual, that's for sure. In some communities we look at the adoption differently. You have to go through all those formalities and we just go through life with the idea that your cousin will raise one of the children, or grandparents, or something. Everyone knows who the natural parents are but others give a lot of support without going through a formal process of adoption.

The respondent missed the question on "abortion," and ended up talking about "adoption." (Abortion and adoption are not completely unrelated). Again, the adoption practices call for an alternative, non-nuclear family conceptual framework that does not make assumptions concerning extended family, the biological parent-child relationship, and adult children's obligations to their biological parents.

Caribbean Interviewer #7

To confirm the need to take up an alternative conceptual framework to the conventional nuclear family, we review all the Caribbean interviews. Interviews #1, 2, 10, 11, and 12 present similar disparities between interviewing questions and answers. These respondents also have had lived experiences that diverge from the conventional nuclear family model. At this point the interviewer should proceed to consult existing literature on the Caribbean family and intimate relationships.

Exercise: "Who is in Your Family Anyway?"

Select an interview among numbers 1, 2, 10, 11, or 12 as an example to:

  1. discuss how assumptions implied in the conceptual framework of a nuclear family come to affect the interview;
  2. formulate alternative interviewing questions.


Lay down possible advantage and barriers your specific identification may bear upon your investigation of the issue of the conventional heterosexual nuclear family. In two or three paragraphs, discuss how you are able to understand your personal experiences in a new light after reading Example III.

IdentificationPersonal LocationPossible AdvantagePossible Barriers
Research interest
Personal agenda
Biography and/or beliefs
Socio-economic position

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