On the Problem of the Family (1955)

by Theodor Adorno


The family is both: natural relation and social relation. It is based on social relations and biological descent, often without consciousness of duration, but it becomes something permanent, objective, independent - an 'institution'. Modern French sociology of the Durkheim school, especially Marcel Mauss and Claude Lévi-Strauss, in contrast to older views, did not derive the prohibition of incest, which is fundamental for the family, from so-called natural or psychological conditions, but determined it as a "total social phenomenon", essentially from the needs of an exchange society according to fixed property structures. If, however, such results are true, then the family in the form with which we are familiar is itself socially mediated and not a mere natural category. It is therefore subject to social dynamics and must not be hypostatized by science. The social dynamics of the family are twofold. On the one hand, the increasing socialization, 'rationalization', and 'integration' of all human relations in late, fully developed exchange society tends to push back as much as possible the—socially considered—irrational-natural, partial element of the family order. On the other hand, however, with such progressive socialization, the more strongly controlled drives rebel more strongly against their institutional control and break through at the point of least resistance. But this is what, under the conditions of contemporary society, the family has become. Today it finds itself equally attacked by the progress of civilization and by sexuality, which the sacral claim of marriage can no longer tame.


The crisis of the family cannot be dismissed as a mere symptom of decay and decadence. The family is presented with the bill not only for the crude oppression so often inflicted by the head of the family on the weaker woman and especially on the children up to the threshold of the modern age, but also for economic injustice, the exploitation of domestic labor in a society that otherwise obeys the laws of the market, and for all those suppressions of desire, which family discipline imposes on its members, without this discipline always being justified in the minds of the family members, and without their having much faith in the prospect of being compensated for such renunciations, for example, by secure and tradable property, as seemed to be the case at the height of the liberal age. The loosening of family authority, especially as one of the sexual taboos, is due to the fact that the family no longer reliably guarantees subsistence, and that it no longer adequately protects the individual against the increasingly overpowering encroaching environment. The equivalence of what the family demands and what it provides is threatened. Every appeal to the positive powers of the family as such therefore has something ideological about it, because the family no longer accomplishes, and can no longer accomplish for economic reasons, what it is praised for.


As a social category, the family has always been the agency of society, especially since the beginning of the bourgeois era. It alone has been able to produce in individuals that work ethic, that identification with authority, which had hardly been needed in feudal times and which was replaced by direct rule over bondsmen. By translating the demands of society into the interior of those entrusted to it and making it their own, the family 'internalized' human beings. The concept of the individual in the sense with which we are familiar can hardly be separated from that of the family. But the crisis of the individual today, the replacement of his autonomy by the adaptation to collectives, does not leave the family untouched. There is a contradiction between the type of human that is spreading today and the form of the family. The American mother cult, called "momism" by Philip Wylie, signifies not so much the breakthrough of primordial family forces as a questionable reaction formation to the experience of decaying family relations, which only just recently erected its puny monument on mother-day. Conventional exaggeration and emotional coldness correspond to each other. Like all forms of mediation between the biological individual, the atomic individual, and the integral society, the family is also deprived of its substance by the latter, similar to the economic sphere of circulation, or the category of education, which is deeply connected to the family. As a category of mediation, which in truth, even if without being aware of it, often only brought about the business of the entire totality, the family, apart from its eminent function, always had something illusory about it. And bourgeois society as a whole remained skeptical against the family as an ideology, especially insofar as it made social demands on the individual that seemed arbitrary and unreasonable from the individual's point of view. This skepticism first found its social expression, however dull, in the youth movement. Today, the negation of the family gains the real upper hand. In fact, there is no longer the conflict between the powerful family and the no less powerful ego, but rather the gap between the two is equally small. Family is experienced less as a power of oppression then a residuum, a superfluous ingredient. It is no more feared than it is loved: not fought against, but forgotten and just tolerated by those who have neither reason nor strength to resist.


The family, according to its concept, cannot divest itself of its natural element, the biological connection of its members. But from the point of view of society, this element appears as heteronomous, as a nuisance, so to speak, because it is not completely absorbed in the exchange relation, although sexuality also resembles the exchange relation, the reason of give and take. On the other hand, the natural element can less than ever be asserted independently of the social-institutional one. That is why, in late bourgeois society, the family is not so different from the corpse that reminds us of the relation to nature in the midst of civilization, and which is either burned hygienically or prepared cosmetically, as shown in Evelyn Waugh's "Loved One". The cult of the family, especially of the "chaste housewife and mother of children," has always lent the halo of voluntary sacrifice and goodness to those who are oppressed and forced to sacrifice in reality. But as every actual ideology is more than just a lie, so is this one. Not only did it bestow honor upon the subjugated, confer upon them a dignity which finally urged their own emancipation as human dignity, but it also concretized the idea of real equality amongst human beings, which leads to the concept of real humanism. The crisis of the family in its present form is therefore at the same time a crisis of humanity. While the possibility of the full realization of human rights, of an emancipation of women by virtue of the emancipation of society instead of a mere imitation of the patriarchal principle, is becoming foreseeable, no less foreseeable is the relapse into barbarism, into that mere state of nature which seems to remain at the end of the family alone, into chaos.


The decline of the family is an expression of a major social tendency, not an ephemeral contemporary phenomenon. The indescribable sensation caused by Ibsen’s Nora 70 years ago can only be explained by the shock caused by the image of a woman leaving her husband and children in order to no longer be a mere object of patriarchal disposal, but to be in control of herself. At that time, the unleashing of economic productive forces, which forms the background of Ibsen's drama of emancipation, already threatened the family to the utmost. That the family nevertheless kept itself alive was due first of all to the perennial irrationality of the principle of rational society itself, which needed the help of irrational institutions like the family to achieve the appearance of its natural justification. But the dynamics of society have not allowed the family, which is as immanent and cohesive to society as it is incompatible with it, to survive unchallenged. In Germany, at least since the first inflation and the accelerated expansion of women's professional work, the family has reached its crisis. It is therefore wrong, as in a widely read American book, to blame the patriarchal German family structure for National Socialism. Not to mention the fundamental inadequacy of such psychological explanations, Hitler was by no means able to build on a firmly established tradition of family authority. In Germany in particular, taboos such as that of virginity, the legalization of cohabitation, and monogamy were probably much more thoroughly shaken after 1918 than in the Catholic-Romanesque countries and the Anglo-Saxon countries steeped in Puritanism and Irish Jansenism, perhaps because the memory of archaic promiscuity survived more stubbornly in Germany than in the thoroughly bourgeois Western world. In terms of a social psychology of the family, the Third Reich signifies an exaggerated substitute for a family authority that no longer exists, rather than one adhering to it. If the theory of Freud’s "Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego" is correct, according to which the father imago can be transferred to secondary groups and their leaders, then the Hitlerian Reich offers the model of such transference, and the violence of authority as well as the need for it were virtually summoned by its absence in the Germany of the Weimar Republic. Hitler and modern dictatorships are indeed, to use the term of the psychoanalyst Paul Federn, the product of a "fatherless society." How far, however, the transference of paternal authority to the collective changes the inner composition of authority; to what extent it still represents the father and not already what Orwell called the Big Brother, is open to question. In any case, it would be nonsensical to equate the crisis of the family with the dissolution of authority as such. Authority is becoming more and more abstract; but also more and more inhuman and inexorable. The gigantic, collectivized ego ideal is the satanic antithesis of a liberated ego.


Insofar as the family still has real functions today, it maintains its resilience. In larger families, for instance, where father, mother and older children earn something, it is cheaper to run a joint household than if each were to merely look after himself; they therefore remain under the same roof, preserving an inner cohesion. But this rationality of the family is limited; in the city it extends almost exclusively to the sphere of consumption. In the countryside, where family labor is cheaper than free wage labor, according to the results of numerous studies, the offspring begin to revolt against their 'underpayment' for work in the family estate and migrate to other occupations. In any case, the family, even the one still relatively intact, is undergoing deep structural changes. One sociologist has aptly formulated that its form has changed from that of the nest to that of the gas station. This can perhaps be seen most drastically in the function of education. This is obviously no longer adequately fulfilled by the family, because it lacks the inner persuasive power that enabled children to truly identify with the images of their parents. If today one hears again and again, even about children from the upper classes, that they 'got nothing' from home, and if one has to observe as a university teacher how little substantial, really experienced education can be assumed, then this is not due to the alleged leveling of the democratic mass society and certainly not to a lack of information, but to the fact that the family has lost the protective, nurturing moment that was only able to develop a child’s talent in silence. The tendency now, however, is for the child to withdraw from such education as an unhealthy introversion and to prefer adapting to the demands of so-called real life, long before these are even brought to him. The specific moment of frustration [Versagung] that mutilates individuals today and prevents them from individuation is no longer the family prohibition, but the coldness that increases as the family becomes more riddled with holes.


In extreme conditions and their prolonged consequences, for example in the case of refugees, the family has proved to be strong in spite of everything, in many cases it has proved to be the powerhouse of survival. Thrown back to the most primitive natural conditions of self-preservation, the family showed itself as an adequate form of its realization. But just as being thrown back contradicts the state of social productivity to the utmost or is rather one of the cruel figures of the price which humanity has to pay for its progress, so it is probably also about a renaissance of the family which owes itself to such regression. It is itself a phenomenon of regression, comparable to the touching, impotent gesture with which the dying man gropes for his mother. To rely on such regression as a regenerative force would be like hoping for a religious renewal from the invocation of God by soldiers in extreme danger. On the contrary: the justification of the largely irrational natural relations of the family by a rationality that demonstrates that it is actually easier to survive this way attacks as rational precisely the irrational substance that it itself glorifies. Such a line of reasoning would have to give way if social forms other than the family were to become more favorable to survival than the family, surrendering its eternity. To doubt the sacramental character of the family, but to advocate it because its sanctity is good for people, is not very convincing. Moreover, studies such as the Darmstadt Community Study lead to the assumption that the generally shaken institution of the family was only strengthened for a short time by the solidarity of the state of emergency. The number of divorces as well as the number of so-called 'incomplete' families is far above the pre-war level. The tendency to limit oneself to a 'nuclear family' - a precondition of childless marriage, which is generally regarded as a symptom of the decline of the family - no longer applies only to the upper classes, but can be observed throughout the population. In the countryside, the archaic multiple-generation family, as opposed to the single one, seems to be noticeably receding. Everywhere the traditional elements of the family relation are gradually being displaced by 'rational' ones. The more the family is transformed into a mere association of convenience, the more it loses those features of the 'primary' group which until recent developments were attributed to it as invariant. Some phenomena of the war and post-war years have undoubtedly had a delaying effect on all this; on the whole, however, it is also true for the family that extreme situations tend to reinforce overall social tendencies; that in them, as it were, what has slowly been formed from within is often enforced from the outside at one stroke.


Speculations about the future of the family are exposed to almost prohibitive difficulties. If, in fact, the family is so interwoven with the process of society as a whole, its fate will depend on this process and not on its own existence as a self-sufficient social form. Moreover, not even the concept of an immanent developmental tendency, which has been applied to the family, may be hypostatized. Just as, for example, economic developments are able to take a different direction than that of their own lawfulness, as soon as the unconscious play of forces of the economy is controlled in a planned way for better or for worse, it is conceivable that, for example, by totalitarian dictatorships breaking in again, the "trend" of the family changes, be it restoratively, be it also by accelerated dissolution in favor of radical etatist control, which no longer tolerates an intermediate authority between itself and the social atoms. A total state would not even have to shy away from combining the two incompatible possibilities. This much seems certain, that the preservation of everything that has proven itself in the family as humane, as a condition of autonomy, freedom and experience, cannot be conserved simply by giving up the outdated features. It is probably an illusion to think that a family of 'equal status' can be realized in the midst of a society in which humanity itself is not mature, in which human rights are not established in a far more fundamental and universal sense. One cannot preserve the protective function of the family and eliminate its disciplinary features as long as it has to protect its members from a world imbued with mediated or direct social pressures, communicated to all its institutions. The family suffers from the same as everything particular that pushes for its liberation: there is no emancipation of the family without the emancipation of the whole. In a free world, however, a family of freedom is conceivable, a social sublimation of the mere natural relation in what Wilhelm Meister called the "firm thought of duration"; a form of close and happy coexistence of individuals that protects against barbarism without doing violence to the nature that is suspended in it. But such a family can be imagined as little as any other social utopia.

Translated by Jacob Blumenfeld, 2022