A new look at family-ties.


In 1967, social psychologist, Stanley Milgram conducted his small world experiment while he was teaching at Harvard. 

This is the experiment that we have come to know as six degrees of separation (or even Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon as in the game) and it basically tracked chains of acquaintances in the United States. In the experiment, Milgram sent several packages to 160 random people living in Omaha, Nebraska, asking them to forward the package to a friend or acquaintance whom they thought would bring the package closer to a final individual, a stockbroker from Boston, Massachusetts.

The result was, that on average, most strangers are separated from each other by (at most) five to six other people.  Milgram’s experiment is much criticized and often repeated and while the exact outcome is disputed there does seem to be mounting evidence that we are more closely linked to everyone else on the planet than we imagine.  Given that Milgram’s experiment was conducted before the world wide web pulled us all even closer together, this is an amazing thought.

The implications of all of us being so closely connected to each other are very profound. Many of us have nameable relatives that are separated from us by six steps and in a broad sense we consider these people to be part of our family.  But the fact is that biologically the entire human race is beyond doubt one family.  This can no longer be disputed – a banker on Wall Street and a pygmy in the Amazon are family.  The sequencing of the human genome has proven beyond a shred of scientific doubt that we are not only all originally from the same family but, in fact, that we are all originally African.[1]

In spite of differences of race and colour and culture and attitude we are just one big dysfunctional family.  It is obvious that we are not a united family, there is no doubt about that but that is because unity is an outcome of action and it doesn’t just happen by itself.  When we make a conscious decision to work together, to cooperate and strive to find ways to make the world a better more functional place we will have a chance of achieving unity, but not until then.

Oneness is different.  Oneness is a fact. A natural fact. Like gravity.  Or electro-magnetism.  Or death.  The oneness of humanity is not a utopian ideal it is a fact and as long as we fail to recognise it as such we will continue to find it difficult to get on with each other at all levels – from the family to the workplace to the governing of our countries and the interaction between our governments.

Within a functional family we would expect to find love, mutual assistance, support, forbearance and concern with each other’s welfare.  This is not considered ridiculously idealistic as a goal for a family and many therapists and supports exist to help us all achieve these important ideals within our families.

Now that we know that ‘our family’ includes all sorts of people – children who are being sold for sex and slavery, men, women and children struggling and needlessly starving to death, minorities who are persecuted for their ethnicity or beliefs – maybe we won’t only feel concern for them but also responsibility and a certain entitlement to have a say in their welfare just as we might with members of our known family?

There are many factors that we need to incorporate if we are to become a functional human family and developing an understanding of reciprocity is one.  It’s not the only one and it’s not an obvious one but it’s a bit like oxygen – it may not be obvious and life is sustained by many, many other things but oxygen is a deal-breaker – life on earth can (largely) not exist without it.  Reciprocity is a bit like that – it’s the energy that makes the system run, the medium that allows it to grow, the atmosphere necessary for progress.  In a sense, reciprocity is like the principle of functional oneness.


[1] Race, Ethnicity and Genetics Working Group, National Human Genome Research Institute, Bethseda, California, USA. The Use of Racial, Ethnic, and Ancestral Categories in  Modern Genetic Research. http://www.genome.gov/Pages/News/Documents/RaceEthnicityandGenetics.pdf