Although efforts toward a cross-cultural definition of family are beset by difficulty and disagreement, in anthropological writings, different congregations of kin and affines (i.e., people related through marriage) have been labeled as specific forms of family, changing as new theories of kinship, marriage, or gender have been developed. It has been shown that great social and cultural diversity and social change in family composition and structure can be found; much social and cultural anthropological research is dedicated to understanding this variation and changes over time. Multiple forms of family are, above all, differentiated regarding characteristics of family structure, composition, and residence pattern.
Forms Regarding Structure and Composition
In his influential work Social Structure (1949), George Peter Murdock defined the family as “a social group characterized by common residence, economic cooperation, and reproduction. It includes adults of both sexes, at least two of whom maintain a socially approved sexual relationship, and one or more children, own or adopted, of the sexually cohabiting adults.” The two-generation family composed of mother, mother’s husband, and their offspring was defined by Murdock as the nuclear family. This form is mostly found in hunting-and-gathering and industrial societies. On one hand, in times of hardship and catastrophes, little help is shown from outside, which means that in the case of the mother’s or the father’s death, the children’s lives become insecure. On the other hand, this form of family is well-adapted to a high-mobility life, be it the society of the Inuits or contemporary industrialized societies. This form of family is also common where there is a sexual division of labor. Murdock took this form of family as a universal human social grouping, but he also recognized that among the majority of world’s societies, “nuclear families are combined, like atoms in a molecule, into larger aggregates.” This composite family form is called the extended family.
The extended family, in the broad sense of the term, is a family, usually coresiding, consisting of more members than children and parents. An extended family may include grandparents, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, and so on. One important form of an extended family consists of two or more nuclear families affiliated through an extension of parent-child relationships, the nuclear family of a married adult joined to that of his and/or her parents (an extended family in the narrow sense of the term). An extended family need not to live in the same household. Kin provides the core relationship here. In times of crisis or hardship, families pooled resources among households, and kin moved between households, extending the nuclear family to more complex forms. This is not restricted to non-Euro-American cultures or to the past. Research in Scotland and northern England in the 1980s, for example, suggested that the extended family was as important as the nuclear family in patterns of residence, household composition, and access to resources during periods of unemployment. Some researchers use the term joint family to refer to an extended family composed of nuclear families linked together by sibling ties. Much debate, moreover, has centered on the supposed breakdown of extended families with industrialization. But much of this debate rests on an oversimplified dichotomization of nuclear and extended forms of the family without defining what is meant by “extended-family ties” and which kinds of extended families are talked about. Murdock based his typology of extended families on the prevailing rule of residence. He distinguished the patrilocal, the matrilocal, the bilocal, and the avunculo cal extended family (see the following variations in residence pattern). Extended families are often transitory and dissolving at the death of the parents, when inheritance makes it possible to divide family property.
Further forms of family regarding structural characteristics are found in cultures with multiple marriage partners, resulting in polygamous families. Polyandrous families, as one form of the polygamous family, consist of one wife/mother, her children, and two or more husbands/fathers. The polyandrous family is a one-woman/several-men family. The family generally starts with a monogamous mating pair. Later, a second adult male may join the family and assist in child rearing, although the men sometimes live in a separate house. The polyandrous family is found, for example, with ethnic Tibetans of Humla District in Tibet and in Nepal and with the Toda in India. The connections between polyandry and reproduction have long interested anthropologists, who have puzzled over the conditions in which a system of men sharing their wives with other men (thus sacrificing some of their own reproductive potential) might have developed. Polygynous families, the second form of the polygamous family, consist of a husband/father, two or more co-wives/mothers, and their children. The polygynous family is a one-man/several-women family. This form of family has puzzled male anthropologists to a lesser extent. Two thirds of the 849 societies examined by Murdock practiced polygyny. Today, polygyny and polygynous families are concentrated in Africa, the Middle East, India, Thailand, and Indonesia.
As traditionally defined, the nuclear family is based on the conjugal bond (i.e., the husband/wife bond), although some anthropologists distinguish between the nuclear and the conjugal family. But many societies place the primary emphasis on consanguine (blood) ties in structuring the family unit. A consanguine family consists of a mother and her children and her blood relatives (mothers, aunts, sisters, brothers). The central unit is not the conjugal bond, but blood. This kind of family is common where mothers do not have the resources to rear their children on their own and is found, for example, with the Nayars in South India. In this culture, the mother-children unit has no significant bonds to the father or mother’s husband. This form of family is also called matrifocal, or mother-centered. The mother-centered family form is usually defined by the absence or relatively limited role of the father. Other frequently cited examples of matrifocal families are Black Caribbean families or families in Guyana.
For those stressing blood ties, the minimal definition of family is already satisfied by the mother-children unit. And some define the universal nuclear family group as that composed of a woman and her dependent children. In Euro-American society, the nuclear family (in the traditional sense) has been seen as the ideal. With this ideal in mind, for anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, a group consisting of a woman and her offspring was sociologically incomplete and illegitimate. And as mentioned above, Murdock also took it as a defining feature of a family that adults of both sexes are included. But this defining feature was not only challenged by single-parent families but by same-sex-parent families as well. Even some quite early ethnographic accounts attested to the fact that the nuclear family in the sense of the heterosexual conjugal family was not as ubiquitous as the dominant theories maintained. There are situations in some societies (the West African Nuer and native North American among them) where women may take wives (“woman-to-woman” marriage), or men husbands. What is interesting in these situations is that the people who are allowed to do this are often special, privileged members of society, such as female chieftains or businesswomen in West Africa, and shamans and priests in North America. Nevertheless, same-sex conjugal families, either gay or lesbian coparenting, are still regarded by most members of Western societies as “alternative” or “deviant” family forms. As far as lesbian coparenting families are concerned, new possibilities emerge. Until recently, only one of the women could be the biological mother. But reproductive technologies made it possible to think of biological motherhood in a dual way: The genetic mother and the birth mother could be different. One woman could contribute the genetic material, and her partner could become the gestational/birth mother. Advocates of the “traditional” heterosexual conjugal family fear the breakdown of the family due to these new possibilities, contemporary Western lifestyle, and women’s increasing social autonomy in Euro-American societies.
Forms Regarding Residence Patterns
The issue of residence pattern is one of the most basic questions in ethnography. Because the location of the family unit has important logistical consequences, residence patterns have a long history of study. Traditionally, anthropologists have analyzed residence in relation to marriage. A virilocal (Latin, vir man, husband) or patrilocal (Latin, pater: father) family is a family whose residence upon marriage is in the locality associated with the male partner’s relatives or, more specifically, with the male partner’s father. For example, in the society of the Maya of Guatemala, a newly married woman goes to live with her husband in the household in which he grew up. An uxorilocal (Latin, uxor: wife) or matrilocal (Latin, mater: mother) family is a family whose residence upon marriage is the locality associated with the female partner’s relatives or, more specifically, with the female partner’s mother. This form is found mostly in horticultural societies and has been linked to the solidarity of the female working group. The Iroquois are an example, as women farm and own the harvest. In ambilocal or bilocal families, the family may choose either matrilocal/ uxorilocal or patrilocal/virilocal residence. The family could live where the resources are best or where the labor is most needed. In avunculocal families, the family lives with the husband’s mother’s brother. This form of family is found only in societies where descent through women is deemed crucial for the transmission of important rights and property, as it is for the Trobriand Islanders, for example. A neolocal residence pattern means that a family establishes a new household in a location apart from either the husband’s or the wife’s relatives. This is the prevailing residence pattern of families in Euro-American societies.
Although these differentiations are very common, several alternative approaches to the analysis of family and residence have been proposed.
Additional forms of family are the family of procreation, also called the family of marriage and the family of orientation: the nuclear family a person establishes, consisting of his or her partner, sons, and daughters. Someone’s family of orientation is the nuclear family into which that person was born and raised, consisting of his or her father, mother, brothers, and sisters.
In Euro-American societies, established ideas about the “natural” family in the public eye are being challenged because of the increasing number of single-parent families, same-sex unions, households based on friendship, and cross-cultural data, which stress different types of family and household structure. Anthropological research has shown the complexity of the family viewed in comparative perspective. The family will continue to be a major focus of anthropological research, although the understanding of family and forms of the family are currently being redefined.
- Gittins, D. (1993). The family in question. Changing households and familiar ideologies (2nd ed.). London: Macmillan.
- Parkin, R., & Stone, L. (Ed.). (2003). Kinship and family: An anthropological reader. Oxford: Blackwell.
- Winthrop, R. H. (1991). Dictionary of concepts in cultural anthropology. New York/Westport/London: Greenwood Press.