Categories Anthropology I

I.2.4 Family- universality

The problem of giving the universal definition of the family is very old issue in anthropology. Family and consequently the institution of marriage exists in every society but with varied meaning. For this reason the variation in the family is very wide. There is a diversity of views on the definition on the type of family that constitutes the universal category of family.

Ralph Linton (1936) stated that the consanguinal family is universal, that the nuclear family as such does not exist by itself and that it is only a part of a larger family namely, the consanguinal family. He stressed that the cosanguinal bond is more important than the conjugal bond.

G.P.Murdock (1949) examined a sample of 250 societies and found three distinct forms of the family as he defined it: “some societies had only nuclear families, each consisting of married couple and their offspring; in others, there were also polygamous families containing two or more nuclear units affiliated by plural marriage; and still others contained extended families in which two or more nuclear families are affiliated through an extension of sibling relationship”.

Murdock concluded that the nuclear family exists as “a social group characterized by common residential, economic co-operation and reproduction. It includes adults of both sexes at least two or whom maintain a socially approved- sexual relationship and one or more children, own or adopted of the sexually ephabitming adults’’. a distinct and strongly functional group in every society, and that it is universal because everywhere it performs four functions essential to human life: a sexual function, a reproductive function, an economic function and an educational or enculturating function.

W. N. Stephens identified following shortcomings of Murdock’s propositions about the universality of the family.

  1. First shortcomings with Murdock’s definition – its requirement that there be common residence for members of the nuclear family. This forces us to exclude several cases like Ashanti, in which husband and wife live separately.

The Ashantis of Ghana had a system of duo-local residence., where husband and wife will be staying separately. Children eat with their father but stay with their mother. The wife visits her husband occasionally in the night. In the Ashanti system succession is matrilineal. The children inherit property from their mother’s brother who plays a very important role. He is like a sociological father. A woman values her relationship with her brother more than the relationship with her husband, amongst the Ashantis. Therefore, marital lies are of no great consequence either for the wife or for the children.
The Nair family of Kerala (Kathlean Gough) can also be quoted as an alternative form of family where the husband -wife relationship either does not exist or is only symbolic. Women alter they undergo a ritual marriage (thaliketu kalyanam) before puberty but after attaining puberty, they were allowed to have sexual liaison or affairs with men from within the Nair caste in the village through whom they could even have children and these children were given legitimate status. The Nair household consisted of the mother, her married and unmarried daughters and sons. The mother’s brother played a very important role in the affairs ofthe Nair family-(Tarawad).

The example of the Ashanti and Nair family systems go to prove that the nuclear family is not universal nor for that matter, common residence is a necessary condition for the definition of family. However, one must keep in mind that the Nair matriarchal system has more or less completely changed and today the Nair family fits into the conventional Indian patrilineal family. Due to social reform movements among the Nair’s the practice of Thalikattu marriages and polyandrous relations have ended. Even Ghana is going through a process of change where Ashantis are shifting to common residence under the impact of urbanization and industrialization. In instances like Nyakyusa, children live apart from their parents.

2. The second shortcoming – its requirements that there be sexual function for the formation of nuclear family. There are societies like Onatoa and Trukes, in which pre-marital sexual license is allowed. In some cases, like Eskimos, sexual relations are employed to reinforce conjugal relations.

3. The third shortcoming – it’s requirement that there be economic co-operation with members of a nuclear family. The economic function is carried out by the large family, and then other responsibilities vest with the nuclear family only.

4. The fourth shortcoming – it’s requirement that there be reproductive socializing function of the nuclear family. Marian J. Levy and L.A, Fallen; proved that there are many agencies, which perform this function. There are no married couples that constitute a legal productive, distributive, residential, socializing or consuming unit. In short, there are functions that Murdock suggests as essential to the nuclear family.

Murdock admitted that there are exceptions to the propositions he has made. There may be societies that defy the existence of nuclear family. Me mentioned about the Nayars. Gough spoke at length about the Nayars and said that Nayars have the marriage and the extended family. In no sense of Murdock’s proposition regarding the structure of the nuclear family, could the Nayars be said to have a typical nuclear family. The matrilinical l tribes of India like the Khasi and Garo also do not have nuclear families in the sense that Murdock has used it.

The presence of matri-focal families in Caribbean societies also disputes the universality hypothesis. Almost 37% of the families in British Guyana, 30% of the families in Guatemala and 40% of the families in Paraguay are main local families (Smith & Hutchinson).

Reasons for matrifocal families

  1. Poverty and economic inability of the husband to give ritual feast for legitimising marriage. ( W.J. Goode)
  2. Prevalence of polygyny in Negroes due to their origin in West Africa. Husband cannot live with all his wives at a time. (Herskovits)
  3. Institution of slavery, where slaves work away from home and masters have sexual access to their wives. (M.G. Smith)

Experiments made with alternative to family in Russia and Israel also support the view that family is universal.

  1. The Kol-Khoz experiment carried out in Soviet Union after the Russian Revolution did not generate any great enthusiasm and, in fact, was a failure .The Bolsheviks, were not in favour of continuing with the conventional pre-revolutionary family system, which they thought was the greatest supporter of conservatism and inequality. In the Kol-Khoz, men and women were allowed to have children but were not allowed to pass on anything tp them. The children were separated at an early age and were brought up by the Kol-Khoz. But this experiment of collectivization did not succeed much and the authorities had to
    give up the experiment.
  2. In Israel, Kibbutzim as an alternative to the family has had a very limited degree of success. Only just about 4% of the population in Israel lives in Kibbutzim. In fact, hardly any middle class families live in Kibbutz.
    (a) Monogamous marriage and shared residence for husband and wife.
    (b) Dormitories for the children.
    (c) Children ere allowed to visit their parents only for an hour or two every day.
    (d) Parents have little to do with the education of their children.
    (e) No economic cooperation or sharing of house-hold duties between husband and wife. They work for the Kibbutzim.
    (f) Common cooking and dining.
    (g) The economic needs of the members are taken care by the Kibbutzim.
  3. Some of the communes in the United States also are to be treated as alternative experiments to the family. The Amish, Hutterites and Druckers, Shakers etc. live in communes. But, again, these communes are confined only to a very small and negligible percentage of the population.

Melford Spiro (1959) said that in Kibbutz children are not brought up by parents. So was the case in Chinese communes, Soviet communes and Shaker society. These eases also defy the universal hypothesis. Adams emphasized that conjugal dyad and maternal dyad are of crucial importance in considering the nuclear family. Others say that the problem of definition the family and nuclear family as universal body has by no means been resolved to the satisfaction of all.

Radcliffc Brown stated that rather than arguing about the universal form of family, we should study units of all kinship systems- whether small or large. The mother-child unit forms an independent sub-group even in those societies which have large families or extended families or what others would call domestic groups.

The debate on the universality of the family depends on the definition of the term family. If the term family includes the husband-wife- children unit i.e. . the nuclear family, then there are a number of cross-cultural evidences to show that this form of family is not universal.

Kathleen Gough-  what is universal is mother-child unit and the only universal function of this universal unit is primary socialization. Gough contends that to call family universal we should revisit various definitions of family to include larger and smaller kin groups such as matrifocal families, paternal dyads etc.

Nuclear family is not universal due to many exceptions to it but family is universal although different forms of it may exist for which we should revisit definition of marriage. Hence we can conclude that the family is a universal social group till it is not confined its definition to the conventional wife-husband-children unit.

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