Forms of the Family

Forms of family have to be distinguished. The family is the smallest unit of co-operation within a kinship system.

For the Bedouin all men claim descent from a common male ancestor. A large related group comprises a single unit. The individual recognises stronger loyalties, and the smaller unit is part of the extended family of the man. The Bororo of West Africa where a boy is a maternal uncle emotions and expectations of the biological father may be less demanding. Another example of the extended family are the Bakhtiari of Iran.

The ‘nuclear’ family of most western societies is a misleading image in the context of the total range of world societies. The term obscures the wider network of kinship relations which encompass grandparents, uncles, aunts, nephews, nieces, brothers, sisters, cousins.

The apparent isolation of the nuclear family is more apparent than real. The ‘nuclear family’ is no more natural than the mother/child within it. The ‘nuclear’ family is just one of a number of different family forms. Each family form arises out of specific social, economic, and historical contexts. For example – in rural Turkey the ideal family (of the man) is surrounded by married sons and their children living in a compound.

The Turkish joint family is prone to break-up into several smaller units on the death of the old patriarch. This implies patriarchality and patrilocality. Similar examples of joint families were common in China, Yugoslavia, and Italy.

In the Arab world, Africa and other Moslem areas the ideal is to have more than one wife. Economic success means a second wife and a second dwelling unit. In some African societies a second wife may be the sister of the first. The first wife may gain in social status through cooperation.

Thus – monogamy and its consequences is one among several types of family structure, or a category of the extended family. In many societies kinship is the basis of most social relationships. Some systems incorporate strangers. With the Borun in Nigeria – social prestige is determined by the number of dependents a man has. Therefore unrelated young men may call the head ‘father’.

In general – the greater the need for cooperation and the greater the benefits from it then – the larger the family unit is likely to be. In the Caribbean women may have children by several men. The economic situation often prevents marriage for a long time, or prevents men continuing to cohabit with the woman. [See: My Mother Who Fathered Me]. This pattern of women plus children provides a stable family feature.

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