What is the family? Is it universal?



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Gittins, Diana. (1985). “What is the family? Is it universal?” In Gittins, The family question, second edition. New York: Macmillan.
Until recently, most sociological studies of the family have been dominated by functionalist definitions of what the family is and what “needs” it fulfills in society.
Generally, functionalists have argued that the family is a universal institution which performs certain specific functions essential to society’s survival. George Murdock (1949) defined the family as a “social group characterized by common residence, economic co-operation, 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 four basic functions of the family, therefore, are seen as (1) common residence, (2) economic co-operation, (3) reproduction, and (4) sexuality.
HOUSEHOLD is the term normally used to refer to co-residence. Murdock’s assumption is that it is also a defining characteristic of “the family,” and vice versa. It is generally assumed that a married couple, or parent and child(ren), will form a household, and that family implies and presupposes “household.” This is not always so.
There are numerous examples in contemporary society of families who do not form households, or only form households for periods of time. Families where the husband is in the armed services, is a traveling salesman or travels frequently abroad may only have the husband/father resident for short periods of time. Families where partners have jobs some distance away from one another may maintain a second household where one of them lives during the week. Children who are sent to boarding school may spend little more than a third of the year residing with their parent(s). People can consider themselves “family” without actually co-residing, and can also co-reside without considering themselves to be “family.”
Households might be characterized by a shared set of activities such as sleeping, food preparation, eating, sexual relations, and caring for those who cannot care for themselves. “Sharing the same pot” has traditionally been the boundary drawn by census enumerators for demarcating one household from another. These activities do not necessarily occur within one household. Some members of a household may eat there all the time, while others only part of the time. Some members may not always sleep in the household for a majority of the time. Conversely, prisoners eat and sleep under the same roof, but do not consider themselves to be a family. There is no hard and fast rule that can be applied to a household in terms of domestic activities. Household is thus in some ways just as nebulous a term as family, although it lacks the ideological implications that “family” carries.
ECONOMIC CO-OPERATION as a defining characteristic of all families, is a very broad term and can encompass a wide range of activities from cooking to spinning to resources in terms of people and skills. Economic co-operation is something which occurs throughout all levels of society and is not specific to the family. Economic co-operation frequently occurs between households as well as between individuals within households. Households entail an economic relationship through the distribution, production and allocation of resources. Resources include food, drink, material goods, but also service, care, skills, time and space. The notion of “co-operation,” moreover, implies an equal distribution of resources, yet this is seldom so. Allocating food, space, time and tasks necessitates some kind of a division of labor; different tasks need doing every day and may vary by week and by season. The number of people living together will be finite but also changeable—not just in terms of numbers, but also in terms of age, sex, marital status, physical capacity.
All resources are finite and some may be extremely scarce; some form of allocation therefore has to occur, and this presupposes power relationships. Food, work, and space are rarely distributed equally between co-residing individuals, households, and social sectors. Most frequently, the allocation of resources and division of labor is based on differences according to sex and age. Consequently, it is more useful to understand families in terms of the ways in which gender and age define, and are defined by, the division of labor within, and beyond, households. These divisions also presuppose power relationships and inequality — in effect, patriarchy — rather than co-operation and equality.
Power relationships define and inform concepts of SEXUALITY. Murdock’s definition of sexuality is heterosexuality, although this is only one of various forms of sexuality. Presumably this is because the final — and perhaps most important — “function” of families as seen by such theorists is reproduction, which necessitates heterosexual relations, at least at times. Sexuality is not something specific to families. The assumption here is that heterosexuality should be a defining characteristic of families. It also presupposes a “socially approved relationship” between two adults.

Social recognition of mating and of parenthood is obviously intimately bound up with social definitions and customs of marriage. It is often assumed that, in spite of a variety of marriage customs and laws, marriage as a binding relationship between a man and a woman is universal. Yet it has been estimated that only 10 per cent of all marriages in the world are actually monogamous; polyandry and polygyny are common in many societies, just as serial monogamy is becoming increasingly common in our own. Marriage is not always a heterosexual relationship; among the Nuer, older women marry younger women. The Nuer also practice a custom known as “ghost marriages,” whereby when an unmarried or childless man dies, a relation of his then marries a woman “to his name” and the resulting children of this union are regarded as the dead man’s children and bear his name.


Marriage customs are not only variable between cultures and over time, but also vary between social classes. Jessie Bernard has shown that the meanings which men and women attribute to the same marriage differ quite markedly. Marriage involves some form of status passage and public avowal of recognizing other(s) as of particular importance in one way or another, yet it does not occur universally between two people, nor between two people of the opposite sex, nor is it always viewed as linked to reproduction. Marriage, in the way in which we think of it, is therefore not universal.
Definitions of sexuality with regard to incest have not been universal or unchanging either. In medieval Europe it was considered incestuous to have sexual relations with anyone less than a seventh cousin, and marriage between cousins was prohibited. Now it is possible to marry first cousins. In Egypt during the Pharaonic and Ptolemaic period, sibling marriages were permitted, and, in some cases, father—daughter marriages. This was seen as a way of preserving the purity of royalty and was not endorsed for the whole of society—although it was permitted for everyone after the Roman conquest of Egypt. Incestuous marriages were also permitted among royal families in Hawaii and Peru. These examples are more related to marriage customs and inheritance or descent problems, but serve to illustrate that even an incest taboo cannot be taken as a universal defining characteristic of families. Nevertheless, the almost universal existence of some form of incest taboo is a useful illustration of the fact that all societies do, in a myriad of ways, have some form of social organization of sexuality, mating and reproduction.
Murdock’s definition does not take adequate account of the diversity of ways in which co-residence, economic relations, sexuality and reproduction can be organized. Various theorists tend to make similar errors by translating contemporary western (and usually middle-class) ideas and ideals of what a family should be into what they assume it is everywhere.
KINSHIP RATHER THAN FAMILY. Far more precise attempts at definition and analysis have been made by anthropologists who prefer the term kinship to that of family. A feminist anthropologist (F. Edholm) defined kinship as “the ties which exist between individuals who are seen as related both through birth (descent) and through mating (marriage). It is thus primarily concerned with the ways in which mating is socially organized and regulated, the ways in which parentage is assigned, attributed and recognized, descent is traced, relatives are classified, rights are transferred across generations and groups are formed.” This definition of kinship is a vast improvement on functionalist definitions of family because, first, it stresses the fact that kinship is a social construction, and, second, it emphasizes the variability of kinship depending on how it is defined. The social nature of kinship has been stressed by many others and yet there remains a strong common-sense belief that kinship is in fact a quite straightforward biological relationship when, in fact, it is not.
We assume that because we (think we) know who our parents are and how they made us that kinship is therefore a biological fact. We often hear stories about children who were brought up by their supposed parent(s) but then discovered that they had in fact been adopted. Such people often suffer severe “identity crises” because they no longer know “who they are” or who their parents are. Their suffering is caused by the way in which we define kinship in our society, namely, in strictly biological terms, differentiating clearly between a “biological” and a “social” parent. The biological parent is always seen by our society as the “real” parent with whom a child should have the strongest ties and bonds. Knowledge of parenthood through families is the central way in which individuals are “located” socially and economically in western society. This is a culturally and historically specific way of defining parenthood and kinship. Other cultures and groups in modern society believe that the person who rears a child is by definition the real parent, regardless of who was involved in the actual reproduction process.
In many poor families in Western Europe and America well into this century it was not uncommon for children to be raised by a grandparent, other kin, or friend, and such children often thought of those who raised them as their parents, even though acknowledging that they also had biological parents who were different. R. T. Smith (1978, 353) found such practices common in Guyana and Jamaica, and reports how “close and imperishable bonds are formed through the act of ‘raising’ children, irrespective of genetic ties.…What is erroneously termed ‘fictive kinship’ is a widespread phenomenon.…While a father may be defined minimally as the person whose genetic material mingled with that of the mother in the formation of the child during one act of sexual intercourse, the father ‘role’ varies a good deal in any but the most homogeneous societies.”
Fictive kinship refers to those who are not biologically related to one another but who come to define themselves as kin. It is how friends are turned into family. Kinship, whether we choose to label it as “biological,” “social” or “fictive,” is a way of identifying others as in some way special from the rest, people to whom the individual or collectivity feel responsible in certain ways. It is a method of demarcating obligations and responsibility between individuals and groups. It is essential to get away from the idea that kinship is a synonym for “blood” relations — even though it may often be expressed in those terms— and to think of it as a social construction which is highly variable and flexible.…This is not to say that many kinship relations do not have some sort of biological base — many do — but the fact that not all of them do, and that the type of base is highly variable, means that it cannot be assumed that there is some universal biological base to kinship.
Because fatherhood is always potentially unknown, and always potentially contestable, it is therefore also always a social category. Motherhood, on the other hand, is always known. Yet apart from carrying and giving birth to a child, the biological base of motherhood stops there. The rest is socially constructed, although it may be — and often is — attributed to biology or “maternal instinct.” Whether or not women breastfeed their children has been historically and culturally variable. Baby bottles are no modern invention, but were used in ancient Egypt and in other cultures since. Historians have noted the number of babies given to “wet nurses” in earlier times in Europe as a sign of lack of love and care for infants on the part of mothers. But we can never really know the emotions felt by people hundreds of years ago or their motivations for their practices. The most we can do is to note that their customs were different. To use our own ideology of motherhood and love and apply it universally to all cultures is a highly ethnocentric and narrow way of trying to understand other societies. Notions of motherhood and “good mothering” are highly variable…
Who cares for children and rears them is also variable, although in most cases it is women who do so rather than men. Often those women who rear children may well claim some kinship tie to the biological mother (e.g., grandmother or aunt), but this tie may simply be created as a result of rearing another woman’s child. Motherhood, therefore, if taken to mean both bearing and rearing children, is not universal and is not a biological “fact.” That women can conceive and bear children is a universal phenomenon; that they do so by instinct is a fallacy. So is the notion that they always raise them. From the moment of birth, motherhood is a social construction.
Sociological and historical studies of the family have tended to pay most attention to the vertical relationships between parents and children. Less attention is paid to the lateral relationships between siblings. Yet in other cultures, and in Western Europe in earlier times, the sibling tie has often formed the basis of households and may be seen as more important than that between parent and child.…The content and importance of sibling ties varies, and this is partly a result of different interpretations of reproduction. The salience of sibling ties also depends on the organization of kinship generally. The relative neglect of studying sibling ties as an important aspect of — or even basis of — kinship betrays our own assumptions about the primacy of parenthood in families and, particularly, the assumption that reproduction is the “essence” of kinship, with the mother and child forming the universal core of kinship.

Implicit in definitions of kinship is a way of perceiving the social organization of reproduction and mating, at the center of which therefore is an organization of relations between the sexes. The organization of, and differentiation between, male and female takes many different forms, but all societies do have a social construction of the sexes into gender. Gender is an inherent part of the manner in which all societies are organized and is also a crucial part of the different ways in which kinship has been constructed and defined. The social, economic and political organization of societies has been initially at least based on kinship — and thus also on gender. Understanding society means understanding the ways in which a society organized kinship and gender, and how these influence one another. Gender and kinship are universally present — as are mothers and children — but the content of them, and the meanings ascribed to them, is highly variable.


The most basic divisions of labor within any society, as pointed out by Emile Durkheim (1933) and others, are based on age and sex. While age as a category can eventually be achieved, sex is ascribed, permanent, and immutable. The biological differences between men and women are such that only women can conceive and lactate; only men can impregnate. In spite of these obvious differences, none of them is great enough to be adequate grounds for allocating one kind of work to women and another to men. Indeed, cross-culturally and historically there are very few jobs that can be claimed to be specifically and universally performed by either men or women. Women have ploughed and mined and still do; men have laundered, gathered fruit and minded children. Hunting and warfare have almost always been male activities, while care of the young and sick has usually been a female activity. But allocation of tasks is also strongly based on age, so it is important to remember that it may be young men who hunt and old men or women who care for children; old women may be responsible for cooking, while both young men and women may work in the fields or mines. Age is an important factor to consider in trying to understand the organization of kinship and households.
Thinking in terms of “the” family leads to a static vision of how people actually live and age together and what effects this process has on others within the household in which they live. Moreover, the environment and conditions in which any household is situated are always changing, and these changes can and often do have important repercussions on individuals and households. The notion of there being such a thing as “the family” is thus highly controversial and full of ambiguities and contradictions. Childbearing, childrearing, the construction of gender, allocation of resources, mating and marriage, sexuality and ageing all loosely fit into our idea of family, and yet we have seen how all of them are variable over time, between cultures and between social sectors. The claim that “the family” is universal has been especially problematic because of the failure by most to differentiate between how small groups of people live and work together, and what the ideology of appropriate behavior for men, women and children within families has been.
Imbued in western patriarchal ideology are a number of important and culturally specific beliefs about sexuality, reproduction, parenting and the power relationships between age groups and between the sexes. The sum total of these beliefs makes up a strong symbol-system which is labeled as the family. Now while it can be argued that all societies have beliefs and rules on mating, sexuality, gender and age relations, the content of rules is culturally and historically specific and variable, and in no way universal. Thus to claim that patriarchy is universal is as meaningless as claiming that the family is universal.
How should we try to understand how and why people live, work and form relationships together in our own society? First, we need to acknowledge that while what we may think of as families are not universal, there are still trends and patterns specific to our culture which, by careful analysis, we can understand more fully. Second, we can accept that while there can be no perfect definition, it is still possible to discover certain defining characteristics which can help us to understand changing patterns of behavior and beliefs. Finally, and most important, we can “deconstruct” assumptions usually made about families by questioning what exactly they mean. Before doing this, however, it is useful to attempt some definition of what is meant by “family” in western society.
Problematic though it may be, it is necessary to retain the notion of coresidence, because most people have lived, and do live, with others for much of their lives. Thus “household” is useful as a defining characteristic, while bearing in mind that it does not necessarily imply sexual or intimate relationships, and that, moreover, relationships between households are a crucial aspect of social interaction. “Household” should not be interpreted as a homogeneous and undivided unit. Virtually all households will have their own division of labor, generally based on ideals and beliefs, as well as the structure, of age and sex. There will always tend to be power relationships within households, because they will almost invariably be composed of different age and sex groups and thus different individuals will have differential access to various resources.
Because the essence of any society is interaction, a society will always be composed of a myriad of relationships between people, from the most casual to the most intimate.…Thus while relationships are extremely varied in the ways in which they are formed, their nature and duration, ideologically western society has given highest status to long-term relationships between men and women, and between parents and children. Ideologically, such relationships are supposed to be loving and caring, though in reality many are not. They are presented as “natural,” but as we have seen, they are not. These ideals have become reified and sanctified in the notion of “family,” virtually to the exclusion of all other long-term or intimate relationships.
Ideals of family relationships have become enshrined in our legal, social, religious and economic systems which, in turn, reinforce the ideology and penalize or ostracize those who transgress it. Thus there are very real pressures on people to behave in certain ways, to lead their lives according to acceptable norms and patterns. Patriarchal ideology is embedded in our socioeconomic and political institutions, indeed, in the very language we use, and as such encourages, cajoles and pressurizes people to follow certain paths. Most of these are presented and defined in terms of “the family,” and the family is in turn seen as the bulwark of our culture. The pressures of patriarchal ideology are acted out — and reacted against — in our interpersonal relationships, in marriage and non-marriage, in love and hate, having children and not having children. In short, much of our social behavior occurs in, and is judged on the basis of, the ideology of “the family.”
Relationships are universal, so is some form of co-residence, of intimacy, sexuality and emotional bonds. But the forms these can take are infinitely variable and can be changed and challenged as well as embraced. By analyzing the ways in which culture has prescribed certain, and proscribed other, forms of behavior, it should be possible to begin to see the historical and cultural specificity of what is really meant when reference is made to “the family.”
SAMPLE EXAM ITEMS
1. According to Gittins, one problem with the functionalist definition of the family is that

a. households never participate in economic cooperation.

b. NOT all families share a residence, so the term “household” is problematic.

c. it needs to further define specific family members’ duties.

d. it emphasizes social connections over biological connections.
2. Gittins would say that the division of labor based on sex is socially constructed because

a. NOT all societies have a division of labor.

b. sex differences are NOT great enough to require that one kind of work should be performed by women and another by men.

c. division of labor is generally based on age, NOT on sex.

d. social trends in popular culture determine what constitutes male and female labor.
3. Why, according to Gittins, is Edholm’s definition of kinship preferable to the functionalist definition of the family?

a. it stresses the fact that kinship is a social construction and emphasizes variability of kinship.

b. kinship is a biological fact rather than a social fact.

c. it argues that there is no biological base to kinship.



d. it challenges traditional images of the family by making the mother the universal center of all families.


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