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Social Sci LibreTexts

8: Family and Marriage (Gilliland)

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    • Describe the variety of human families cross-culturally with examples.
    • Discuss variation in parental rights and responsibilities.
    • Distinguish between matrilineal, patrilineal, and bilateral kinship systems.
    • Identify the differences between kinship establish by blood and kinship established by marriage.
    • Evaluate the differences between dowry and bridewealth as well as between different types of post-marital residence.
    • Recognize patterns of family and marriage and explain why these patterns represent rational decisions within the cultural contexts.

    Family and marriage may at first seem to be familiar topics. Families exist in all societies and they are part of what makes us human. However, societies around the world demonstrate tremendous variation in cultural understandings of family and marriage. Ideas about how people are related to each other, what kind of marriage would be ideal, when people should have children, who should care for children, and many other family related matters differ cross-culturally. While the function of families is to fulfill basic human needs such as providing for children, defining parental roles, regulating sexuality, and passing property and knowledge between generations, there are many variations or patterns of family life that can meet these needs. This chapter introduces some of the more common patterns of family life found around the world. It is important to remember that within any cultural framework variation does occur. Some variations on the standard pattern fall within what would be culturally considered the “range of acceptable alternatives.” Other family forms are not entirely accepted, but would still be recognized by most members of the community as reasonable.

      Some of the earliest research in cultural anthropology explored differences in ideas about family. The concepts of status and role are useful for thinking about the behaviors that are expected of individuals who occupy various positions in the family. Roles, like statuses, are cultural ideals or expectations and there will be variation in how individuals meet these expectations.
      Kinship is the word used to describe culturally recognized ties between members of a family. Kinship includes the terms, or social statuses, used to define family members and the roles or expected behaviors family associated with these statuses. Kinship encompasses relationships formed through blood connections (consanguineal), such as those created between parents and children, as well as relationships created through marriage ties (affinal), such as in-laws.
    • 8.3: KINSHIP TERMS
      Another way to compare ideas about family across cultures is to categorize them based on kinship terminology: the terms used in a language to describe relatives. George Murdock was one of the first anthropologists to undertake this kind of comparison and he suggested that the kinship systems of the world could be placed in six categories based on the kinds of words a society used to describe relatives.
      In a basic biological sense, women give birth and the minimal family unit in most, though not all societies, is mother and child. Cultures elaborate that basic relationship and build on it to create units that are culturally considered central to social life. Families grow through the birth or adoption of children and through new adult relationships often recognized as marriage.
      Families are adaptive groups that help address common societal concerns related to child-rearing, sexual relationships between adults, and gender roles within the household. While there are norms and ideals, expectations and understandings regarding families in all cultures, there are also always situations that represent variations on that norm. Sometimes these are areas where we begin to see culture change.
    • 8.S: Summary and Questions
      The institutions of the family and marriage are found in all societies and are part of cultural understandings of the way the world should work. In all cultures there are variations that are acceptable as well as situations in which people cannot quite meet the ideal. How people construct families varies greatly from one society to another, but there are patterns across cultures that are linked to economics, religion, and other cultural and environmental factors.