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9.1: Family

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    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.

    Definition: family

    The smallest group of individuals who see themselves as connected to one another.


    Some of the earliest research in cultural anthropology explored differences in ideas about family. Lewis Henry Morgan, a lawyer who also conducted early anthropological studies of Native American cultures, documented the words used to describe family members in the Iroquois language.[1] In the book Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family (1871), he explained that words used to describe family members, such as “mother” or “cousin,” were important because they indicated the rights and responsibilities associated with particular family members both within households and the larger community. This can be seen in the labels we have for family members—titles like father or aunt—that describe how a person fits into a family as well as the obligations he or she has to others.

    Definition: household

    Family members who reside together.

    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. The terms were first used by anthropologist Ralph Linton and they have since been widely incorporated into social science terminology.[2] For anthropologists, a status is any culturally-designated position a person occupies in a particular setting. Within the setting of a family, many statuses can exist such as “father,” “mother,” “maternal grandparent,” and “younger brother.” Of course, cultures may define the statuses involved in a family differently. Role is the set of behaviors expected of an individual who occupies a particular status. A person who has the status of “mother,” for instance, would generally have the role of caring for her children.

    Definition: status

    Any culturally-designated position a person occupies in a particular setting.

    Definition: role

    The set of behaviors expected of an individual who occupies a particular status.

    Roles, like statuses, are cultural ideals or expectations and there will be variation in how individuals meet these expectations. Statuses and roles also change within cultures over time. In the not-so-distant past in the United States, the roles associated with the status of “mother” in a typical Euro-American middle-income family included caring for children and keeping a house; they probably did not include working for wages outside the home. It was rare for fathers to engage in regular, day-to-day housekeeping or childcare roles, though they sometimes “helped out,” to use the jargon of the time. Today, it is much more common for a father to be an equal partner in caring for children or a house or to sometimes take a primary role in child and house care as a “stay at home father” or as a “single father.” The concepts of status and role help us think about cultural ideals and what the majority within a cultural group tends to do. They also help us describe and document culture change. With respect to family and marriage, these concepts help us compare family systems across cultures.


    1. Lewis Henry Morgan, Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family (Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1871).
    2. Ralph Linton, The Study of Man (New York: D. Appleton-Century Company,1936).

    Adapted From

    "Family and Marriage" by Mary Kay Gilliland, Central Arizona College. In Perspectives: An Open Invitation to Cultural Anthropology, 2nd Edition, Society for Anthropology in Community Colleges, 2020, under CC BY-NC 4.0.

    9.1: Family is shared under a CC BY-NC license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.