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9.5: Families and Households

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    When anthropologists talk of family structures, we distinguish among several standard family types any of which can be the typical or preferred family unit in a culture. First is the nuclear family: parents who are in a culturally-recognized relationship, such as marriage, along with their minor or dependent children. This family type is also known as a conjugal family. A non-conjugal nuclear family might be a single parent with dependent children, because of the death of one spouse or divorce or because a marriage never occurred. Next is the extended family: a family of at least three-generations sharing a household. A stem family is a version of an extended family that includes an older couple and one of their adult children with a spouse (or spouses) and children. In situations where one child in a family is designated to inherit, it is more likely that only the inheriting child will remain with the parents when he or she becomes an adult and marries. While this is often an oldest male, it is sometimes a different child. In Burma or Myanmar for example, the youngest daughter was considered the ideal caretaker of elderly parents, and was generally designated to inherit.[8] The other children will “marry out” or find other means to support themselves.

    Definition: nuclear family

    A parent or parents who are in a culturally-recognized relationship, such as marriage, along with minor or dependent children.

    Definition: extended family

    A family of at least three-generations sharing a household.

    A joint family is a very large extended family that includes multiple generations. Adult children of one gender, often the males, remain in the household with their spouses and children and they have collective rights to family property. Unmarried adult children of both genders may also remain in the family group. For example, a household could include a set of grandparents, all of their adult sons with their wives and children, and unmarried adult daughters. A joint family in rare cases could have dozens of people, such as the traditional zadruga of Croatia, discussed in greater detail below.

    Definition: joint family

    A very large extended family that includes multiple generations.


    Cultural rules generally define not only who makes up a family but also how many people should be in it. In some cultures, larger families are considered ideal. In others, smaller families are preferred. These ideas are often linked to both practical and ideological considerations. Practical considerations might include the availability of housing, work patterns, childcare, the economic contribution children make to a family, or the cost of raising children. Ideological considerations include religious values related to families. In the 1990s, I carried out field research in Croatia, investigating ideas about families. An overwhelming majority of the people I interviewed believed that the ideal family would include three children. Most of these families commented that in their own living memories people preferred as many children as possible so that there would be assistance for farm work. When I was there, however, large families were no longer regarded as practical. Within the same general region, families in urban settings overwhelmingly said that one child was ideal. A shortage of housing was the single most important factor for limiting family size to one child in cities. In both the rural and urban settings in Croatia, most people were Roman Catholic and may have been ideologically predisposed to larger families, but practical considerations were more important to both groups when it came to matters of family size.

    During the same period in the 1990s, it was common for families in the United States to say that the ideal family included two children and preferably one of each gender (anecdotal). This of course varies based on factors which include, but are not limited to the ethnicity and religion of the family. In another example, the People’s Republic of China, where I lived and worked, had an official one-child policy.[10] A family that included only one child was not a widespread cultural ideal. Most families wished for more children, but had to settle for less.


    Every culture has ideas about where a newly married couple should live. In the United States and in Western Europe, it is usually expected that a new couple create a new domestic unit or household. Ideally, they should live together in a place separate from either of their families of orientation: the families in which they were raised. They are expected to create a new family of procreation: a new household for raising children. The goal of most couples is to eventually live separately from their original families so that they can focus on their new relationship and be independent. This kind of residence after marriage is called neolocal residence (new location). Increasingly, many couples establish a residence together before marriage or may skip the formal marriage altogether.

    Definition: family of orientation

    The family in which an individual is raised.

    Definition: family of procreation

    A new household formed for the purpose of conceiving and raising children.

    Definition: neolocal residence

    Newly married individuals establish a household separate from other family members.

    Another common pattern around the world is patrilocal residence (father’s location). This means that a couple generally resides with the husband’s father’s family after marriage. This is a multi-generational practice. The new husband’s own mother likely moved into the household when she married his father. Patrilocal residence is common around the world. It creates larger households that can be useful in farming economies. Today, with increasing urbanization and with the very different kinds of jobs associated with industrial capitalism, patrilocal residence has become less common.

    Definition: patrilocal residence

    Married individuals live with or near the husband’s father’s family.

    A less common pattern worldwide is matrilocal residence. In matrilocal residence societies, men leave their matrilineal families at marriage and move in with their wives’ mothers’ families. Quite a few Native American groups practiced matrilocal residence, including the Hopi and the Navajo (or Diné) in the Southwest, and the Haudenosaunee (or Iroquois) tribes in the Great Lakes region. A very interesting residence pattern found within matrilineal societies is avunculocal residence (uncle’s location). It means that a couple will live with the wife’s mother’s brother. In matrilineal societies, in which important property, knowledge, or social position are linked with men, the preference is to keep wealth within the matrilineal household. Property and other cultural items are passed not from biological fathers to sons, but from maternal uncles to nephews. In doing so, property is kept within the matriline.

    Definition: matrilocal residence

    Married individuals live with or near the wife’s mother’s family.

    Definition: avunculocal residence

    Married individuals live with or near an uncle.

    An excellent example of avunculocal residence is found in the Trobriand Islands in Papua New Guinea. In families where there was position of authority or significant wealth it was common for a young man to go live with or near his mother’s brother at the time of his marriage. Trobriand Islanders passed important magical knowledge and political positions through the mother’s lineage. The son of a chief would not become a chief. Instead, the chief’s maternal nephew would inherit the position. Trobriand kinship and family life is rich and complicated. Anthropologist Annette Weiner describes men and women as carrying out complementary roles and both men and women are valued culturally. This is not a matriarchy, nor is it a true patriarchy.

    The avunculocal arrangement is so important that a man or woman without a cross-gender sibling will adopt one. A woman must have a brother to plant yam gardens for her husband when she marries. A man must have a sister to participate in exchanges of women’s wealth on his behalf to enhance his position, and also to ensure that his soul is eventually reborn, after death, into the matrilineage. Family life and the passing of knowledge was changing rapidly in the Trobriand Islands at the end of Weiner’s work; more people were converting to Christianity, and while belief in magic was not yet disappearing, Christians could not inherit their uncles’ magic. This is an example of a culture in transition. At the same time, however, Trobriand Islanders valued their traditions, culture, and language, and were loathe to lose them altogether.[14]

    Patrilocal residence is usually associated with patrilineal descent. Property, knowledge, and positions are inherited through the father’s family or the husband’s father’s family. In the case of patrilocal residence, it was sometimes difficult for a woman to return to her original family if her marriage ended due to death or divorce. The latter was often considered socially shaming and in patrilineal societies women were often blamed for ending the marriage regardless of the actual circumstances. Matrilocal residence is usually associated with matrilineal descent. Property, knowledge, and positions are inherited through the mother’s family, or the wife’s mother’s family. Matrilineal and matrilocal societies tended to be less concerned with divorce. Men always had a home with their mothers, aunts, and sisters and might even come and go during a marriage, carrying out responsibilities to their maternal relatives and staying with them from time to time. Explaining the differences between patrilocal and matrilocal residences risks stereotyping. That said, it is likely that those cultures in which women marry “out” are less likely to value women while those in which men leave their families at marriage are more inclusive of women. This may have something to do with economics and ideologies, but must be examined in each cultural context.

    Bilocal residence (two locations) or ambilocal residence (either location) represent two additional and related residential patterns. They are essentially the same and mean that a couple may live with or near either the husband’s or wife’s family after marriage. A striking example comes from the island of Dobu, a place that is not far from the Trobriand Islands in Papua New Guinea. In Dobu society, which was traditionally matrilineal and practiced village exogamy, a married couple would alternate years living in the husband’s village and in the wife’s village.[15] In cases of bilocal or ambilocal residence while a couple has the choice to live with either the husband’s or wife’s family, a choice is made based on which location is best able to accommodate new members or which location needs the additional labor that comes from new members. Once the choice of residence is made, the married couple usually remains in one place.


    The inheritance of family property is often a part of cultural values and roles for families. In 1991, when Croatia was on the verge of war, I remember a woman speaking about her house going to her eldest son. Her young daughter was sitting with us at the time, and said to her mother in surprise, “Mama, why not me?” Her mother stroked her head and smiled at her, but was firm when she said “Because you are female.” It is typical worldwide, particularly in agricultural societies, for men to inherit family property. The best-known pattern is inheritance by the oldest male. Joint inheritance by brothers, with the oldest brother nominally in charge of the family, is also fairly wide-spread in joint and extended families. As mentioned above, however, other patterns are found, including property that passes from maternal uncle to maternal nephew in the Trobriand Islands, and inheritance of the family house and corresponding responsibility to care for the older generation by the youngest daughter in Burmese families. This is a further reminder that family organization and expectations are linked to economic systems and to the resources available to the family. Pattern of family life and marriage do not exist apart from the physical and economic environment, and other cultural practices.


    Adoption is another way that people form family ties. In the United States, usually it is infants or minor children who are adopted by a non-parental family member like a grandparent, an aunt or uncle, or an older sibling, or by a non-family member. This is usually done when a biological parent is unable or unwilling to raise a child. The decision to give up a child through adoption is a complicated one, and one that parents do not make easily.

    In other societies, adoption is viewed differently. In some Pacific Island societies, children who are adopted are considered fortunate because they have two sets of parents; children are not given for adoption because a parent is unwilling or unable to care for them, but rather to honor the adoptive parents. Martha Ward described a young woman in Pohnpei, Micronesia, who had a child for her grandmother, to keep her company in her older years. In another case she described a child who went to dinner at a relative’s house and stayed for a number of years in a kind of adoptive situation. In such cases, children retain relationships with biological and adoptive family members, and may even move fluidly between them.[17]

    One of the more unusual forms of adoption is adopted-daughter marriage, or sim pua marriage. It is found in Taiwan and described by anthropologist Margery Wolf. Wolf worked in Taiwan in the mid-1900s. At that time, Taiwanese families strongly preferred sons over daughters. Sons stayed with their families in adulthood, produced the next generation, cared for parents in old age, and carried on the tradition of ancestor veneration so that one would not become a “wandering ghost” after death. Daughters were regarded as expensive. People believed that they raised daughters for someone else. Dowries and weddings for grown daughters were expensive. Families worried that they would not be able to find suitable husbands for their grown daughters, who would remain a burden on their natal families in their later years, not producers of children or contributors in any other way.[18]

    As a result a custom developed of giving up daughters to other families as future daughters-in-law. Mothers would give up their own daughters as infants, only to take in very quickly an adopted daughter from someone else. Sometimes the future wife was adopted before the family had a son. It was said that an adopted daughter/daughter-in-law would “lead in a son.” Adopted daughters were reportedly not treated well. They had to do housework, help with childcare, and were not given any privileges such as education. They were often older than their eventual husbands, and had a lower status in the family than their adoptive brothers. There were reports of an adopted daughter being treated badly by adopted siblings, and then being expected to later marry one of them. Wolf reports a very low birth rate among couples who were raised as siblings. Pressure to engage in these kinds of adoptions usually came from a mother-in-law, or the husband’s mother, or a grandmother of the infant girl who had decision-making power in the family because she was the mother of an adult son. Grandmothers saw this kind of arrangement as advantageous to the family, according to Wolf, because birth mothers were more likely to be unhappy about losing a baby daughter, and because caring for another child brought in a future daughter-in-law.[19]


    1. Melford Spiro, Kinship and Marriage in Burma: A Cultural and Psychodynamic Analysis (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1977).
    2. Laura Tubelle de González, “Modern Arranged Marriage in Mumbai” Teaching Anthropology: SACC Notes 19 (2015).
    3. The one-child policy was introduced in 1979. It was phased out beginning in 2015 and was replaced by a two-child policy.
    4. see Vera St. Ehrlich, Family in Transition: A Study of 300 Yugoslav Villages. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966.
    5. Luka Lukic, Varos: Zbornik za narodi zivot i obicaje muznih slavena. Jugoslavenska akademija znanosti i umjetnosti. Zagreb. god. 24, str. 32.238, 1919.
    6. There are many news reports about this practice. See for instance Subodh Varnal, “Dowry Death: One Bride Burnt Every Hour,” The Times of India, January 27, 2012
    7. Annette B. Weiner, The Trobrianders of Papua New Guinea (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1988).
    8. Reo Fortune, Sorcerers of Dobu (New York: E.P. Dutton and Co., 1932).
    9. See for instance Will Roscoe, Changing Ones: Third and Fourth Genders in Native North America (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1998).
    10. Martha Ward, Nest in the Wind: Adventures in Anthropology on a Tropical Island (Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, 2005).
    11. Margery Wolf, Women and the Family in Rural Taiwan (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1972).
    12. Ibid.

    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.

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