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.
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.
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.