Skip to main content
Social Sci LibreTexts

8.S: Summary and Questions

  • Page ID
  • 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. The study of families and marriage is an important part of anthropology because family and household groups play a central role in defining relationships between people and making society function. While there is nothing in biology that dictates that a family group be organized in a particular way, our cultural expectations leads to ideas about families that seem “natural” to us. As cultures change over time, ideas about family also adapt to new circumstances.


    1. Why is it important for anthropologists to understand the kinship, descent, and family relationships that exist in the cultures they study? In what ways can family relationships structure the lives of individuals?
    2. Status and role define the position of people within the family as well as the behaviors they are expected to perform. What are some of the statuses and roles found in families in your community? How have these changed over time?
    3. In this chapter, Gilliland describes several different patterns of family organization including nuclear families, extended families, and joint families. While small nuclear families are common in the United States, larger families are common in many other societies. What do you think are some of the practical effects of both small and large families on everyday life?


    Avunculocal: married individuals live with or near an uncle.

    Bilateral descent: descent is recognized through both the father and the mother’s sides of the family.

    Bridewealth: payments made to the bride’s family by the groom’s family before marriage.

    Clan: a group of people who have a general notion of common descent that is not attached to a specific biological ancestor.

    Descent groups: relationships that provide members with a sense of identity and social support based on ties of shared ancestry.

    Domestic group: a term that can be used to describe a group of people who live together even if members do not consider themselves to be family.

    Dowry: payments made to the groom’s family by the bride’s family before marriage.

    Endogamy: a term describing expectations that individuals must marry within a particular group.

    Exogamy: a term describing expectations that individuals must marry outside a particular group.

    Extended family: a family of at least three-generations sharing a household.

    Family: the smallest group of individuals who see themselves as connected to one another. Family of orientation: the family in which an individual is raised.

    Family of procreation: a new household formed for the purpose of conceiving and raising children.

    Household: family members who reside together.

    Joint family: a very large extended family that includes multiple generations.

    Kinship: term used to describe culturally recognized ties between members of a family, the social statuses used to define family members, and the expected behaviors associated with these statuses.

    Kinship diagrams: charts used by anthropologists to visually represent relationships between members of a kinship group.

    Kinship system: the pattern of culturally recognized relationships between family members.

    Kinship terminology: the terms used in a language to describe relatives.

    Levirate: the practice of a woman marrying one of her deceased husband’s brothers.

    Lineage: term used to describe any form of descent from a common ancestor.

    Matriarchal: a society in which women have authority to make decisions.

    Matrilineal descent: a kinship group created through the maternal line (mothers and their children).

    Matrilocal residence: married individuals live with or near the wife’s mother’s family.

    Neolocal residence: newly married individuals establish a household separate from other family members.

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

    Patrilateral cousin marriage: the practice of marrying a male or female cousin on the father’s side of the family.

    Patrilineal descent: a kinship group created through the paternal line (fathers and their children).

    Patrilocal residence,: married individuals live with or near the husband’s father’s family.

    Polygamous: families based on plural marriages in which there are multiple wives or, in rarer cases, multiple husbands.

    Polyandry: marriages with one wife and multiple husbands.

    Polygyny: marriages in which there is one husband and multiple wives.

    Role: the set of behaviors expected of an individual who occupies a particular status.

    Serial monogamy: marriage to a succession of spouses one after the other.

    Sororate marriage: the practice of a man marrying the sister of his deceased wife.

    Status: any culturally-designated position a person occupies in a particular setting.

    Stem family: a version of an extended family that includes an older couple and one of their adult children with a spouse (or spouses) and children.

    Unilineal: descent is recognized through only one line or side of the family.


    Mary K. Gilliland, Ph.D. (also published as Mary K. Gilliland Olsen) earned a B.A. from Bryn Mawr College, with Honors in Anthropology; and M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in anthropology from the University of California, San Diego. Her primary research took place in the former Yugoslavia (1982–4, 1990–1), Croatia (1993, 1995, 1996–7) and with displaced Bosnians, Croats and Serbs in the United States (2001–3). In Croatia, Mary Kay was affiliated with the Filozofski Fakultet in Zagreb, the Ethnographic Museum in Slavonski Brod (Croatia/Yugoslavia), and with the Institute for Anthropological Research (Zagreb, Croatia both pre- and post-independence). Continuing affiliation as member of Editorial Board for the Collegium Antropologicum: The Journal of the Institute for Anthropological Research, and named a Lifetime Member of the Croatian Anthropological Society. Mary Kay has also collaborated in projects in Asia, including People’s Republic of China (primarily Xinjiang, Western China), Mongolia and Vietnam. Her areas of research interest and publication include culture and social change, gender and ethnic identity, family, marriage and intergenerational relationships. Primarily a “teaching anthropologist,” Mary Kay was full-time faculty and Department Chair at Pima Community College in Tucson, Arizona from 1989–2006. She maintains an ongoing relationship as Associate Adjunct Professor of Anthropology at the University of Arizona. She has taught at San Diego Mesa College, University of California, San Diego and the University of Zagreb. Since 2006 she has held a variety of administrative positions including Academic Dean, Vice President of Instruction and is currently Vice President of Academic Affairs at Central Arizona College.


    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).

    3. In a patrilineal society, children are members of their father’s patrilineage. A mother belongs to her own father’s patrilineage, while the children belong to their father’s patrilinage.

    4. Kathleen Gough, “Variation in Matrilineal Systems,” in D. Schneider and K. Gough, eds., Matrilineal Kinship, Part 2 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1961). See also Kathleen Gough, The Traditional Kinship System of the Nayars of Malabar (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1954).

    5. See for example Merlin Myers, Households and Families of the Longhouse Iroquois at Six Nations Reserve (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2006).

    6. George P. Murdock, Social Structure (New York: MacMillan, 1949).

    7. Vera St. Ehrlich, Family in Transition: A Study of 300 Yugoslav Villages. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966. See also Gilliland, M. 1986. The Maintenance of Family Values in a Yugoslav Town. Ann Arbor, Michigan: UMI International.

    8. Melford Spiro, Kinship and Marriage in Burma: A Cultural and Psychodynamic Analysis (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1977).

    9. Laura Tubelle de González, “Modern Arranged Marriage in Mumbai” Teaching Anthropology: SACC Notes 19 (2015).

    10. The one-child policy was introduced in 1979. It was phased out beginning in 2015 and was replaced by a two-child policy.

    11. See Vera St. Ehrlich, Family in Transition: A Study of 300 Yugoslav Villages. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966.

    12. Luka Lukic, Varos: Zbornik za narodi zivot i obicaje juznih slavena. Jugoslavenska akademija znanosti i umjetnosti. Zagreb. god. 24, str. 32.238, 1919.

    13. 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

    14. Annette B. Weiner, The Trobrianders of Papua New Guinea (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1988).

    15. Reo Fortune, Sorcerers of Dobu (New York: E.P. Dutton and Co., 1932).

    16. See for instance Will Roscoe, Changing Ones: Third and Fourth Genders in Native North America (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1998).

    17. Martha Ward, Nest in the Wind: Adventures in Anthropology on a Tropical Island (Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, 2005).

    18. Margery Wolf, Women and the Family in Rural Taiwan (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1972).

    19. Ibid.

    20. Olsen, M. K. G., “Authority and Conflict in Slavonian Households: The Effects of Social Environment on Intra-Household Processes” in The Household Economy: Reconsidering the Domestic Mode of Production, Richard Wilk, ed., 149-170 (Colorado: Westview Press, 1989).