A new season.
We think of family.
Of our families.
How these relationships shape us,
How we relate with others.
‘Kinship 101’ or a few thoughts from Ben
Don’t get your hopes up too much for this note. Most theories in anthropology are either common sense or just plain wrong. The reason I like anthropology is not for the theory, but for the descriptions of different societies. It should be a branch of literature, not social science. So listening to each other’s stories is better anthropological practice than reading text books on kinship.
However, it may be that a few of the things which have most interested anthropologists about families and culture will also help spark some conversations about the wider culture significance of our individual family stories.
I should stress that anthropologists are interested in the role of families as components of wider cultures, not the juicy detail of individual family circumstances. They leave the later to psychologists!
The underlying ‘functions’ of certain family norms are not always explicitly acknowledged within a culture.
One of the first questions which anthropologists asked when they started to look at families in earnest in the early twentieth century was ‘is there a slightly hidden purpose behind the way in which families are structured in any given society.’ For example, is incest a taboo all societies because it leads to genetic problems rather than for the various religious reasons that are usually given. This is called the functionalist school of anthropology – cultural norms serve certain functions, even if these functions are not acknowledged.
Functionalism is has been terribly uncool for at least the last forty years. It is seen as wrongly trying to tie down complex cultural phenomena to a few biological or economic determinants.
But I think that there is an element of truth to it, often easiest to see in other cultures. For example, in the Shona culture I studied in Zimbabwe, everyone who shares the same clan name and totemic name (i.e. monkey, lion, etc) is supposed to be related to each other, even if they do not share the same surname. Why’s that important? Well, with Mugabe inspired land reforms putting a whole load of disparate poor families on the same farm, it turned out that this method of identifying kin served some useful functions. People from different parts of the country were suddenly given some ready made alliances – ‘you mean you’re a Brewin and a monkey to! Brother – I must lend you my plough….’. I think that this form of very extended (probably fictional) family arose from the migratory past of the Shona, where making rapid alliances in a new part of the country was pretty useful to a migrating family. Of course no one would explain the complex system of Zimbabwean surname, clan name and totem as a response to the need to migrate. To the Shona, it is just part of their culture. Not something to be questioned or analysed.
Perhaps worth thinking of some of the unsaid functions which lie behind our cultural norms for families?
The roles of mothers and fathers varies in different societies
One of the things that differentiates patterns of kinship in societies is the different roles played by mothers and fathers – both whether the extended family (surnames, etc) is formed around the female or male line and where the power lies. The majority of kinship structures are patrilinial (following male line) and even more are patriarchal (male power dominates), but these are not universal.
The troband islanders in the South Pacific – subject to years of study by the first modern anthropologist, Bronislaw Malinowski, in the early twentieth century – organise families/clams around the female line. In fact, the troband islanders traditionally did not consider that children had anything to do with sex, so the ‘fathers’ were slightly reduced in status when it came to organising families.
Does the role of men or women matter? The first Victorian anthropologists put the success or Britain down to strong male authority in the home and sometimes sought to explain the lack of ‘development’ by other cultures to the greater role played by women. Subsequent analysis suggests that the opposite might actually be true – that greater female power helps economic development because women have been keener to invest in their children’s education. It was in some of the countries where women had greatest rights in the nineteenth century, such as parts of Scandinavia, that the economy grew most. The same is true in other parts of the world today, such as the success of Kerala compared to some other parts of India.
Anthropologists have now tended to stop trying to say whether one kinship structure is better than another. But they still tend to find it useful to start an exploration of the roles of families in society by understanding the common roles of men/women/fathers/mothers. An awful lot of other elements of a culture tend to flow from that. Again, perhaps a useful line of enquiry for us.
All families psychotic?
No, sorry, anthropogists haven’t been able to answer that question.
Anthropologists have, however, spent a long time to trying to work out if all families are similar – across the world or even within cultures. George Murdock, an anthropologist in the 1940s, looked at 500 societies and decided that they all involve sexually cohabiting couples, etc.
However, the more people have looked, the more complex family life has appeared. For example, the Zimbabwean village which I studied it meant to be a classic patrilineal extended family. All men should be related to the village founder (five or six generations previously) with all wives ‘marrying in’ from other families/villages and all daughters ‘marrying out’. However, even in a very traditional society such as this, the cultural norms were often broken. In developing a family tree for the overall village, it was clear that around a fifth did not conform to the traditional pattern. For some reason, the daughter had stayed in the village and her husband had married in. Most people seemed to muddle along. Yet it would have clashed with various elements of the traditional religion (all based on male line living in the same village), economy (land only passed to sons), etc.
Sociologists have also increasingly considered the ‘family’ as subjective, not biological (the social unit that permits survival and orders one’s world). The term ‘fictive kin’ has been used to describe gangs of young people in poor urban US settings – people able to help, who can relied upon, but are not necessarily biological relations.
To the traditionalists who criticise the concept of fictive kin as seeming to give weight to non-biological relationships and therefore undermining the traditional family, these sociologists point to Godparents (what are they if not fictive kin?).
The overriding lesson is probably that most cultures have strong family norms, but an awful lot of families within these cultures break at least some of these norms. Perhaps that’s a recipe for some stress, even if not psychosis.
Some historical accounts of family life emphasise the decreasing role of family as the building blocks of societies. It is certainly true that most of us do not consider family as the key economic, political, military or spiritual unit in the way that most people did around the world until relatively recently.
However, a story of decline is probably an overly simplistic account. One of the surprising facets of family like today is just how much contact we maintain with families, even without some of the economic, political and spiritual bonds. I think a recent survey found that 90% stayed in touch with a member of extended family at least once a week.
Family as a source of identity and learning is as important as even, if not more so as other elements of identity more confused and other influences of social learning such as churches become less universal.
As well as considering our own experiences and the influences on our life, perhaps at the end of our ‘family season’ we should reflect on what we have learnt about the wider roles of families in British social and cultural life today.