some quarters about the alleged decline of the family,politi-cians have become somewhat more willing to comment onfamilies.Sometimes they have devised policies to try to dealwith perceived problems surrounding the family.In short,the family has come to be seen as moreproblematic than it was in the past.The controversies thathave come to surround families and households are thesubject of this chapter.We begin by examining theassumption of the ‘universality’of the family.
Is the familyuniversal?
George Peter Murdock:the family – a universal social institution
In a study entitled
(1949),George PeterMurdock examined the institution of the family in a widerange of societies.Murdock took a sample of 250societies,ranging from small hunting and gathering bandsto large-scale industrial societies.He claimed that someform of family existed in every society,and concluded,onthe evidence of his sample,that the family is universal.Murdock defined the family as follows:
The family is a social group characterized by common residence,economic cooperation and reproduction.It includes adults of both sexes,at least two of whom maintain a socially approved sexual relationship,and one or more children,own or adopted,of the sexually cohabiting adults.
Thus the family lives together,pools its resources andworks together,and produces offspring.At least two of theadult members conduct a sexual relationship according tothe norms of their particular society.Such norms vary from society to society.For example,among the Banaro of New Guinea,the husband does nothave sexual relations with his wife until she has borne achild by a friend of his father.The parent–child relation-ship,therefore,is not necessarily a biological one.Itsimportance is primarily social,children being recognizedas members of a particular family whether or not the adultspouses have biologically produced them.
Variations in family structure
The structure of the family varies from society to society.The smallest family unit is known as the
and consists of a husband and wife and their immatureoffspring.Units larger than the nuclear family are usuallyknown as
.Such families can be seenas extensions of the basic nuclear unit,either
– for example,the addition of members of athird generation such as the spouses’parents – and/or
– for example,the addition of members of the same generation as the spouses,such asthe husband’s brother or an additional wife.Thus thefunctionalist sociologists Bell and Vogel define theextended family as ‘any grouping broader than the nuclearfamily which is related by descent,marriage or adoption’.Either on its own or as the basic unit within anextended family,Murdock found that the nuclear familywas present in every society in his sample.This led him toconclude:
The nuclear family is a universal human social grouping.Either as the sole prevailing form of the family or as the basic unit from which more complex forms are compounded,it exists as a distinct and strongly functional group in every known society.
However,as we will discover in the following sections,Murdock’s conclusions might not be well founded.
Kathleen Gough – the Nayar
Some societies have sets of relationships between kinwhich are quite different from those which are common inBritain.One such society was that of the Nayar of Keralain southern India,prior to British rule being established in1792.Sociologists disagree about whether this society hada family system or not,and thus whether or not it disprovesMurdock’s claim that the family is universal.Kathleen Gough (1959) provided a detailed descriptionof Nayar society.Before puberty all Nayar girls wereritually married to a suitable Nayar man in the
rite.After the ritual marriage had taken place,however,the
husband did not live with his wife,and was under noobligation to have any contact with her whatsoever.Thewife owed only one duty to her
husband:she had toattend his funeral to mourn his death.Once a Nayar girl reached or neared puberty she beganto take a number of visiting husbands,or
husbands.The Nayar men were usually professional warriorswho spent long periods of time away from their villagesacting as mercenaries.During their time in the villages theywere allowed to visit any number of Nayar women who hadundergone the tali rite and who were members of the samecaste as themselves,or a lower caste.With the agreementof the woman involved,the
husband arrived atthe home of one of his wives after supper,had sexualintercourse with her,and left before breakfast the nextmorning.During his stay he placed his weapons outsidethe building to show the other
husbands thathe was there.If they arrived too late,then they were freeto sleep on the veranda,but could not stay the night withtheir wife.Men could have unlimited numbers of
wives,although women seem to have beenlimited to no more than twelve visiting husbands.
An exception to the family?
relationships were unlike marriages in mostsocieties in a number of ways:
They were not a lifelong union:either party couldterminate the relationship at any time.
husbands had no duty towards theoffspring of their wives.When a woman became
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