Family in Anthropology since 1980

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Family in Anthropology since 1980

Until the last decades of the twentieth century, anthropological definitions of the family were heavily influenced by largely unexamined Western cultural assumptions about biology and its relationship to kinship. Indeed, disentangling the history of family studies from kinship studies in anthropology is very difficult because, among researchers, kinship early on became the basis for understanding family. In an effort to make cross-cultural comparisons meaningful, anthropologists concerned themselves with attempting to find a universal definition of the "family"one that could be used across time and place. Family was distinguished from household, with "family" most often defined as a group composed of individuals who share some genetic connectionexpressed most obviously in the nurturing of childrenand having jural rights to property, especially land. In practice, the first part of this definition resulted in a tendency for researchers to place women at the emotional and reproductive centers of the family, while the second part served to place men, through whom inheritance usually occurred, in the jural and productive center. "Household" referred to individuals sharing residential space, domestic resources, and usually productive tasks but who may not share a genetic connection. It was argued that households were distinct from families but sociologically important because households reflect the structural linkages between kinship reckoning and social groups. However, it is in the family (not the household) where the necessary reproductive activities of childbearing and child rearing take place, and it was "the family" that was frequently imbued with certain affective or emotional orientations. At its extreme, the core unit of a family was defined by Ward Goodenough as primarily composed of a mother and her children but as potentially including others who are vaguely defined as "functionally significant" (Yanagisako, p. 164).

The late 1970s marked a turning point in anthropology for studies of the family. Invigorated by new ideas from both within and outside the academy, this was a time when old, embedded assumptions about the universality of the family and its sociological purposes were debated and ultimately discarded. Especially in American anthropology, the new approaches to the study of the family were influenced by two intersecting currents. First, some scholars were concerned with contributing to the debates about the possible social changes to the family brought about by the American feminist movement. At the time there was much public discussion about the potential dangers of the inevitable decline of the "American family," which opponents of the feminist movement claimed would necessarily accompany changes in women's social roles. Using cross-cultural evidence, feminist anthropologists such as Jane Collier, Michelle Rosaldo, and Sylvia Yanagisako sought to expose the unsupported assumptions that guided popular and academic discourses concerning the "ideal" composition and configuration of the family. The second intellectual influence was a discipline-wide shift in the orientation of social theory writ large. Anthropologists were moving away from the almost century-long pursuit of identifying "types" and defining human universalsnecessarily etic categoriestoward more nuanced analyses of cultural meanings and their relationships to particular social forms and processes.

New Directions for Family Studies

By far the most important anthropological work concerning the family to emerge in the 1970s was Yanagisako's comprehensive article "Family and Household: The Analysis of Domestic Groups" (1979). This review of almost a century of anthropological work exposed the problematic assumptions that guided studies on the family, and it set an agenda for further study. It is important to understand Yanagisako's critiques in detail as they were central in establishing theoretical approaches to the family for the next twenty years. Yanagisako grouped previous studies into two types: those concerned with identifying similarities in cross-cultural family types and household formation; and those that took a more developmental perspective focused on the evolution of particular family types over time. She found both types of studies lacking.

Yanagisako critiqued family studies that sought to identify cross-cultural universals on several fronts. First, she argued against static definitions of the family. In particular she posited that definitions that focused on the genealogical composition of a family, and especially those that reduced it to the mother-child "core," did not reflect reality but rather the Western intellectual tendency to draw unsupported parallels between the biological/natural world and the sociological. While the mother-child dyad is clearly essential for biological reproduction, cross-cultural evidence indicates that it is not the only possibility for social reproduction. Similar biological constraints do not necessarily create similar ideological or moral orientations. Not only did it become apparent that mothers do not have the same role in child rearing across cultures, but it was also clear that the nurturing of children is not done exclusively by mothers. Hence the mother-child core of the family is revealed to be only an idealized Western construct, not an ethnographic truth. Indeed, the concern for debunking the tenacious idea about the universal nature of mothering continued to be explored throughout the 1980s by scholars working in multiple disciplines. Anthropological critiques were influenced by feminist scholars outside of anthropology including Sara Ruddick and Nancy Chodorow, who refuted assumptions about the "natural" and immutable qualities of maternal love and attachment and, by extension, the universal significance of a mother's role in the family.

Second, Yanagisako argued that many family studies placed too much emphasis on categorizing families into immutable types such as nuclear, joint extended, and so on. These types were determined by examining the intersection of geneological connections and residence patterns. In addition to limiting the possibilities for family configuration to etically generated categories, this practice serves to obscure meaningful differences that may be inherent within typologies. Families that look the same structurally (joint extended, for example) may in fact behave very differently in practice, and those differences may be extremely important. Unfortunately, differences become obscured under the weight of homogenizing stereotypes about how families of any given configuration should ideally function.

The effort to categorize families into types also contributed to the second group of studies that Yanagisako critiqued, the ones oriented toward understanding the development of particular types. In particular she argued that identifying a limited range of family forms serves to reinforce (increasingly) questionable ideas about cultural evolution. The logic of the evolutionary argument is as follows. If family "types" could be shown to have consistent associations with particular subsistence strategiesthe nuclear family with industrialization, the joint extended with agriculture, and so onthen family formation could be seen as an adaptation to subsistence. Hence the direction of change in family forms could even be predicted over time.

However, as Yanagisako pointed out, the problems with these studies are numerous. First, the family as a social institution, and individuals as members of them, become divested of all agency and dynamism in this model. Possibilities for both inter-and intrafamilial differences disappear. Second, the relationships between families and larger social structures and forms becomes mechanistic and unidirectionalas subsistence forms change, families will necessarily change in particular and predictable ways. Nuclear families "naturally" evolve to meet the needs of industrial capitalism, and so forth (for a critique of this idea, see Moore). Obviously this type of thinking leaves the door open for the labeling of some family "types" as abnormal when they do not mirror the established, adaptive norm. For example, as Carol Stack describes, the black, matrifocal family in America was often portrayed as deviant because it differed from the nuclear family norm. Stack, however, never fully moves away from an adaptive framework as she argues in All Our Kin (1974) that the matrifocal family is an adaptation to American poverty.

Finally, the focus on families as self-contained units operating in particular ecological settings denies the connections and relationships that all families have with larger social institutions and formations, including the state. Indeed, both the reification of the mother-child core bond and the focus on households as self-contained economic units serves to reinforce the mistaken notion that the domestic or private realms (in other words, families and households) exist outside of and independent from the public sphere.

In an attempt to set out an agenda for new studies of the family, Yanagisako urged researchers to move away from trying to delineate forms (and universal definitions) toward an analysis that is sensitive to the myriad activities and diverse meanings created within and by families. Mirroring David Schneider's groundbreaking work on kinship, she argued that families are "symbolic" systems laden with multiple and complex meanings. These meanings are important not only for understanding the domestic domain but because they can lead to greater understanding of broader cultural themes. Yanagisako also borrowed from gender studies, especially the work of Rosaldo, and urged a rethinking of the public (male)/private (female) split so often seen in family studies. Researchers should explore not only how women may operate in the public domain but how their domestic activities and roles impact the political. Finally, Yanagisako urged researchers to put the analysis of the family in a broader, more comprehensive framework. In particular, studies ought to include a consideration of the impacts that inequality (both societal and intrafamilial) have on family configuration and meaning and how relations of production and inequality affect domestic groups. Rather than necessarily viewing families as statically functional or adaptive institutions, intrafamilial dynamics should be explored, including tensions over the distribution of power and resources. The family should be viewed as a historically situated and dialectically responsive "ideological" unit composed of individual actors, not as a concrete thing that can be tacitly defined and described.

Putting Theory into Practice: Family Studies
of the 1980s and Early 1990s

As noted above, prior to the 1980s, discussions of the family in anthropology were almost exclusively linked to larger studies of kinship, a topic that held a central position in anthropological analyses from the inception of the discipline. Kinship studies, which suffered under similar, if not harsher, critiques as the ones for family studies, fell somewhat out of favor in the 1980s. However, that does not mean that work on the family had been abandoned. In fact, it could be argued that it was reinvigorated by its repositioning. Discussion of the family now appeared to take a more central role in social analysis in part because of its very close linkages to the important emerging theme of gender. Ethnographies were increasingly considered incomplete without a significant and meaningful discussion of women's roles, and this often meant a lengthy discussion of the family.

The following section highlights just a few of the major themes addressed in anthropology of gender in the 1980s and early 1990s, with a special emphasis on their contributions to larger theoretical concerns in relation to anthropology of the family. These themes include history and colonialism, relations of production, and intrafamilial dynamics. Each topic reflects the concerns that Yanagisako outlined above as well as those reflected in the discipline-wide shift away from formalist thinking. No clear distinctions are made here between the 1980s and the early 1990s, since work on the family during this time reflects an evolution of ideas rather than a real paradigm shift.

History, colonialism, gender, and the family.

Much of anthropological writing as a whole was woefully bereft of historical contextualization. Almost from the beginning, anthropologists adopted the technique of writing in the ethnographic "present," which served to create an image of the culture under study as timeless and relatively unaffected by historical influences. That radically changed in the 1980s as anthropologists rediscovered history as an important analytic tool. This turn toward the historical included interest in private as well as public life, and the domestic world was laid open to historical reconstruction. Colonialism in particular became a pivotal theme to address, and feminist scholars, among others, concerned themselves with attempting to show how gender roles and family relations were historically, not naturally, created.

While the exact circumstances obviously vary considerably, under colonialism important economic relations changed; these impacted the ways in which families engaged in productive activities and ultimately the form and configurations of families. Under European colonial rule, land relations were altered, thereby impacting who could and could not own land. In some cases families lost all of their lands, reconfiguring family production patterns and shifting possibilities for inheritance, while in other cases women lost the ability to own land and the productive benefits that entailed. Moreover, land was often alienated from those who long worked it, changing household production from auto-production to dependence on patron-client relations or wage labor. In many parts of the world, for the first time, men, women, and children were sent from their households to work for others. Over time, households in some regions became increasingly linked to global, not domestic, economies, altering the meaning of productive work and often putting control over it, usually via wage labor, into the hands of men. In sum, researchers noted that as inheritance, division of labor, and production patterns changed, the family was transformed in unique and locally specific ways.

Along with economic changes, colonialism also brought with it important ideological shifts. European ideologies of gender and especially Christian morality toward sexuality significantly altered gender and family relations. Using Hawaii as an example, Patricia Grimshaw writes that women's lives were considerably different prior to colonialism and the work of Christian missionaries. Descent was traced through the male and female lines, adolescent female sexuality was not restrained, marriages were easily terminated, and infants were often adopted and/or reared by extended kin networks. The overall picture is one of relative freedom for at least some Hawaiian women to make choices about sexuality and marriage. Christian missionaries actively worked to expunge these ideas, and in doing so they shifted Hawaiian families toward greater control over female sexuality and ultimately toward patriarchy. Elsewhere, Christianity has been associated with the dissolution of extended family networks because it stresses individual, not group, responsibility.

Relations of production and the family.

Another area of considerable research in anthropology on the family concerns understanding the relationship between economic change, women's roles, and changes in the composition and functioning of the family. Among the themes most frequently explored by anthropologists are the impacts of incipient capitalism and the effects that the increasing penetration of the world economy has had on family roles and domestic orientations. How, for example, does unequal access to wage labor produce changes in men's and women's influence and roles within the family? How might participation in capitalism influence family configuration and intrafamilial dynamics? The evidence is plentiful, if not straightforward.

In Latin America, for example, anthropologists such as Hans Buechler and Judith-Maria Buechler have found that women who are engaged in petty commodity production or in market vending often find that their ability to support themselves and their children financially can free them from oppressive, patriarchal relationships with their husbands. Through work, entrepreneurial women have created networks beyond the family, allowing them the financial and sometimes the social freedom to reconstruct their family lives. However, access to income generation does not always translate to a drastic change in women's roles within the household. According to Florence Babb, Peruvian market women, much like their North American counterparts, often work a double dayfirst in the market and then at homeresulting in little real change in family relations.

What is clear from the cross-cultural evidence is that capitalism does not necessarily provide the conditions for equality within households and in fact may reinforce patriarchy. In places where wages are low and the state options for child care are very limited, women often find their abilities to access wage labor severely constrained by practical, if not ideological, considerations. Women often take the lowest-paid jobs, which offer flexibility, or they find they are unable to work except perhaps at the very margins of the informal sector. Rather than empowering women, wage labor often makes them more dependent on male wage-earners than they may have been in an agricultural setting where men and women share the productive tasks. Similarly, families often become more patriarchal as the sole male breadwinner takes on the responsibility of "head of household." The point of interest on a theoretical level is the recognition that the effects of any particular structural or economic change, in this case the penetration of capitalism, are never uniform, and they vary not only regionally but also locally and intersect with a range of other important cultural variables.

Family dynamics.

Interest in inequality extended beyond the analysis of how social inequalities inscribe themselves on families and led some scholars to explore more deeply the ways in which inequality is manifest in intrafamilial dynamics. This was fairly new terrain for anthropologists because most studies left unquestioned the assumption that families were for the most part unified and coherent institutions. It had long been presumed that families function in a manner that implies a degree of cooperation between members and that decision making within a family involves a consideration of shared, mutual goals. Families, it was thought, were corporate groups in which hierarchy was generally unquestioned and decision making relatively smoothly enacted for the good of the family, not the individual. Yet an examination of the day-to-day lives and decision-making practices of families gives evidence that families are often far less harmonious than these functionalist theories would imply. Families, like states, are domains in which hierarchy and domination are negotiated continually, often mirroring other structural inequalities but sometimes not. The nature and content of familial conflicts, how they change over time, and the ways in which families resolve them (if at all) are important areas of scholarly concern because they reveal domains of important cultural and social tension.

One area where the conflictual role of intrafamilial dynamics has been most obviously documented is in the shifting nature of families engaged in the various forms of labor migration. One of the effects of the unequal penetration of capitalism globally has been that families must send away one or more of their members to seek wage labor. Sometimes this migration results in a rural-to-urban move of one individual or the whole family and sometimes in the international migration of one or more family members. In all of these cases families often face radical changes. Conflicts and tensions are myriad. They can appear between husbands and wives as they negotiate between urban and rural gender roles and expectations. Generational tensions can mount as young adults find themselves responsible for navigating a world their parents cannot understand. Siblings can find their worlds colliding in unexpected ways as they vie for scarce educational resources. And immigrant fathers may find their child-rearing preferences in conflict with host-country norms.

Anthropological work on the intersection of family and the global economy also contributed to our understandings of families as constructed units and not necessarily biologically based ones. For example, focusing on the Caribbean, Christine Ho discusses the emergence of what she terms "international families." International families are organized primarily around women and include kin, fictive kin, and friends who participate in mutual aid and exchange networks that span multiple cities and even continents. Ho argues that international families are responding to particular global economic inequalities, but she points out that this response is creative and dynamic and not preordained by circumstances.

The 1990s and Beyond: Reimagining Family

While gender provided the thematic focus for studies of the family in the 1980s, in the 1990s families became a focus of study in their own right. Abundant cross-cultural literature emerged in this field, but some of the most important theoretical contributions came from studies of Western families, particularly same-sex families. At the very least, the 1990s can be characterized as a period in which there existed a growing recognition of family pluralism both inside and outside the academy. The postmodern family, a term first used by Edward Shorter in 1975, has come to signal the many diverse, fluid, contested, and negotiated family arrangements most obviously noted in the West.

In 1990 Judith Stacey published Brave New Families, which made visible the improvisational and creative nature of contemporary postindustrial family life due to changes in economic realities, gender roles, and kinship conceptualizations. Brave New Families was read widely outside the academy and proved to be a touchstone for "family values" proponents who locate many contemporary social ills in the breakdown of the male-headed nuclear family. The resulting "family values" debate has provided fertile ground for the development of post-structuralist critiques of one of the most sacrosanct categories of Western thought, "the family." What many have called for are theories that seek to reveal the continuities as well as the shifting symbolism and creativity that people enact in the realm of kinship (Rapp). Moreover, anthropologists have turned their attention toward scrutinizing relations of power. Their interest in the "family" stems from a larger ambition to analyze family as an institution that is affected by multiple structural variables assembled in the name of both public and private well-being. These variables include legal regulation, moral ideologies, economic change, and political discourses.

Same-sex families.

At one time, same-sex families of certain configurations were inconceivable in America. However, beginning in the 1980s circumstances slowly changed and have altered the complexion of family life for gays and lesbians. Due to numerous socioeconomic changes over the last decades of the twentieth century, including the financial independence of women in lesbian families, the availability of donor sperm and the decoupling of sexuality and reproduction, and the increased acceptance of lesbians and gay men by adoption agencies and courts, planned gay and lesbian parenting is a phenomenon that has grown tremendously. However, this social transformation does not come without serious opposition. For example, in the late 1980s and early 1990s "family values" rhetoric was redirected to spotlight same-sex families, particularly child-rearing by gays and lesbians (see, for example, Polikoff). The argument typically falls along the line that same-sex and trans-gender families threaten "the traditional American family."

Attempts in popular culture to frame same-sex families as an "exotic" other (at best) or as the "end of the American family as we know it" (at worst) were countered in the academy and elsewhere by the assertion that same-sex families are neither marginal nor exceptional but represent and illustrate a larger process of contesting dominant and sometimes oppressive concepts of the "ideal" family. While gay and lesbian parenting has sparked the ire of social critics, it has provided fertile ground for scholars in anthropology and other disciplines to reconceptualize theory.

Gay and lesbian theory.

In the 1990s gay and lesbian research moved away from issues of sexual identity to issues of the meanings of intimate relationships including romantic relationships, lesbian mothers and gay fathers, and the psychological development and social adjustment of children of lesbian and gay parents. Unfortunately, much of this work took a psychological orientation. In a review of 2,598 articles, David Demo and Katherine Allen found that while there was an important base for beginning to conceptualize how sexual orientation affects family experiences, sexist and heterosexist assumptions also underlay most of the research on same-sex families. Studies often took a "deficit model" stance in which same-sex families were compared to heterosexual nuclear families and found lacking. These studies tended to focus on individuals and outcomes rather than on gay family life as it is embedded in the broader social context.

Gay and lesbian family theory within anthropology has taken a different orientation. Gay and lesbian family theorists, most of whom are urban anthropologists in North America and Great Britain, suggest a multiplicity of theories to understand ever-increasing diversity across and within same-sex families. While little literature exists, much of gay and lesbian family theory focuses one of two themes. The first attempts to locate family within a discourse on the deconstruction of the modern heterosexual nuclear family and "family values" rhetoric. The second calls for a deconstruction of the family as a concept and a radical rethinking of how social categories become embedded. For example, the term queer was reclaimed by gay and lesbian activists to illustrate their resistance to hegemonic ideal constructs. Queer theory, positioned at the radical end of gay and lesbian activism, provides an important critique of family rhetoric in general. The argument proposed by queer theorists is that discussions of the family, even within the gay and lesbian movement, are predicated on certain hegemonic ideas concerning the distribution of power, division of labor, and so on. The queer movement urges a rethinking of the whole concept of family as necessarily linked to structures of power that marginalize, exclude, and oppress.

Studies that attempt to deconstruct rigid formulations of family argue that most family theories were developed with the assumption of a heterosexual orientation for all family members. The presence of same-sex families challenges that assumption. Gay and lesbian families provide a context in which to expand discussions of the relationships among gender, sexuality, and kinship. Moreover, discussions of gay and lesbian kinship reinvigorated some of the ideas set out in 1968 by David Schneider. In particular, he argued that American kinship is a symbolic system resting on two axes of contrasting but mutually dependent notions of blood and love. While blood was often discussed in the literature on families, love rarely was.

In Families We Choose (1991), Kath Weston argues that gay and lesbian families are a domain in which relationships are most obviously based on love rather than biological connections. According to Weston, these families are negotiating a new model of kinship ideology that repositions biology as potentially irrelevant. Weston demonstrates that gay families represent one element in a broader discourse on family whose meanings are continuously negotiated in everyday situations. Moreover, families are positioned vis-à-vis relations of power in society at large. By demonstrating the resourcefulness of many gay families as they seek to solidify and define what family means to them at a particular place and time, she acknowledges that power is not unidirectional. Her work is not merely theoretical or a cultural/historical analysis but ethnographic and therefore evocative of real experiences and real people as they attempt to negotiate "familiness" in the presence of institutions that both constrain and enable that process.

Valerie Lehr argues that queer studies offer a more radical discourse on family, one that provides an alternative to liberal, rights-based political frameworks. A rights-based approach to marriage and family does not challenge established institutions and power as much as it advocates for some gays and lesbians gaining additional power within the established social system. Rights-based approaches reinforce hegemonic symbols of family and paint the gay and lesbian "community" as a monolithic whole while denying legitimation of alternative ways to framing family. Following Lehr, Ruthann Robson argues that gay and lesbian theorists have left unproblematized the concept of family as they have shifted their focus to advocating recognition for "our" family. By not contextualizing and problematizing "functional familialism," the not-so-implicit message becomes that gay and lesbian relationships will be accorded the status of family only to the extent that they replicate the traditional husband-wife couple, a tradition based on property relations.

Theoretical discussions of family in the 1990s point to the family as an ideological construct firmly embedded in historical and material conditions of everyday life. The emergence of same-sex families as a cultural category has brought into focus the contrasting yet interdependent notions of kinship based on blood and love as well as a need for problematizing the category of "family" writ large. Moreover, as more diverse "imagined" families are created and dissolved, the legal system and social system must rethink the boundaries and meanings of "family" to accommodate the ever-shifting realities. Some relevant and urgent questions future anthropological research might address are: How do the existing structures enable or constrain how gays and lesbians imagine and construct family? Which gays and lesbians are most likely to be agents of change? How do the actions of certain people impact the production or reproduction of certain structures? At what point do these family experiences, policy positions, and incremental shifts in popular thought reach the "tipping point," the point at which difference bubbles up to a critical mass and creates change in social structure? To pose and then investigate these questions offers an opportunity to reinvigorate kinship studies by coupling them to theoretically important and timely research on gender studies, colonialism, class relations, identity, and the construction of the "other."


Anthropological studies of the family reflect many of the larger tensions and trends that have typified the discipline in the latter half of the twentieth century. Central anthropological arguments including those about the role of biology in social reproduction, the evolution of culture, the organization of social and cultural data, and the pervasiveness of Western ideologies have played a major role in the development of the anthropological literature on the family. Moreover, because the "family" is a social concept with very real ideological and political orientations, academic work on the family has been alternately stymied and invigorated by popular cultural assumptions, debates, and trends. In particular, since the 1970s, first feminism and then gay and lesbian studies have made important contributions in moving anthropology toward an understanding of family that is analytically sophisticated in its ability to think about heterogeneity at the same time that it reflects the on-the-ground realities of real families.

See also Childhood and Child Rearing ; Family: Modernist Anthropological Theory ; Feminism ; Friendship ; Gay Studies ; Gender Studies: Anthropology ; Kinship ; Motherhood and Maternity .


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Cynthia E. Foor

Ann Miles

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Family in Anthropology since 1980

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