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AS Sociology at NSG
The Sociology of Family
Is the family universal? George Peter Murdock
Murdock studies social structure in a sample of 250 societies ranging from small hunting and gathering
bands to large scale industrial societies. Claimed that some form of family existed in every society and
concluded from his study that the family is universal.
He defines the family as `a social group characterised by common residence, economic
cooperation and reproduction'. The smallest family unit is known as the nuclear family
which is composed of husband, wife and their immature offspring.
The unit larger than a nuclear family is known as extended families 2 types of extension:
1. `Vertical extension' addition of members of a 3rd generation e.g. spouses' parents.
2. `Horizontal extension' addition of members of same generation e.g. husband's brother or
an additional wife.
`The nuclear family is a universal human social grouping. Either as the sole prevailing form
or basic unit from which more complex forms are compounded. Exists as a distinct and
strongly functional group in every known society'.
Evidence against the universality nuclear families
Kathleen Gough studied the Nayar of Kerala Southern India prior to British Rule established in
1792. Sandbanham relationships: Before puberty Nayar girls married, ritually to suitable man in the
talirite. After marriage the tali husband does not have to live with the wife, has no obligation to have
any contact with her. Once Nayar girl reaches puberty she begins to take a number of visiting
husbands. Sandbanham husbands are allowed to visit any number of Nayar women, they usually
stayed for sex then left during the following morning. Weapons are placed outside hut as a signal to
others that the Nayar woman had company.
Differs from Murdock's definition because:
(a) No life long union, either party could terminate relationship at any time.
(b) Sandbanham husbands had no duty towards offspring of their wives, when Nayar women fell
pregnant it was appropriate for a man to declare child was his, whether it was or not, by giving
vegetables and cloth. However, does not maintain or socialise child when born.
(c) No economic unit, it consisted instead of a number of brothers and sisters, sister's children and
their daughter's child. Eldest male was the leader of each group of kin.
(d) Therefore, in terms of Murdock's definition no family existed in Nayar society. Either Murdock's
definition is too narrow, or the family is not universal.
Kathleen Gough claims that marriage, and by implication the family, existed in Nayar society.
However, in order to fit this claim she had to expand her definition of marriage beyond Murdock's
definition. She defines marriage as `a relationship between a woman and one or more persons in
which a child born to the woman `is given full birth status rights' common to normal members
New World Black Family: West Indies, Central America
A significant proportion of black families in the islands does not include adult males. This might
indicate that Murdock is wrong, or the need for a redefining of family unit. e.g. stating that the minimal
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Matrifocal families are femaleheaded family units. Matrifocal families are common in low income
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(a) Herskovits argues that West African origin of NWB influences their family i.e. polygyny (form of
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What are the functional relationships between the family and other parts of the social system?' It is
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3. To what extent is the family integrated into the economic system?
George Peter Murdock
4 Basic functions:
1. Sexual Without, no members of society
2. Reproduction Without, no members of society
3. Economic e.g.…read more
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Or can it be a twoway process? I.e. the child who can twist their parents around their little
Critical views of the family (not in 6th Edition)
Edmund Leach Study: A runaway world? Nuclear family in modern industrial society.
Isolated from kin and wider community. The family looks inward upon itself, stress between husband
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For monogamous marriages solves problem of inheritance of private property.
Property owned by males and in order for them to pass to heirs had to be certain of the legitimacy of
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Criticisms of Engel's scheme for evolution of family.
Theory largely based on ancient society.…read more