Family definitions and universality

  • Created by: Wild.Ivy
  • Created on: 02-10-19 15:01


  • Murdock (1949) found a variety of family forms in his sample of 250 societies (ranging from hunting and gathering bands to small-scale farming societies to large-scale industrial societies).

  • However, he concluded that each family form contained a basic nucleus – the nuclear family.  

  • There may be extensions to this e.g. horizontally extended, vertically extended, polygamy, but he argued that the nuclear family was universal.  

  • We can examine cross-cultural evidence which demonstrates that the basic nucleus of husband, wife and children does not exist in all societies.  

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F. Edholm 1982 - 'The unnatural family'

Edholm examines three examples...  

  • The Nayar of India – children raised in their mother’s social group.  

  • Tahiti – young women often have one or two children before settling into a stable relationship and then they give these children up for adoption to close relatives who the children then see as their ‘real’ parents rather than their biological parents. 

  • The Lakker of Burma – They see no blood relationship between mother and child so sexual relationships between brother and sisters are common and not seen as incest because they are seen as non-kin.  

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  • F. Edholm – there is nothing normal or natural about the nuclear family. Family and kinship relationships are socially constructed (based on culture rather than biology) - ‘relatives are not born but made.’ so they are shaped by cultural norms and therefore vary from one society to another.  

  • D. Gittens – only close, emotional bonds are universal. ‘Relationships are universal, so is some form of co-residence, of intimacy, sexuality and emotional bonds. But the forms these can take are infinitely variable and can be changed and challenged as well as embraced.’ 

  • Therefore, whether we see the family as universal depends on the definition we use.  

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