Chapter 3 – Family and Marriage

Mary Kay Gilliland, Central Arizona College

Learning Objectives

  • Describe the variety of human families cross-culturally with examples.
  • Distinguish between matrilineal, patrilineal, and bilateral kinship systems.
  • Explain how family patterns represent and reflect cultural contexts.

Family and Marriage: A Cultural Construct and a Social Invention

More than one hundred years of cross-cultural research has revealed the varied forms humans have invented for “partnering”—living in households, raising children, establishing long-term relationships, transmitting valuables to offspring, and other social behaviors associated with “family.” Once again, the universality and evolutionary origins of the U.S. form of the human family is more fiction than fact, a projection of our cultural model of family and gender roles onto the past and onto the entire human species.

Families exist in all societies and they are part of what makes us human. However, societies around the world demonstrate tremendous variation in cultural understandings of family and marriage. Ideas about how people are related to each other, what kind of marriage would be ideal, when people should have children, who should care for children, and many other family related matters differ cross-culturally. While the function of families is to fulfill basic human needs such as providing for children, defining parental roles, regulating sexuality, and passing property and knowledge between generations, there are many variations or patterns of family life that can meet these needs. This chapter introduces some of the more common patterns of family life found around the world.


Some of the earliest research in cultural anthropology explored differences in ideas about family. Lewis Henry Morgan, a lawyer who also conducted early anthropological studies of Native American cultures, documented the words used to describe family members in the Iroquois language.[1] In the book Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family (1871), he explained that words used to describe family members, such as “mother” or “cousin,” were important because they indicated the rights and responsibilities associated with particular family members both within households and the larger community. This can be seen in the labels we have for family members—titles like father or aunt—that describe how a person fits into a family as well as the obligations he or she has to others.

The concepts of status and role are useful for thinking about the behaviors that are expected of individuals who occupy various positions in the family. The terms were first used by anthropologist Ralph Linton and they have since been widely incorporated into social science terminology.[2] For anthropologists, a status is any culturally-designated position a person occupies in a particular setting. Within the setting of a family, many statuses can exist such as “father,” “mother,” “maternal grandparent,” and “younger brother.” Of course, cultures may define the statuses involved in a family differently. Role is the set of behaviors expected of an individual who occupies a particular status. A person who has the status of “mother,” for instance, would generally have the role of caring for her children.

Roles, like statuses, are cultural ideals or expectations and there will be variation in how individuals meet these expectations. Statuses and roles also change within cultures over time. In the not-so-distant past in the United States, the roles associated with the status of “mother” in a typical Euro-American middle-income family included caring for children and keeping a house; they probably did not include working for wages outside the home. It was rare for fathers to engage in regular, day-to-day housekeeping or childcare roles, though they sometimes “helped out,” to use the jargon of the time. Today, it is much more common for a father to be an equal partner in caring for children or a house or to sometimes take a primary role in child and house care as a “stay at home father” or as a “single father.” The concepts of status and role help us think about cultural ideals and what the majority within a cultural group tends to do. They also help us describe and document culture change. With respect to family and marriage, these concepts help us compare family systems across cultures.


Kinship is the word used to describe culturally recognized ties between members of a family. Kinship includes the terms, or social statuses, used to define family members and the roles or expected behaviors family associated with these statuses. Kinship encompasses relationships formed through blood connections (consanguineal), such as those created between parents and children, as well as relationships created through marriage ties (affinal), such as in-laws (see Figure 1). Kinship can also include “chosen kin,” who have no formal blood or marriage ties, but consider themselves to be family. Adoptive parents, for instance, are culturally recognized as parents to the children they raise even though they are not related by blood.

Young Maasai women, affinal kin, share domestic responsibilities.

Figure 1: These young Maasai women from Western Tanzania are affinal kin, who share responsibilities for childcare. Maasai men often have multiple wives who share domestic responsibilities. Photo used with permission of Laura Tubelle de González.

While there is quite a bit of variation in families cross-culturally, it is also true that many families can be categorized into broad types based on what anthropologists call a kinship system. The kinship system refers to the pattern of culturally recognized relationships between family members. Some cultures create kinship through only a single parental line or “side” of the family. For instance, families in many parts of the world are defined by patrilineal descent: the paternal line of the family, or fathers and their children. In other societies, matrilineal descent defines membership in the kinship group through the maternal line of relationships between mothers and their children. Both kinds of kinship are considered unilineal because they involve descent through only one line or side of the family. It is important to keep in mind that systems of descent define culturally recognized “kin,” but these rules do not restrict relationships or emotional bonds between people. Mothers in patrilineal societies have close and loving relationships with their children even though they are not members of the same patrilineage.[3] In the United States, for instance, last names traditionally follow a pattern of patrilineal descent: children receive last names from their fathers. This does not mean that the bonds between mothers and children are reduced. Bilateral descent is another way of creating kinship. Bilateral descent means that families are defined by descent from both the father and the mother’s sides of the family. In bilateral descent, which is common in the United States, children recognize both their mother’s and father’s family members as relatives.

The descent groups  that are created by these kinship systems provide members with a sense of identity and social support. Kinship groups may also control economic resources and dictate decisions about where people can live, who they can marry, and what happens to their property after death.

The two kinship diagrams below show how the descent group changes in unilineal kinship systems like a patrilineal system (father’s line) or a matrilineal system (mother’s line). The roles of the family members in relationship to one another are also likely to be different because descent is based on lineage: descent from a common ancestor. In a patrilineal system, children are always members of their father’s lineage group (Figure 1). In a matrilineal system, children are always members of their mother’s lineage group (Figure 2). In both cases, individuals remain a part of their birth lineage throughout their lives, even after marriage. Typically, people must marry someone outside their own lineage. In figures 1 and 2, the shaded symbols represent people who are in the same lineage. The unshaded symbols represent people who have married into the lineage.

In general, bilateral kinship is more focused on individuals rather than a single lineage of ancestors as seen in unlineal descent. Each person in a bilateral system has a slightly different group of relatives. For example, my brother’s relatives through marriage (his in-laws) are included in his kinship group, but are not included in mine. His wife’s siblings and children are also included in his group, but not in mine. If we were in a patrilineal or matrilineal system, my brother and I would largely share the same group of relatives.

A patrilineal household.

Figure 2: This kinship chart shows a patrilineal household with Ego in the father’s lineage.

Matrilineages and patrilineages are not just mirror images of each other. They create groups that behave somewhat differently. Contrary to some popular ideas, matrilineages are not matriarchal. The terms “matriarchy” and “patriarchy” refer to the power structure in a society. In a patriarchal society, men have more authority and the ability to make more decisions than do women. A father may have the right to make certain decisions for his wife or wives, and for his children, or any other dependents. In matrilineal societies, men usually still have greater power, but women may be subject more to the power of their brothers or uncles (relatives through their mother’s side of the family) rather than their fathers.

Among the matrilineal Hopi, for example, a mothers’ brother is more likely to be a figure of authority than a father. The mother’s brothers have important roles in the lives of their sisters’ children. These roles include ceremonial obligations and the responsibility to teach the skills that are associated with men and men’s activities. Men are the keepers of important ritual knowledge so while women are respected, men are still likely to hold more authority.

Figure 3: The kinship chart shows a matrilineal household with Ego in mother’s lineage.

Some anthropologists have suggested that marriages are less stable in matrilineal societies than in patrilineal ones, but this varies as well. Among the matrilineal Iroquois, for example, women owned the longhouses. Men moved into their wives’ family houses at marriage. If a woman wanted to divorce her husband, she could simply put his belongings outside. In that society, however, men and women also spent significant time apart. Men were hunters and warriors, often away from the home. Women were the farmers and tended to the home. This, as much as matrilineality, could have contributed to less formality or disapproval of divorce. There was no concern about the division of property. The longhouse belonged to the mother’s family, and children belonged to their mother’s clan. Men would always have a home with their sisters and mother, in their own matrilineal longhouse.[4]

Kinship charts can be useful when doing field research and particularly helpful when documenting changes in families over time. Charts make it easy to document changes that occurred in a relatively short time, sometimes linked to urbanization, such as changes in family size, in prevalence of divorce, and in increased numbers of unmarried adults. These patterns had emerged in the surveys and interviews I conducted, but they jumped off the pages when I reviewed the kinship charts. Creating kinship charts was a very helpful technique in my field research. I also used them as small gifts for the people who helped with my research and they were very much appreciated.


In a basic biological sense, women give birth and the minimal family unit in most, though not all societies, is mother and child. Cultures elaborate that basic relationship and build on it to create units that are culturally considered central to social life. Families grow through the birth or adoption of children and through new adult relationships often recognized as marriage. In our own society, it is only culturally acceptable to be married to one spouse at a time though we may practice what is sometimes called serial monogamy, or, marriage to a succession of spouses one after the other. This is reinforced by religious systems, and more importantly in U.S. society, by law. Plural marriages are not allowed; they are illegal although they do exist because they are encouraged under some religions or ideologies. In the United States, couples are legally allowed to divorce and remarry, but not all religions cultural groups support this practice.

When anthropologists talk of family structures, we distinguish among several standard family types any of which can be the typical or preferred family unit in a culture. First is the nuclear family: parents who are in a culturally-recognized relationship, such as marriage, along with their minor or dependent children. This family type is also known as a conjugal family. A non-conjugal nuclear family might be a single parent with dependent children, because of the death of one spouse or divorce or because a marriage never occurred. Next is the extended family: a family of at least three-generations sharing a household. A stem family is a version of an extended family that includes an older couple and one of their adult children with a spouse (or spouses) and children. In situations where one child in a family is designated to inherit, it is more likely that only the inheriting child will remain with the parents when he or she becomes an adult and marries. While this is often an oldest male, it is sometimes a different child. In Burma or Myanmar for example, the youngest daughter was considered the ideal caretaker of elderly parents, and was generally designated to inherit.[5] The other children will “marry out” or find other means to support themselves.

A joint family is a very large extended family that includes multiple generations. Adult children of one gender, often the males, remain in the household with their spouses and children and they have collective rights to family property. Unmarried adult children of both genders may also remain in the family group. For example, a household could include a set of grandparents, all of their adult sons with their wives and children, and unmarried adult daughters. A joint family in rare cases could have dozens of people, such as the traditional zadruga of Croatia, discussed in greater detail below.

Polygamous families are based on plural marriages in which there are multiple wives or, in rarer cases, multiple husbands. These families may live in nuclear or extended family households and they may or may not be close to each other spatially (see discussion of households below). The terms step family or blended family are used to describe families that develop when adults who have been widowed or divorced marry again and bring children from previous partnerships together. These families are common in many countries with high divorce rates. A wonderful fictional example was The Brady Bunch of 1970s television.

Who Can You Marry?

Cultural expectations define appropriate potential marriage partners. Cultural rules emphasizing the need to marry within a cultural group are known as endogamy. People are sometimes expected to marry within religious communities, to marry someone who is ethnically or racially similar or who comes from a similar economic or educational background. These are endogamous marriages: marriages within a group. Cultural expectations for marriage outside a particular group are called exogamy. Many cultures require that individuals marry only outside their own kinship groups, for instance. In the United States laws prevent marriage between close relatives such as first cousins. There was a time in the not so distant past, however, when it was culturally preferred for Europeans, and Euro-Americans to marry first cousins. Royalty and aristocrats were known to betroth their children to relatives, often cousins. Charles Darwin, who was British, married his first cousin Emma. This was often done to keep property and wealth in the family.

In some societies, however, a cousin might be a preferred marriage partner. In some Middle Eastern societies, patrilateral cousin marriage—marrying a male or female cousin on your father’s side—is preferred. Some cultures prohibit marriage with a cousin who is in your lineage but, prefer that you marry a cousin who is not in your lineage. For example, if you live in a society that traces kinship patrilineally, cousins from your father’s brothers or sisters would be forbidden as marriage partners, but cousins from your mother’s brothers or sisters might be considered excellent marriage partners.

Arranged marriages were typical in many cultures around the world in the past including in the United States. Marriages are arranged by families for many reasons: because the families have something in common, for financial reasons, to match people with others from the “correct” social, economic or religious group, and for many other reasons. In India today, some people practice a kind of modified arranged marriage practice that allows the potential spouses to meet and spend time together before agreeing to a match. The meeting may take place through a mutual friend, a family member, community matchmaker, or even a Marriage Meet even in which members of the same community (caste) are invited to gather (see Figure 5). Although arranged marriages still exist in urban cities such as Mumbai, love matches are increasingly common. In general, as long as the social requirements are met, love matches may be accepted by the families involved.

Figure 4: This advertisement for “Marriage Meet” in Mumbai, India welcomes “boys” and “girls” from the community to participate in a Marriage Meet, in which young people can mingle with and get to know potential spouses in a fun atmosphere. Photo used with permission of Laura Tubelle de González.

Polygamy refers to any marriage in which there are multiple partners. There are two kinds of polygamy: polygyny and polyandry. Polygyny refers to marriages in which there is one husband and multiple wives. In some societies that practice polygyny, the preference is for sororal polygyny, or the marriage of one man to several sisters. In such cases, it is sometimes believed that sisters will get along better as co-wives. Polyandry describes marriages with one wife and multiple husbands. As with polygyny, fraternal polyandry is common and involves the marriage of a woman to a group of brothers.

In some cultures, if a man’s wife dies, especially if he has no children, or has young children, it is thought to be best for him to marry one of his deceased wife’s sisters. A sister, it is believed, is a reasonable substitution for the lost wife and likely a more loving mother to any children left behind. This practice might also prevent the need to return property exchanged at marriage, such as dowry (payments made to the groom’s family before marriage), or bridewealth (payments made to the bride’s family before marriage). The practice of a man marrying the sister of his deceased wife is called sororate marriage. In the case of a husband’s death, some societies prefer that a woman marry one of her husband’s brothers, and in some cases this might be preferred even if he already has a wife. This practice is called levirate marriage. This latter practice is described in the Old Testament.[6]

Families, Households and Domestic Groups

A family can be defined as the smallest group of individuals who see themselves as connected to one another. They are usually part of larger kinship groups, but with whom they may not interact on a daily basis. Families tend to reside together and share economic opportunities and other rights and responsibilities. Family rights and responsibilities are a significant part of understanding families and how they work. In the United States, for example, minor children have a right to be supported materially by their parents or other legal guardians. Parents have a responsibility to support and nurture their children. Spouses have a right to mutual support from each other and property acquired during a marriage is considered “common property” in many U.S. states unless specified otherwise by a pre-nuptial agreement. Some family responsibilities are cultural and not legal. Many such responsibilities are reinforced by religious or other ideological notions.

Family members who reside together are called households. A household may include larger kinship groups who think of themselves as separate but related families. Households may also include non-family or kin members, or could even consist exclusively of non-related people who think of themselves as family. Many studies of families cross-culturally have focused on household groups because it is households that are the location for many of the day-to-day activities of a society. Households are important social units in any community

Sometimes families or households are spread across several residential units but think of themselves as a single group for many purposes. In Croatia, because of urban housing constraints, some extended family households operate across one or more residential spaces. An older couple and their married children might live in apartments near each other and cooperate on childcare and cooking as a single household unit. Domestic group is another term that can be used to describe a household. Domestic groups can describe any group of people who reside together and share activities pertaining to domestic life including but not limited to childcare, elder care, cooking and economic support, even if they might not describe themselves as “family.”

Households may include nuclear families, extended families, joint extended families, or even combinations of families that share a residence and other property as well as rights and responsibilities. In certain regions of Croatia large agricultural households were incredibly numerous. I carried out research in a region known as Slavonia, which from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries was was near the border of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires. Families in portions of this region were referred to as zadruzi (plural) or a zadruga (singular). They sometimes numbered up to 100 members, all related through blood and marriage. But these households were much more than a nuclear or even a joint extended family. They were more like small towns with specialists within the household group who did things such as shoe horses or sew. These very large households supported a military culture where men between sixteen and sixty years old had to be ready for military service.[7] A Croatian anthropologist in the 1800s reported that one family was so large that an elderly woman died and this was not noticed for three days! The local government in this case forced the family to divide, separating their property and residing in smaller numbers.[8]

Marriage Exchanges: Dowry and Bridewealth

In many societies, marriages are affirmed with an exchange of property. This is usually the case in places where families have a hand in arranging a marriage. A property exchange recognizes the challenges faced by a family that loses a member and by a family that takes on a new member. These practices also reflect different notions about the value of the new family member.

Dowry payments are known from U.S. and Western European history. A dowry is a gift given by a bride’s family to either the bride or to the groom’s family at the time of the marriage. In societies that practice dowry, families often spend many years accumulating the gift. In some villages in the former Yugoslavia, the dowry was meant to provide for a woman if she became a widow. The dowry was her share of her family’s property and reflected the tradition that land was usually inherited by a woman’s brothers. The dowry might include coins, often woven together in a kind of apron and worn on her wedding day. This form of dowry also represented a statement of wealth, prestige or high status for both families; her family’s ability to give this kind of wealth, and the prestige of the family who was acquiring a desirable new bride. Her dowry also could include linens and other useful items to be used during her years as a wife. In more recent times, dowries have become extravagant, including things like refrigerators, cars, and houses.

A dowry can also represent the higher status of the groom’s family and its ability to demand a payment for taking on the economic responsibility of a young wife. This was of thinking about dowry is more typical of societies in which women are less valued than men. A good dowry enables a woman’s family to marry into a better family. In parts of India, a dowry could sometimes be so large that it would be paid in installments. Bride burnings, killing a bride, could happen if her family did not continue to make the agreed upon payments (though there may be other reasons for this awful crime in individual cases). This of course is illegal, but does sometimes occur.[9]

Historically, dowry was most common in agricultural societies. Land was the most valuable commodity and usually land stayed in the hands of men. Women who did not marry were sometimes seen as a burden on their own families because they were not perceived as making an economic contribution and they represented another mouth to feed. A dowry was important for a woman to take with her into a marriage because the groom’s family had the upper economic hand. It helped ease the tension of her arrival in the household, especially if the dowry was substantial.

Bridewealth, by contrast, often represents a higher value placed on women and their ability to work and produce children. Bridewealth is an exchange of valuables given from a man’s family to the family of his new wife. Bridewealth is common in pastoralist societies in which people make their living by raising domesticated animals. The Masaai are example of one such group. A cattle-herding culture located in Kenya and Tanzania, the Maasai pay bridewealth based on the desirability of the woman. Culturally defined attributes such as her age, beauty, virginity, and her ability to work contribute to a woman’s value. The economic value placed on women does not mean that women in such societies necessarily have much freedom, but it does sometimes give them some leverage in their new domestic situations. In rare cases, there might be simultaneous exchanges of dowry and bridewealth. In such cases, often the bridewealth gift was more of a token than a substantial economic contribution.

Same-Sex Marriage

In the United States, Canada as well as other countries, two individuals of the same sex may be legally married, but in these countries as well as other places, same-sex couples have been creating households and families for centuries, long before legal recognition. Same-sex marriages are documented, for instance, in the history of Native American groups from the Great Plains. On the Plains, men who preferred to dress and take on the roles of women were allowed to marry other men. It was assumed that if one partner gathered plant food and prepared food, the other partner should have a complementary role like hunting. Androgynous individuals, males who preferred female roles or dress, and females who took on male roles, were not condemned but regarded as “two-spirits,” a label that had positive connotations.

Two-spirits were considered to embody a third gender combining elements of both male and female. The key to the two-spirit gender identity was behavior: what individuals did in their communities.[10] If a person who was born with a male biological sex felt his identity and chosen lifestyle best matched the social role recognized as female, he could move into a third gender two-spirit category. Today, Native American groups set their own laws regarding same-sex marriage. Many recognize two-spirit individuals, and accept marriage of a two-spirit person to a person of the same biological sex. Although some nations still do not permit same-sex marriage between tribal members, one of the largest tribal nations, the Cherokee legalized same-sex marriages in 2016. 


Adoption is another way that people form family ties. In the United States, usually it is infants or minor children who are adopted by a non-parental family member like a grandparent, an aunt or uncle, or an older sibling, or by a non-family member. This is usually done when a biological parent is unable or unwilling to raise a child. The decision to give up a child through adoption is a complicated one, and one that parents do not make easily.

In other societies, adoption is viewed differently. In some Pacific Island societies, children who are adopted are considered fortunate because they have two sets of parents; children are not given for adoption because a parent is unwilling or unable to care for them, but rather to honor the adoptive parents. Martha Ward described a young woman in Pohnpei, Micronesia, who had a child for her grandmother, to keep her company in her older years. In another case she described a child who went to dinner at a relative’s house and stayed for a number of years in a kind of adoptive situation. In such cases, children retain relationships with biological and adoptive family members, and may even move fluidly between them.[11]

Family: Biology and Culture

What is natural about the family? Like gender and sexuality, there is a biological component. There is a biological mother and a biological father, although the mother plays a significantly larger and longer role from the time of conception through the end of infant’s dependence. In the past, conception usually required sexual intercourse, but that is no longer the case thanks to sperm banks, which have made the embodied male potentially obsolete, biologically speaking. There is also a biological relationship between parents and offspring—again, more obvious in the case of the mother since the baby develops in and emerges from her body. Nevertheless, DNA and genes are real and influence the traits and potentialities of the next generation.

Beyond those biological “realities,” culture and society seem to take over, building on—or ignoring—biology. We all know there are biological fathers who may be unaware of or not concerned about their biological offspring and not involved in their care and biological mothers who, after giving birth, give up their children through adoption or to other family members. In recent decades, technology has allowed women to act as “surrogate mothers,” using their bodies as carriers for implanted fertilized eggs of couples who wish to have a child. On the other hand, we all probably know of excellent parents who are not the children’s biological mothers and fathers, and “legal” parenthood through adoption can have more-profound parenting consequences for children than biological parenthood.

When we think of good (or bad) parents, or of someone as a really “good mother,” as an “excellent father,” as two “wonderful mothers,” we are not talking biology. We usually are thinking of a set of cultural and behavioral expectations, and being an adoptive rather than a biological parent isn’t really the issue. Clearly, then, parenthood, mother-father relationships, and other kinship relationships (with siblings, grandparents, and uncles-aunts) are not simply rooted in biology but are also social roles, legal relationships, meanings and expectations constructed by human cultures in specific social and historical contexts. This is not to deny the importance of kinship; it is fundamental, especially in small-scale pre-industrial societies. But kinship is as much about culture as it is about biology. Biology, in a sense, is only the beginning—and may not be necessary.

Marriage also is not “natural.” It is a cultural invention that involves various meanings and functions in different cultural contexts. We all know that it is not necessary to be married to have sex or to have children. Indeed, in the United States, a growing number of women who give birth are not married, and the percent of unmarried women giving birth is higher in many northwestern European countries such as Sweden.[12] Cross-culturally, marriage seems to be primarily about societal regulation of relationships—a social contract between two individuals and, often, their families, that specifies rights and obligations of married individuals and of the offspring that married women produce. Some anthropologists have argued that marriage IS primarily about children and “descent”—who will “own” children.[13] To whom will they belong? With what rights, obligations, social statuses, access to resources, group identities, and all the other assets—and liabilities—that exist within a society? Children have historically been essential for family survival—for literal reproduction and for social reproduction.

Think, for a moment, about our taken-for-granted assumptions about to whom children belong.[14] Clearly, children emerge from a woman’s body and, indeed, after approximately nine months, it is her body that has nurtured and “grown” this child. But who “owns” that child legally—to whom it “belongs” and the beliefs associated with how it was conceived and about who played a role in its conception—is not a biological given. Not in human societies. One fascinating puzzle in human evolution is how females lost control over their sexuality and their offspring! Why do so many, though not all, cultural theories of procreation consider women’s role as minor, if not irrelevant—not as the “seed,” for example, but merely as a “carrier” of the male seed she will eventually “deliver” to its “owner”? Thus, having a child biologically is not equivalent to social “ownership.” Marriage, cross-culturally, deals with social ownership of offspring. What conditions must be met? What exchanges must occur, particularly between families or kinship groups, for that offspring to be theirs, his, hers—for it to be a legitimate “heir”?

Marriage is, then, a “contract,” usually between families, even if unwritten. Throughout most of human history, kinship groups and, later, religious institutions have regulated marriage. Most major religions today have formal laws and marriage “contracts,” even in societies with “civil” marriage codes. In some countries, like India, there is a separate marriage code for each major religion in addition to a secular, civil marriage code. Who children “belong to” is rarely solely about biology, and when biology is involved, it is biology shaped by society and culture. The notion of an “illegitimate” child in the United States has not been about biology but about “legitimacy,” that is, whether the child was the result of a legally recognized relationship that entitled offspring to certain rights, including inheritance.

From this perspective, what we think of as a “normal” or “natural” family in the United States is actually a culturally and historically specific, legally codified set of relationships between two individuals and, to some extent, their families. Cross-culturally, the U.S. (and “traditional” British-Euro-American) nuclear family is quite unusual and atypical. Married couples in the United States “ideally” establish a separate household, a nuclear-family-based household, rather than living with one spouse’s parents and forming a larger multi-generational household, often referred to as an “extended” family, which is the most common form of family structure. In addition, U.S. marriages are monogamous—legally, one may have only one husband or wife at a time. But a majority of societies that have been studied by anthropologists have allowed polygamy (multiple spouses). Polygyny (one husband, multiple wives) is most common but polyandry (one wife, multiple husbands) also occurs; occasionally marriages involve multiple husbands and multiple wives. Separate spouses, particularly wives, often have their own dwelling space, commonly shared with their children, but usually live in one compound, with their husbands’ parents and his relatives. Across cultures, then, most households tend to be versions of extended-family-based groups.

These two contrasts alone lead to families in the United States that are smaller and focused more on the husband-wife (or spousal) and parent-child relationships; other relatives are more distant, literally and often conceptually. They are also more “independent”—or, some would say, more dependent on a smaller set of relationships to fulfill family responsibilities for work, child care, finances, emotional companionship, and even sexual obligations. Other things being equal, the death or loss of a spouse in a “traditional” U.S. family has a bigger impact than such a loss in an extended family household (see Text Box 1). On the other hand, nuclear families own and control their incomes and other assets, unlike many extended families in which those are jointly held. This ownership and control of resources can give couples and wives in nuclear families greater freedom.

There are other cross-cultural variations in family, marriage and kinship: in expectations for spouses and children, exchanges between families, inheritance rules, marriage rituals, ideal ages and characteristics of spouses, conditions for dissolving a marriage and remarriage after a spouse’s death, attitudes about premarital, extra-marital, and marital sexuality, and so forth. How “descent” is calculated is a social-cultural process that carves out a smaller “group” of “kin” from all of the potential relatives in which individuals have rights (e.g., to property, assistance, political representation) and obligations (economic, social). Often there are explicit norms about who one should and should not marry, including which relatives. Marriage between people we call “cousins” is common cross-culturally. These variations in the definition of marriage and family reflect what human cultures do with the biological “facts of life,” creating many different kinds of marriage, family, and kinship systems.

Another major contrast between the U.S. and many other cultures is that our husband-wife relationship is based on free choice and “romantic love.” Marriages are arranged by the couple and reflect their desires rather than the desires of larger societal groups. Of course, even in the United States, that has never been entirely the case. Informal prohibitions, often imposed by families, have shaped (and continue to shape) individual choices, such as marrying outside one’s religion, racial/ethnic group, and socio-economic class or within one’s gender. Some religions explicitly forbid marrying someone from another religion. But U.S. formal government prohibitions have also existed, such as laws against inter-racial marriage, which were only declared unconstitutional in 1967 (Loving v. Virginia).

These so-called anti-miscegenation laws, directed mainly at European-American and African-Americans, were designed to preserve the race-based system of social stratification in the United States.[15] They did not affect both genders equally but reflected the intersection of gender with class and racial inequality. During slavery, most inter-racial sexual activity was initiated by Euro-American males. It was not uncommon for male slave owners to have illicit, often forced sexual relations with female slaves. The laws were created so that children of slave women inherited their mother’s racial and slave status, thereby also adding to the slave property of the “father.”

Euro-American women’s relationships with African-American men, though far less frequent and usually voluntary, posed special problems. Offspring would inherit the mother’s “free” status and increase the free African-American population or possibly end up “passing” as “White.” Social and legal weapons were used to prevent such relationships. Euro-American women, especially poorer women, who were involved sexually with African-American men were stereotyped as prostitutes, sexually depraved, and outcasts. Laws were passed that fined them for such behavior or required them to work as indentured servants for the child’s father’s slave owner; other laws prohibited cohabitation between a “White” and someone of African descent.

Post-slavery anti-miscegenation laws tried to preserve the “color line” biologically by outlawing mating and to maintain the legal “purity” and status of Euro-American lineages by outlawing inter-racial marriage. In reality, of course, inter-racial mating continued, but inter-racial offspring did not have the rights of “legitimate” children. By the 1920s, some states, like Virginia, had outlawed “Whites” from marrying anyone who had a “single drop” of African blood. By 1924, 38 states had outlawed Black-White marriages, and as late as the 1950s, inter-racial marriage bans existed in almost half of the states and had been extended to Native Americans, Mexicans, “East Indians,” Malays, and other groups designated “not White.”[16]

Overall, stratified inegalitarian societies tend to have the strictest controls over marriage. Such control is especially common when some groups are considered inherently superior to others, be it racially, castes, or “royal” blood. Patriarchal societies closely regulate and restrict premarital sexual contacts of women, especially higher-status women. One function of marriage in these societies is to reproduce the existing social structure, partially by insuring that marriages and any offspring resulting from them will maintain and potentially increase the social standing of the families involved. Elite, dominant groups have the most to lose in terms of status and wealth, including inheritances. “Royalty” in Britain, for example, traditionally are not supposed to marry “commoners” so as to ensure that the royal “blood,” titles, and other privileges remain in the “royal” family.

Cross-culturally, even in small-scale societies that are relatively egalitarian such as the San and the Trobriand Islanders studied by Annette Weiner, marriage is rarely a purely individual choice left to the wishes—and whims of, or “electricity” between—the two spouses.[17] This is not to say that spouses never have input or prior contact; they may know each other and even have grown up together. In most societies, however, a marriage usually has profound social consequences and is far too important to be “simply” an individual choice. Since marriages affect families and kin economically, socially, and politically, family members (especially elders) play a major role in arranging marriages along lines consistent with their own goals and using their own criteria. Families sometimes arrange their children’s marriages when the children are quite young. In Nuosu communities of southwest China, some families held formal engagement ceremonies for babies to, ideally, cement a good cross-cousin partnership, though no marital relationship would occur until much later.[18] There also can be conventional categories of relatives who are supposed to marry each other so young girls might know that their future husbands will be particular cousins, and the girls might play or interact with them at family functions as children.[19]

This does not mean that romantic love is purely a recent or U.S. and European phenomenon. Romantic love is widespread even in cultures that have strong views on arranging marriages. Traditional cultures in India, both Hindu and Muslim, are filled with “love stories” expressed in songs, paintings, and famous temple sculptures. One of the most beautiful buildings in the world, the Taj Mahal, is a monument to Shah Jahan’s love for his wife. Where young girls’ marriages are arranged, often to older men (as among the Maasai), we know that those girls, once married, sometimes take “lovers” about whom they sing “love songs” and with whom they engage in sexual relations.[20] Truly, romantic love, sex, and marriage can exist independently.

Nevertheless, cross-culturally and historically, marriages based on free choice and romantic love are relatively unusual and recent. Clearly, young people all over the world are attracted to the idea, which is “romanticized” in Bollywood films, popular music, poetry, and other forms of contemporary popular culture. No wonder so many families—and conservative social and religious groups—are concerned, if not terrified, of losing control over young people’s mating and marriage behavior (see, for example, the excellent PBS documentary The World before Her).[21] A social revolution is truly underway and we haven’t even gotten to same-sex sex and same-sex marriage.

What Can We Learn from the Na? Shattering Ideas about Family and  Relationships

By Tami Blumenfield

We have certain expectations about the trajectories of relationships and family life in the United States—young people meet, fall in love, purchase a diamond, and then marry. To some extent, this specific view of family is changing as same-sex relationships and no-longer-new reproductive technologies expand our views of what family can and cannot be. Still, quite often, we think about family in a rigid, heteronormative context, assuming that everyone wants the same thing.

What if we think about family in an entirely different way? In fact, many people already do. In 2014, 10 percent of American adults lived in cohabitating relationships. Meanwhile, 51 percent were married in state-endorsed relationships, and that percentage has been dropping fast.[22] Those numbers may sound familiar as part of politicians’ “focus on the family,” decrying the number of children born to unmarried parents and bemoaning the weakening of an institution they hold dear (even though their colleagues are frequently exposed in the news for sexual indiscretions).

It is true that adults with limited resources face challenges raising children when they have limited access to affordable, high-quality child care. They struggle when living wage jobs migrate to other countries or other states where workers earn less. In an economic system that encourages concentration of resources in a tiny fraction of the population, it is no wonder that they struggle. But is the institution of marriage really to blame? The number of cohabitating unmarried individuals is high in many parts of Europe as well, but with better support structures in place, parents fare much better. They enjoy parental leave policies that mandate their jobs be held for them upon return from leave. They also benefit from strong educational systems and state-subsidized child care, and their children enjoy better outcomes than ours.

Critics see the “focus on the family” by U.S. politicians as a convenient political trick that turns attention away from crucial policy issues and refocuses it on the plight of the institution of marriage and the fate of the nation’s children. Few people can easily dismiss these concerns, even if they do not reflect their own lived realities. And besides, the family model trumpeted by politicians as lost is but one form of family that is not universal even in the United States, much less among all human groups, as sociologist Stephanie Coontz convincingly argued in books including The Way We Never Were (1992) and The Way We Really Are (1997). In fact, the “focus on family” ignores the diverse ways peoples on this continent have organized their relationships. For Hopi, a Native American group living in what is today the southwestern United States, for example, it is their mother’s kin rather than their husbands’ from whom they draw support. The Navajo, Kiowa, and Iroquois Native American cultures all organize their family units and arrange their relationships differently.

Figure 5: Na grandmother with her maternal grandchildren. They live in the same household, along with the grandmother’s adult sons and her daughter, the children’s mother. Photograph by Tami Blumenfield, 2002.

Na people living in the foothills of the Himalayas have many ways to structure family relationships. One relationship structure looks like what we might expect in a place where people make their living from the land and raise livestock to sustain themselves. Young adults marry, and brides sometimes moves into the husband’s childhood home and live with his parents. They have children, who live with them, and they work together. A second Na family structure looks much less familiar: young adults live in large, extended family households with several generations and form romantic relationships with someone from another household. When they are ready, the young man seeks permission to spend the night in the young woman’s room. If both parties desire, their relationship can evolve into a long-term one, but they do not marry and do not live together in the same household. When a child is conceived, or before if the couple chooses, their relationship moves from a secretive one to one about which others know. Even so, the young man rarely spends daylight hours with his partner. Instead, he returns to his own family’s home to help with farming and other work there. The state is not involved in their relationship, and their money is not pooled either, though presents change hands. If either partner becomes disenchanted with the other, the relationship need not persist. Their children remain in the mother’s home, nurtured by adults who love them deeply—not just by their mothers but also by their grandmothers, maternal aunts, maternal uncles, and often older cousins as well. They enjoy everyday life with an extended family (Figure 5). The third Na family structure mixes the preceding two systems. Someone joins a larger household as a spouse. Perhaps the family lacked enough women or men to manage the household and farming tasks adequately or the couple faced pressure from the government to marry.

As an anthropologist who has done fieldwork in Na communities since 2001, I can attest to the loving and nurturing families their system encourages. It protects adults as well as children. Women who are suffering in a relationship can end it with limited consequences for their children, who do not need to relocate to a new house and adjust to a new lifestyle. Lawyers need not get involved, as they often must in divorce cases elsewhere in the world. A man who cannot afford to build a new house for his family—a significant pressure for people in many areas of China that prevents young men from marrying or delays their marriages—can still enjoy a relationship or can choose, instead, to devote himself to his role as an uncle. Women and men who do not feel the urge to pursue romantic lives are protected in this system as well; they can contribute to their natal families without having to worry that no one will look out for them as they age.

Like any system composed of real people, Na systems are not perfect, and neither are the people who represent them. In the last few decades, people have flocked to Lugu Lake hoping to catch a glimpse of this unusual society, and many tourists and tour guides have mistakenly taken Na flexibility in relationships as signifying a land of casual sex with no recognition of paternity. These are highly problematic assumptions that offend my Na acquaintances deeply. Na people have fathers and know who they are, and they often enjoy close relationships despite living apart. In fact, fathers are deeply involved in children’s lives and often participate in everyday child-rearing activities. Of course, as in other parts of the world, some fathers participate more than others. Fathers and their birth families also take responsibility for contributing to school expenses and make other financial contributions as circumstances permit. Clearly, this is not a community in which men do not fulfill responsibilities as fathers. It is one in which the responsibilities and how they are fulfilled varies markedly from those of fathers living in other places and cultures.

Though problems exist in Na communities and their relationship patterns are already changing and transforming them, it is encouraging that so many people can live satisfied lives in this flexible system. The Na shatter our expectations about how families and relationships should be organized. They also inspire us to ask whether we can, and should, adapt part of their ethos into our own society.[23]

For more information, see the TEDx FurmanU presentation by Tami Blumenfield.


Families are adaptive groups that help address common societal concerns related to child-rearing, sexual relationships between adults, and gender roles within the household. While there are norms and ideals, expectations and understandings regarding families in all cultures, there are also always situations that represent variations on that norm. Sometimes these are areas where we begin to see culture change. In the United States in the 1960s, young people began to live together openly outside of marriage as couples. Those relationships were often socially disapproved, but today it is much more socially acceptable and common for people to live together prior to marriage or even instead of marriage. Often the couple will also have children before they decide to marry. An ideological variation that began nearly sixty years ago has led to a widespread culture change in attitudes toward marriage.

In the Croatian Republic of Yugoslavia in the 1980s, shortly after the death of long-time leader Josip Broz “Tito,” it was still expected that a young couple would live with a husband’s family at marriage. At that time, I was engaged in fieldwork that focused on social change. The socialist government had implemented legislation and social programs to support women moving out of traditional roles, becoming educated and productive members of the workforce, and participating in the professional class. There was state-funded daycare and liberal legislation regarding birth control and abortion among other efforts to improve or change the traditional roles of women.

In reality, however, marriage and parenthood were still highly valued. Couples often married at a young age and women tended to still be responsible for all housework. Women themselves valued keeping a clean house, cooking homemade food from scratch without using prepared foods, and caring for their families. Most young wives and mothers lived with their husbands’ families. Traditionally, mothers of sons gained power and respect in the family from their married son and daughter-in-law. In the past this relationship was sometimes described as a difficult one, with a daughter-in-law having little say in family and household life. Some of that seemed to persist in the 1980s. Women living with mothers-in-law did not have a great deal of freedom of choice and had to prove themselves at home, leaving less time to think about progressing in education or work.[24]

In an urban environment, however, housing was in short supply. If a family had two sons and one was already married and still living with his natal family, the second son might live with the wife’s family at marriage if that family had the space. In these situations, which were not considered ideal but still were in the range of acceptable alternatives, young married women found themselves living with their own mothers rather than a mother-in-law. A mother tended to make life easier for her own daughter rather than insisting that she do quite so much household work. Mothers and daughters were more often easy partners in a household. The mother-in-law of a young man tended not to make his life difficult, but rather to regard him fondly. Women who lived with their own families after marriage were more likely to be able to continue their education, take promotions at work, make more of the opportunities that were provided under socialism.

In Croatia, government engineered policies alone did not produce changes in family patterns or gender roles. It was a variety of factors, including economic pressures and housing shortages, which combined to create an environment in which families changed. It became increasingly common for couples to live with the wife’s family and eventually to live on their own. Today in Croatia, women have a great deal of freedom of choice, are likely to live alone with their husbands or, like in the United States, Canada, and European countries, to live with a partner outside of marriage. Change occurs in family life when social and cultural conditions also change.


The institutions of the family and marriage are found in all societies and are part of cultural understandings of the way the world should work. In all cultures there are variations that are acceptable as well as situations in which people cannot quite meet the ideal. How people construct families varies greatly from one society to another, but there are patterns across cultures that are linked to economics, religion, and other cultural and environmental factors. The study of families and marriage is an important part of anthropology because family and household groups play a central role in defining relationships between people and making society function. While there is nothing in biology that dictates that a family group be organized in a particular way, our cultural expectations leads to ideas about families that seem “natural” to us. As cultures change over time, ideas about family also adapt to new circumstances.


  1. Why is it important for anthropologists to understand the kinship, descent, and family relationships that exist in the cultures they study? In what ways can family relationships structure the lives of individuals?

  2. Status and role define the position of people within the family as well as the behaviors they are expected to perform. What are some of the statuses and roles found in families in your community? How have these changed over time?

  3. In this chapter, Gilliland describes several different patterns of family organization including nuclear families, extended families, and joint families. While small nuclear families are common in the United States, larger families are common in many other societies. What do you think are some of the practical effects of both small and large families on everyday life?


Bilateral descent: descent is recognized through both the father and the mother’s sides of the family.

Bridewealth: payments made to the bride’s family by the groom’s family before marriage.

Clan: a group of people who have a general notion of common descent that is not attached to a specific biological ancestor.

Descent groups: relationships that provide members with a sense of identity and social support based on ties of shared ancestry.

Domestic group: a term that can be used to describe a group of people who live together even if members do not consider themselves to be family.

Dowry: payments made to the groom’s family by the bride’s family before marriage.

Endogamy: a term describing expectations that individuals must marry within a particular group.

Exogamy: a term describing expectations that individuals must marry outside a particular group.

Extended family: a family of at least three-generations sharing a household.

Family: the smallest group of individuals who see themselves as connected to one another. Family of orientation: the family in which an individual is raised.

Family of procreation: a new household formed for the purpose of conceiving and raising children.

Household: family members who reside together.

Joint family: a very large extended family that includes multiple generations.

Kinship: term used to describe culturally recognized ties between members of a family, the social statuses used to define family members, and the expected behaviors associated with these statuses.

Kinship diagrams: charts used by anthropologists to visually represent relationships between members of a kinship group.

Kinship system: the pattern of culturally recognized relationships between family members.

Kinship terminology: the terms used in a language to describe relatives.

Levirate: the practice of a woman marrying one of her deceased husband’s brothers.

Lineage: term used to describe any form of descent from a common ancestor.

Matriarchal: a society in which women have authority to make decisions.

Matrilineal descent: a kinship group created through the maternal line (mothers and their children).

Nuclear family: a parent or parents who are in a culturally-recognized relationship, such as marriage, along with minor or dependent children.

Patrilateral cousin marriage: the practice of marrying a male or female cousin on the father’s side of the family.

Patrilineal descent: a kinship group created through the paternal line (fathers and their children).

Polygamous: families based on plural marriages in which there are multiple wives or, in rarer cases, multiple husbands.

Polyandry: marriages with one wife and multiple husbands.

Polygyny: marriages in which there is one husband and multiple wives.

Role: the set of behaviors expected of an individual who occupies a particular status.

Serial monogamy: marriage to a succession of spouses one after the other.

Sororate marriage: the practice of a man marrying the sister of his deceased wife.

Status: any culturally-designated position a person occupies in a particular setting.

Stem family: a version of an extended family that includes an older couple and one of their adult children with a spouse (or spouses) and children.

Unilineal: descent is recognized through only one line or side of the family.


Mary K. Gilliland, Ph.D. (also published as Mary K. Gilliland Olsen) earned a B.A. from Bryn Mawr College, with Honors in Anthropology; and M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in anthropology from the University of California, San Diego. Her primary research took place in the former Yugoslavia (1982–4, 1990–1), Croatia (1993, 1995, 1996–7) and with displaced Bosnians, Croats and Serbs in the United States (2001–3). In Croatia, Mary Kay was affiliated with the Filozofski Fakultet in Zagreb, the Ethnographic Museum in Slavonski Brod (Croatia/Yugoslavia), and with the Institute for Anthropological Research (Zagreb, Croatia both pre- and post-independence). Continuing affiliation as member of Editorial Board for the Collegium Antropologicum: The Journal of the Institute for Anthropological Research, and named a Lifetime Member of the Croatian Anthropological Society. Mary Kay has also collaborated in projects in Asia, including People’s Republic of China (primarily Xinjiang, Western China), Mongolia and Vietnam. Her areas of research interest and publication include culture and social change, gender and ethnic identity, family, marriage and intergenerational relationships. Primarily a “teaching anthropologist,” Mary Kay was full-time faculty and Department Chair at Pima Community College in Tucson, Arizona from 1989–2006. She maintains an ongoing relationship as Associate Adjunct Professor of Anthropology at the University of Arizona. She has taught at San Diego Mesa College, University of California, San Diego and the University of Zagreb. Since 2006 she has held a variety of administrative positions including Academic Dean, Vice President of Instruction and is currently Vice President of Academic Affairs at Central Arizona College.

  1. Lewis Henry Morgan, Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family (Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1871).
  2. Ralph Linton, The Study of Man (New York: D. Appleton-Century Company,1936).
  3. In a patrilineal society, children are members of their father’s patrilineage. A mother belongs to her own father’s patrilineage, while the children belong to their father’s patrilineage.
  4. See for example Merlin Myers, Households and Families of the Longhouse Iroquois at Six Nations Reserve (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2006).
  5. Melford Spiro, Kinship and Marriage in Burma: A Cultural and Psychodynamic Analysis (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1977).
  6. Laura Tubelle de González, “Modern Arranged Marriage in Mumbai” Teaching Anthropology: SACC Notes 19 (2015).
  7. See Vera St. Ehrlich, Family in Transition: A Study of 300 Yugoslav Villages. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966.
  8. Luka Lukic, Varos: Zbornik za narodi zivot i obicaje juznih slavena. Jugoslavenska akademija znanosti i umjetnosti. Zagreb. god. 24, str. 32.238, 1919.
  9. There are many news reports about this practice. See for instance Subodh Varnal, “Dowry Death: One Bride Burnt Every Hour,” The Times of India, January 27, 2012
  10. See for instance Will Roscoe, Changing Ones: Third and Fourth Genders in Native North America (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1998).
  11. Martha Ward, Nest in the Wind: Adventures in Anthropology on a Tropical Island (Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, 2005).
  12. See for some contemporary examples of the challenges and obstacles workplaces pose for working mothers, as well as efforts to advocate for improved accommodation of parenting and working.
  13. See C. Mukhopadhyay, Human Sexuality Lecture notes, for the following analysis, available from See also Mukhopadhyay, Part II, “Culture Creates Race,” especially chapter 7 and 9, in Carol Mukhopahdyay, R. Henze and Y. Moses How Real is Race? A Sourcebook on Race, Culture and Biology (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014).
  14. Ibid.
  15. This and subsequent material comes from C. Mukhopadhyay, Part 2, especially chapter 9, and p. 182–185, in Carol Mukhopahdyay, R. Henze and Y. Moses. How Real is Race? A Sourcebook on Race, Culture and Biology, 2nd edition (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014).
  16. Carol C. Mukhopadhyay, Yolanda Moses and Rosemary Henze, How Real is Race?, Chapter 9.
  17. Annette B. WeinerThe Trobrianders of Papua New Guinea (New York: Holt Rinehart and Winston, 1987)
  18. Lu Hui, “Preferential Bilateral-Cross-Cousin Marriage among the Nuosu in Liangshan,” in Perspectives on the Yi of Southwest China, Stevan Harrell, ed. (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2001).
  19.  Elizabeth Fernea, Guests of the Sheik.
  20. See the film Maasai Women, 1980.
  21. An excellent documentary on two alternative paths some women take in contemporary India: the Miss India path and the fundamentalist Hindu path. Filmed in India, The World Before Her
  22. See and 2014-09-14/singles-now-outnumber-married-people-america-and-thats-good-thing for background and links to detailed information.
  23. Material in this text box was adapted from “What Can We Learn from the Na? Shattering Ideas about Family and Relationships,” a TEDx FurmanU presentation by Tami Blumenfield. See also Tami Blumenfield, “Chinese Tour Groups in Europe, Chinese Tour Groups in Yunnan: Narrating a Nation in the World” The China Beat June 2, 2011.; Siobhan M. Mattison, Brooke Scelza, and Tami Blumenfield, “Paternal Investment and the Positive Effects of Fathers among the Matrilineal Mosuo (Na) of Southwest China American Anthropologist 116 no. 3 (2014): 591–610; Tami Blumenfield, “Resilience in Mountainous Southwest China: Adopting a Socio-Ecological Approach to Community Change,” in Worlds in the Making: Interethnicity and the Processes of Generating Meaning in Southwestern China, Cahiers d’Extrême Asie 23 (2014)
  24. Olsen, M. K. G., “Authority and Conflict in Slavonian Households: The Effects of Social Environment on Intra-Household Processes” in The Household Economy: Reconsidering the Domestic Mode of Production, Richard Wilk, ed., 149-170 (Colorado: Westview Press, 1989).