Matrifocality: An emerging empirical and theoretical issueThe residential systems we have identified reflect a broad range of possible domestic forms, which are evident in numerous social systems around the world. However, they do not cover all the eventualities. Notable exceptions include some New Guinea societies, in which unrelated males reside together in a central mens house, separately from their wives (see Dani households), Nyakusa age villages, where young boys live in a group camp separately from their parents, and the Israeli kibbutz, where the settlement's children are reared in a communal childcare facility. A much more widespread phenomenon is represented in the matrifocal family, an almost minimal domestic order in which the fundamental unit is simply a woman and her children. This form is typical of people whose ways of life are affected by poor employment opportunities and low incomes and is sometimes identified as a salient feature of the culture of poverty. It is also becoming an increasing frequent family form in many post-industrial societies, including the United States and Canada. Despite its apparent simplicity, understanding and explaining its forms and functions have presented a major challenge to anthropological analysis.
The term matrifocal, or its synonym, matricentric, simply means mother or female centered and can be understood to designate a domestic form in which only a mother and her dependent children are present or significant. Adult males in the capacity of husbands and fathers or of brothers and mothers brothers are either absent or, in some formulations, present but marginal to family life. The term should not be confused with matrilocality, where husbands are present in their wives households or with natalocality, where brothers assume male domestic responsibilities. Moreover, the arrangement is not particularly associated with matrilineality nor is it the product of an obvious residence rule. It is usually results from an undesired accident: a father either refuses to acknowledge responsibility for his children, abandons his family, or dies. It is prevalent in communities in which men are not able to meet domestic commitments because of unemployment or poverty. Major examples have been drawn from Latin American and Caribbean squatters settlements and American Black ghettos.
Anthropological treatment of matrifocality reflects many of the classificatory and explanatory problems in the description and analysis of domestic units. Major controversies have been initiated over whether this residence form:
- can be understood as an expression of deeply rooted cultural values or simply an accommodation to economic hardship,
- adequately takes into account the interresidential networks of aid that are often highly significant in low-income communities, and
- adequately represents the domestic cycle.
Department of Anthropology
University of Manitoba
Created: October 2003
Sociology involves the study of social life, social change, and the social causes and consequences of human behaviour The scope of sociology is extremely broad, ranging from the analysis of interactions between individuals to the investigation of global social processes (Giddens 1997). Dependent on the “sociological imagination” (Mills 1976), sociology examines how private experiences and personal difficulties are entwined with the structural arrangements of society. As such, sociology provides a complement to the more individually focused discipline of psychology.
Sociology is a social science, where divisions between the disciplines are not clear cut, and they share common interests, concepts and methods (Giddens, 1997). Sociology is perhaps closest to anthropology. However, because it evolved from the industrial revolutions in Europe and America, sociology is often identified more closely with relatively modern, urbanised societies, and focuses on the problems of complex social arrangements.
The sociology of the family encompasses a wide range of issues, including teenage childbearing, juvenile delinquency, substance abuse, the experiences of mothering, domestic violence, child and elder abuse, and divorce. It also is closely linked to a number of other fully-fledged fields in sociology, such the sociology of childhood, sociology of gender, social gerontology, death and dying, the sociology of sexuality and the sociology of emotions.
This section of the paper is limited to covering the main theoretical traditions of “modern sociology”, while highlighting a selection of key areas in which there is particular interest in the family. A discussion of the post-modern critiques of sociology is included at the end of this section.
4.1 Explanatory framework
The sociology of the family has three main theoretical traditions. These are structural-functionalism, symbolic interactionism and conflict theories that include feminism. Some of these traditions are overlapping and to separate them is somewhat of an artifice, but for the sake of clarity, this section of the paper describes them as if they were stand-alone bodies of theory and research.
4.1.1 Structural functionalism
Functionalist theories in sociology explain social institutions like the family primarily in terms of the functions they perform (Jary and Jary 1991). Functionalism begins with the observation that behaviour in society is structured, and that relationships between individuals are organised in terms of rules and are therefore patterned and recurrent. Functionalists then examine the relationship between the different parts of the structure and their relationship to society as a whole. At its simplest, functionalism focuses on effects such as the effect of the family on other parts of the social structure and on society as a whole. Generally, however, a functionalist analysis includes an examination of the contribution an institution makes to the maintenance and survival of the social system. For example, in simplistic terms, a major function of the family is the socialisation of new members of society.
The structural-functionalist perspective of the family, closely associated with Parsons, focuses on the family and its relationship to society (McLennan, Ryan and Spoonley 2000). Parsons (1951) argued that the family fulfils a number of functions within society, but identified two of these as key. The first was the socialisation of children into the appropriate values and norms of society. Focusing on North American culture in particular, Parsons theorised that the role of the family was to ensure that independence and a motivation to achieve was instilled in children’s personalities. The second function of the family was the stabilisation of the adult personality through marriage, which served as the antidote to the emotional stresses and strains of everyday life.
Parson’s theory included the differentiation of gender roles within the family, with each partner filling one of two somewhat opposing but complementary functions. Men were characterised as fulfilling an instrumental role, with women’s more expressive nature providing the complement. Parsons argued that the expressive role was assigned to women as a result of the primarily expressive bond between mother and children.
While structural functionalism was the dominant theoretical perspective, particularly in North America, during the 1950s and 1960s, functionalist theories of the family have since been highly critiqued, not least because they provide little consideration of alternative family forms or family pathologies, other than to argue that such variations are either inherently “dysfunctional” or fulfil some latent function in broader society. Furthermore, functionalist theories tend to justify the sexual division of labour, and ignore gender inequalities inherent in Parson’s “complementary roles” structure.
4.1.2 Symbolic interactionism
Symbolic interactionism, associated with the theories of Mead, Goffman and Becker, focuses on the small-scale phenomena that constitute everyday interactions in an attempt to understand how individuals experience and understand their social worlds, and how different people come to share a common definition of reality (Berger and Luckmann 1967).
Symbolic interactionism is based on the premise that it is only through the social behaviour of individuals that society can come into being at all, and as such, society is ultimately created, maintained, and changed by the social interaction of its members. Because human beings communicate with one another by means of symbols, interactions are based on the meanings that individuals impart to these symbols (Blumer 1969). Symbolic interactionism emphasises the ability of individuals to actively or constructively interpret symbols in their actions. In contrast, functionalism suggests that social structures determine actions.
Symbolic interactionist theories of the family examine the family at a more micro level than functionalism, focusing on the ways that families create and re-create themselves at an everyday level. Rather than seeing family roles as pre-existing and given structures that are adopted unproblematically, this school of thought focuses on the meanings and lived experience associated with those roles and how they are constructed through interaction (McLennan et al 2000).
What symbolic interactionism lacks in macro theories of the family, it makes up for in detailed understandings of family relations, as there is a substantial body of research focusing on almost every conceivable aspect of family life. The diversity of this research is evident in the array of topics it covers. They range from how children interpret the symbolic value of the contents of their school lunch (Kaplan 1999, 2000), the experiences of divorced fathers (Arendell 1995), the symbolic mechanism of rituals such as family meals and holidays (DeVault 1991), the experiences of breastfeeding mothers (Blum 1999) (Bentovim 2002), to the meanings different family member attach to consumption and money (Pugh 2002, Zelizer 1997). Work in this area includes research on the ways couples negotiate the division of visible and invisible labour within the family (Hochschild and Machung 1989), studies of the ways men and women experience parenthood (Arendell 2000, Garey 1999) explorations into the ways children experience childhood, including school, childcare and the more general pace of life (Corsaro 1997, James and Prout 1997, Thorne 1997) and cross-cultural and cross-class comparisons of family experiences (Glenn, Change and Forcey 1994, North 2000).