The family has traditionally occupied a central place in society with communities hailing it as the basic unit of society. Families provide the social core in all societies and the nuclear family is present in all societies in the world. The unifying function of the family has been credited with the development and advancement of societies since time immemorial.
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For this reason, the family unit is unanimously considered as the basic building block of a successful and functional society. This is the ideal institution within which children are created and brought up in a protected environment until they are able to take care of themselves.
The family also serves as a tool for socialization since the shared moral and social values of the community are inculcated in the children withing the family setting.
For these reasons, the family is assumed to be an innate experience with some authors suggesting that the family is a natural institution. However, this notion has been questioned by anthropologists whose studies have led them to question the “naturalness” of the family unit.
The findings of these scholars have led them to conclude that the family is not a natural thing but rather a construction of the society. This paper will set out to discuss the ideas of some of the most outstanding anthropologists of the 20th century, Adam Kuper, David Schneider, and Claude Levi-Strauss, in order to show that the family is a fabricated thing.
The Idea of the Family
The family is regarded as the basic unit of society and at its most base level; it is made up of a man, woman, and their children. Kuper (1982) states that the family preceded the formation of the society and in these early stages, it comprised of a male figure who exercised jurisdiction over his wives and children. Each family paid no regard to the other and acted in its own self-interest.
The aggregation of families was the next step in social evolution and the ties of kinship became the basis of societies. The family provided the basis on which societies were ordered with expanded extended families serving as the social core.
Reproduction is universally considered to be the basis of family relations since each person must have a biological father and mother. This simple parent-child relationship makes it possible to perform genealogical tracing since it is a biological fact that a man and a woman must be involved in procreation.
Therefore, the concept of kinship was formulated based on this blood relation and relationships though marriage unions between previously unrelated parties. The naturalness of the family has been presupposed for many centuries due to the prevalence of this social grouping. However, the arguments made by anthropologists suggest that the family is a cultural construct.
Family: A Fabricated Concept
Adam Kuper’s Ideas
Adam Kuper suggests that the family was formulated as an organization through which people could live in harmony and accomplish greater exploits. Before the concept of family, each individual acted at his own discretion and there was no order or system of laws in place.
Kuper (1982) records that the original state of human society was characterized by promiscuity rather than family life and this status quo was detrimental to the raising of children. This primitive existence was unsustainable since violence and anarchy reigned. The family unit emerged as a more ordered system of procreation within which the child could exist in a more secure environment.
As the family concept became more sophisticated, legal paternity became recognized and the child could grow in an environment where he/she had a mother and a father. The extended patriarchal family group provided the basis for jural order and continuity (Kuper 1982, p.73).
The earliest form of government was therefore based on the family concept. The political ideas were grounded in the assumption that “kinship in blood is the sole possible ground of community in political functions” (Kuper 2008, p.723). The family was formulated as the best structure to foster social stability and encourage good governance.
The prohibition of some relationships in some cultures while the same relationships are allowed in others is further proof that kinship is a culturally constructed concept. Human beings formulate the laws governing who should marry whom and therefore forms a family and they vary from society to society.
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Kuper (2008) documents that in the nineteenth century, there was no crime in incest, and there were no rules articulating which marriages were allowed or forbidden. Before the 1880s, incest was an acceptable practice in England and there were no laws against the practice.
The social perception of incest only underwent a radical change when the danger of sexual relations between fathers and daughters, or brothers and sisters began to be publicized by the National Vigilance Association. Following this, incest came to be conceived of as an offence with a victim.
Because of this change in public perception, the British Parliament passed a Law in 1907 that made incest a crime and criminalized sexual relationships between members of the immediate family. As such, the family is a fabricated institute that is prone to changes based on the public needs.
Kuper (2003) argues that the family was necessary to ensure survival in the primitive societies where division of labour was necessary. In these pre-modern societies, the nuclear family comprised of male and female enabled the parties to specialize in various activities for sustenance. The males typically acted as the hunters while the females were gatherers within a nuclear family setting.
This economic function increased the value of the family and kinship was integral for survival Kuper (2003). It is conceivable that without the economic need of family, this institution would never have been created.
Further reinforcing this supposition is the observation by anthropologists that with the rise of the individualist modern society, the economic functions of family have shrunk and each sex can manage to exist without the need of the other.
Another indication that family is a fabricated concept is the difference in preference placed on a particular side of the family by different cultures. While some cultures emphasize on matrilineal descent (kin from the mother’s lineage), others emphasize on patrilineal descent (kin through the father’s lineage).
In addition to this, the location of residence differs with some cultures promoting marriage residence at the mother’s family house while most promote residence at the father’s family house (Kuper 2003).
If the family was a natural construct, there would be universal preferences and all cultures would follow the same conventions. The fact that different ideals are practiced by different cultures proves that family is a human construction.
The rapid changes in society that were experienced in the 1950s and 1960s demonstrated that the family was not an integral component of the society. During this period, consensual unions became widespread and the traditional family unit was dismantled in some circles.
Some people began to view the family as a major source of discontentment within the society and this greatly discredited the nuclear family as an unshakeable institution. The sentiments of the time are best articulated by Leach who asserts, “far from being the basis for the good society, the family with its narrow privacy and tawdry secrets, is the source of all our discontents” (Kuper 2003, p.332).
The nature of partner relationships has also experienced significant changes over the decades with a marked decline in the importance of the social origin of a partner being exhibited in all modern societies. In the past, great weight was placed on marriage with major kinship involvement in the process (Dykstra 2006).
Today, marriage unions are primarily a matter of personal choice and preference with the families on both sides of the partners being involved only marginally. In addition to this, the frequency with which family unions are dissolved has risen tremendously.
The increased rate of marriage dissolutions is blamed on the heightened emphasis on the emotional side of relationships, which leads to higher expectations and demands by both partners on each other (Dykstra 2006). In traditional marriage unions, emphasis was placed on the social and material benefits of the union.
Claude Levi-Strauss’s Ideas
Claude Levi-Strauss is credited with advancing the Structuralism theory in which he argued that the phenomena of the external world are apprehended as having distinct characteristics because of the way our senses communicate these perceptions (Voss 1977).
Human beings are predisposed to categorize things into separate units or segments and assign these things named classes. Any material object of culture or belief system is in imitation of human apprehension of nature (Levi-Strauss 1970). Man’s perception of nature as segmented is therefore responsible for his view of society as ordered.
Advocates of the family as a natural unit might argue for the “natural” nature of the family structure since it exists universally. Both primitive and civilized societies have some concept of family, which is typically made up of females and at least one male figure either related to the female(s) by blood or by marriage.
Levi-Strauss refutes this assertion by highlighting that cultures are bound to have some similarities since they are all products of human minds (Voss 1977). For this reason, universal features such as the family unit can occur.
Levi-Strauss suggests that the basis of marriage rules was to create bonds between otherwise unrelated people. He argues that the since pre-historic times, communities had the option of intermarrying among themselves or giving away their women to other communities (Johnson 2003). The communities that gave away their women cemented political alliances and thus reduced the risk of being annihilated by superior enemies.
The incest taboo was formed out of the need to enforce exogamy and therefore increase the society’s chances of survival. Voss (1977) best articulates this idea by stating that “if survival of a society is dependent upon alliance, strong sanctions against incest must be interdicted” (p.28).
The family concept was formulated as an important unifying force through which the social cohesion was fostered and propagated. Levi-Strauss formulated the alliance theory in which he argued that sibling groups were linked through the exchange of sisters in marriage thus extending sibling solidarity to larger groupings (Kuper 1982).
Levi-Strauss argued that “all the pre-modern societies of the world were organized on the basis of cross-cousin marriage” (Kuper 2008, p.726). He further stated that the family as a function of marriage was an institution that was formulated to create and maintain alliances.
These alliances took place through the exchange between groups as people married for strategic reasons such as to strengthen political alliances (Levi-Strauss 1969). Kinship served the practical purpose of preventing war by setting up a diplomatic alliance between groups.
The class structure that is based on family status is a cultural construction. Levi-Strauss considers the practice of totemism an expression of the differences among members of the society. Totemism, which is the naming of individuals or clans after particular plant or animal species, was a widespread practice since historical times (VonSturmer 1970).
This practice emerged from the need of man to develop a system of social ordering by giving different class structures. Human beings are able to distinguish each other according to their mutual social status, which is normally articulated in the form of social classification.
David Schneider’s Ideas
Throughout the 19th century, Americans held the view that the family relationship was biologically given and of huge importance to the society. Many Europeans also shared this assumption and they presumed that kinship was a biological outcome. However, Schneider argues that if this were the case then the same set of ideas would have been developed by other peoples across the world.
This is not the case and the family structure varied from continent to continent, and tribe to tribe. For this reason, David Schneider suggested that kinship was a function of civilization and not a feature of primitive society. According to this anthropologist, there is nothing natural about kinship and it is the production of the society.
Social conventions alone may lead to a family relationship even if there is no biological relationship between or among parties. This view is corroborated by Johnson (2003) who reveals that a person is regarded as family based on some socially prescribed duties and privileges that the person fulfils in his/her relation to others.
The manner in which people act towards each other is based on the concept of kinship, which is a construction of man. Schneider (1984) argues that there is no such thing as kinship and that “kinship” is in fact a creation of anthropologists and it has no concrete existence. Schneider (1984) suggests that family is a social construction that is useful for the allocation of rights and their transmission from one generation to the next.
The family was formulated as an entity through which continuity could be guaranteed. Patrilineage in many societies served as a landholding corporations with parents leaving property to their children. Dykstra (2006) notes that resources are “passed down from one generation to the next, in the form of gifts or inheritances for example, or in the form of financial support” (p.1).
Schneider (1984) theorizes that biological kinship is culturally constructed and it was formulated to help establish paternity with a fair degree of likelihood. He elaborates that primitive man lived at a time when promiscuity prevailed and there was no way of establishing who the child’s father was.
The concept of “marriage of pairs” was formulated to help establish paternity and this was the earliest and greatest act of human intelligence. The bonds and ties that are attributed to the sexual reproduction that occurs in the family setting are not natural but a function of the society. Schneider (1984) observes that sexual relations can occur and have significance even outside kinship.
However, the social and cultural attributes that are created when sexual reproduction occurs in a nuclear family setting are formulated by the society. Biological relations are for this reason afforded special qualities by the society. This has led to the ties being regarded as natural and inherent in the human condition.
The ties between biologically close members are not natural since they would not be special without the social and cultural connotations ascribed to them.
The socialization process is responsible for inculcating the concept of kinship in children. As a child grows up in the family, he/she is taught the logic by which his/her specific culture classifies kin and these concepts become ingrained in him/her. The child is often ignorant as to what kinship terms such as “uncle”, and “aunty” mean but he/she is brought up to attach special meaning to the relationships.
Schneider (1984) points out that the classifications of “relatives” may extend beyond the simple biological and genetic relationships with stipulated descent being included in the categories. Without the socializing process, the concept of the family would die out as individuals would not be confined to this socially prescribed structure.
Schneider strongly rejects the understanding that family has to do with reproduction and he assertively declares that kinship is essentially undefined and vacuous which since it has little that can justify it (Read 2003).
The inadequacy of blood relationships for a definition of family is accentuated by the inability for this consanguinity to account for practices such as adoption that still make fatherhood and motherhood possible. Read (2003) argues that it would be more convincing to state that family is a social convention rather than a function of procreation and parturition.
Schneider argues that the family is a fabrication since some cultures do not have words that can reasonably translate to “father” or even “child”. In his ethnographic work among the Yapese, Schneider noted that the relationship between the biological father and offspring could not be translated as “father” and “child” in the English sense of the word (Schneider 1984).
The Yapese people were able to exist without this genealogically based kinship relationship and even the passing down of property from generation to generation was not done on the basis of biological relationships.
In addition to the thoughts of the renowned anthropologists referenced herein, current developments in the family structure provide more evidence that the family is a cultural construct. The traditional gender-specific division of labour has had to change with the increased participation of women in the labour market.
Dykstra (2006) notes that the interaction between the partners who make up the family has become “more of a matter of negotiation” with the traditional gender-specific notions being all but discarded in most developed nations.
The recent legitimization of gay and lesbian family formation in many Western countries further reinforces the assertion that family is a fabricated concept. For centuries, homosexual relationships were frowned upon by societies with severe penalties being imposed on individuals who engaged in these unions.
Schneider (1997) reveals that the notion of sodomy was so abhorred in Western culture that if “justified killing and enslaving so many in the 15th and 16th centuries” (p.271). This has changed and homosexual unions are today tolerated on a greater scale.
Schneider (1997) notes that gay and lesbian rights are today asserted with antidiscrimination laws and fringe benefits being accorded to this previously marginalized sub-group. The traditional notion of family has had to be reinvented as non-heterosexual couples form relationships and become “families”.
The idea that family is a fabricated concept has led to the fall of kinship studies as modern anthropologists have abandoned the subject due to the many internal problems and theoretical weaknesses contained in it (Kuper 2003). In spite of the different approach taken in their arguments, the three thinkers analysed in this paper, Levi-Strauss, Kuper, and Schneider all contend that family is a cultural construct.
The paper has demonstrated that the prevalence of families in all communities is not an indication of their naturalness. Renowned anthropologists such as Levi-Strauss have demonstrated that the seemingly universal concept is not an indication of the naturalness of the family unit.
Rather, it is a statement of the scientific operations of classification of objects and phenomena which occurs in both Western and primitive societies. The universal family structure as we know it is a product of identical mental manipulations, which explains the seemingly self-consistent systems exhibited all over the world.
The fact that the family unity is “not what it used to be” is proof enough that the family is a fabricated unit that keeps evolving with the culture of the society.
In the recent past, alternative household organizations such as single-parent families and singles have become prevalent hence necessitating a review of the importance of the nuclear and extended family. These realities suggest that the assumption of genealogy or biology as the basis of the family is faulty since if this were the case, the family structure would remain static through time.
In spite of the understanding that the family is a fabrication, this unit will continue to play an important role in society. The nuclear family is still the engine-room of socialization and it continues to bestow economic benefits for its members. Even Schneider (1984) acknowledges that kinship is a privileged institution since it is the major building block out of which all social systems are constructed.
This paper set out to examine the ideas of prominent anthropologists in order to demonstrate that the family is a fabricated thing. A review of these ideas has revealed that family is an ideological illusion constructed by man over the centuries. The paper has demonstrated that the concept of family started from the individual actor playing for economic and political advantage and using the family as a tool for social cohesion.
The paper has convincingly shown that most aspects of kinship are not natural but rather the social construction of various societies over the centuries.
The family relationship is not primarily one of genealogical and reproductively, instead, it is culturally specified and the manner in which it is expressed and perceived is a fabrication. It can therefore be authoritatively stated that family is not inherently human or universal; rather, it is a cultural construction that is arbitrary and variable in nature.
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