Matrifocal Family Essay

Matrifocality: An emerging empirical and theoretical issue

The 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 “men’s 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:

  1. can be understood as an expression of deeply rooted cultural values or simply an accommodation to economic hardship,
  2. adequately takes into account the interresidential networks of aid that are often highly significant in low-income communities, and
  3. adequately represents the domestic cycle.
© Brian Schwimmer, All rights reserved
Department of Anthropology
University of Manitoba
Created: October 2003

Some sociologists argue that the matrifocal family is typical of Caribbean societies. To what extent do you support their argument?
In your answer, you should refer to a named Caribbean society.

According to Functionalism, the family is a universal social institution in society that takes care of the needs of society. George. P. Murdock states that the family is a social group characterized by common residence, economic co-operation and reproduction. It includes adults of both sexes, at least two of whom who maintain a socially approved sexual relationship and one or more children own or adopted of these sexually co-habiting adults.
According to Murdock the nuclear family is universal. However many theorists argue that the nuclear family is not universal and there are several different family forms which fulfill the need of society. These include same-sex marriages and the single-parent household. The argument made by some sociologists that the matrifocal family is typical of Caribbean societies is correct with respect to some societies such as Jamaica, Antigua, Barbados and Grenada. Matrifocality refers to a family which has a female as the focal point of the family thus establishing her as the leader. If a male is involved, his role is marginal. This essay looks at some of the characteristics of this structure and how the matrifocal and male marginality emerged from issues of power, sexuality, gender roles and economic circumstances.
Herskovits (1964) and Frazier (1939) argued that African retentions influenced the Caribbean family. This was a result of the retention of cultural practices from Africa namely polygamy, where one man had several women and often offspring from each of them. M.G Smith (1962) asserts that the system of plantation slavery in the Caribbean accounts largely for mother-headed households. When slaves were sold, family units were usually broken, however mother and her dependent children were usually kept together. This lead to the...

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