Family, Marriage, Kinship in Different Cultures


This paper will examine the issue of family, marriage, kinship in different cultural conditions. The topic presents an interest for study, because the family is one of the five fundamental institutions of society, giving it stability and the ability to replenish the population in each generation. At the same time family acts as a small group, it is the most cohesive and stable social unit. Thus, the family is the main institution of society. Marriage is the institution that regulates the relations between the sexes. In a society, sexual relationships are governed by complex cultural norms. Throughout life, a person is a part of a lot of different groups - a group of peers or friends, school class, work team, sports team - but only the family remains the group, which he never leaves. Thus, consideration of certain forms of marriage within different cultural conditions and areas present a great interest for anthropological analysis.

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First of all, it is important to define key concepts of family, kinship and marriage. A family is a group of people related by direct kinship, in which adults members commit themselves to care for the children. Kinship is relationship arising from the marriage or resulting from blood relation between persons (fathers, mothers, children, grandparents, etc.). Marriage can be defined as a sexual union of two adults recognized and approved by society.

Four-field Approach

Anthropology is divided into four disciplines: physical, archeological, cultural and linguistic anthropology. In order to study the topic, cultural anthropologists use methods and evidence that are based on empirical data which are collected, processed, classified and interpreted after the fieldwork. Cultural anthropology implies a humanistic view of the world based on the comparison, the so-called “cross-cultural” studies, ie, on a comparison of the different cultures in different historical periods, not just the traditional societies. The ideological core of the archeological methods and evidence is the empirical method. It represents the accumulation of a large number of facts with a thorough description, completely abandoning the synthesis of the data. The archeological approach involves the study of culture in the static state, as well as ethnographic and archeological material. Biological, physical, or forensic anthropologists study the topic by various methods: measurement and statistics for biological features, tests, analysis of dissemination and holistic research for phenomena. In addition to this stratigraphic techniques are used to study cultural past. Linguistic anthropologists pursuing the following objectives: indicate the differences and similarities in language, social customs of ethnic groups; explore certain cultural traits - folklore, myths, depict, art, craft, kinship systems, etc., and record the areas of their distribution. It can be definitely said that all four approaches can offer separated data which are necessary for full and in-depth understanding the topic. Only using the evidence which are presented by each approach, one can create a right image about similarities and difference of the concept of family, marriage, kinship in various cultures.

Family, Marriage, Kinship in African Culture

The traditional African family-commune is the result of complex tribal weavings and could be combined from 50 to 100 people.In Africa, the most widespread tradition is those according to which the family continues on one line and the children belong to a particular family clan. Father and mother are not members of the same family to which their children belong. There are two basic principles of establishing kinship of children - maternal and paternal lines. Sometimes it happens so that both of these lines are so intertwined anthropologists talk about the system of dual relationship.

In contrast to modern societies, where the natural biological relations in the family are preferred, an African tradition is based on the social obligations to a greater extent. The concept of "parental rights", which can be given to several persons, is established. "Mother" of children can be considered a biological mother and her sisters as well as other women of her age group. Similarly, the "fathers" of children are brothers of the biological father and his close friends. Polygamy in Africa is supported not only by men but also by women. Polygamy is not a manifestation of wealth or power of men but to a greater extent a way of functioning of the society.

Men communities form a separate subgroup in which relationships are built in a hierarchical manner, depending on the social situation and the seniority of men. In the women's group, the hierarchy is also present, but it is based on the basis of age, and for married women on the principle of priority and social situation, which they acquire as a result of the marriage ceremony.

Being alien to the family of her husband, after marriage the woman has a close connection with the related group, where she was born. With respect to this group, she retains rights and obligations. Spouses can part both because of insubordination woman to her husband or her infertility, and because her husband does not provide sufficient and acceptable living conditions for a wife. The woman - the founder of the family is considered the mother of all born children, even those who were born from other wives. The basis of society constitutes the old customs that have been preserved to this day.

Despite the fact that Africans for years have been coming in contact with other cultures, it does not change their customs. In traditional societies, their kinship determines not only social but also economic relations. The views and ancient customs of the peoples of Africa do not change but only adapt to the modern world. Polygamy does not disappear; the tribal custom of adopting children continues to exist. The community remains the main condition for preserving the identity of Africans.

Today, the family remains the focus of all the traditional establishments for many young people. As a result, many countries continue to operate community and religious rules allowing early marriage. In some ethnic groups the practice getting married at the age of 11, 12 or 13 years continues. The legislation of most African countries is based on the supremacy of men in the family. According to the law, the husband determines the family domiciles and disposes of all community property if the spouse does not elect the form of separate ownership of the property.

Family, Marriage, Kinship in Muslim Culture

Muslims consider family as an institution prescribed by God. For this reason, the Koran devotes more attention to family life than any other subject. The Muslim family is a complex interweaving system, which includes not only husband and wife, parents and children but also various relatives. Each family member has a clearly defined role and responsibilities. In Islamic society, marriage, accompanied by the birth of children is a religious duty of man. The main purpose of marriage is procreation.

The main features of the Muslim family law are close collaboration with religious ideology and morality; focus on a family support; a differentiated approach to the concept of equality between men and women. It is based on the Koran and the Sunnah which are the fundamental source of law. The subjects of this area are family and inheritance relationships, tutelage and guardianship, mutual obligations of spouses, parents and children and other relatives.

Family and a matrimonial law of Sharia has retained some vestiges of the patriarchal tribal system of pre-Islamic Arabia. The Muslim family is based on kinship through the male line. The head of the family should ensure internal order in the family group, as well as to protect it from external attacks. An obligatory condition of Muslim marriage for a man is the ability to provide financial stability for wives and children.

A Muslim has the right to marry any woman except atheist. This can be explained by the rules of Sharia, according to which a man with his absolute power in the family will be able to draw his wife in his faith. However, marriages of Muslim women with the representatives of other faiths are not only forbidden, but also legislation provides criminal liability by imprisonment for such cases.

Polygamy is widespread. Polygamy is a plural marriage in which the one partner has more than one marriage partner of the opposite sex. Islam prohibits any sexual intercourse outside of marriage. Koran forbids the incestuous marriages and marriages between milk relatives. In theory, the Muslim law does not allow forced marriages; however, the traditional Muslim marriage rules are inconsistent with the free choice of a spouse in the modern Western society. This is because the Muslim marriage is primarily a union of existing families.

Family, Marriage, Kinship in Indian Culture

India for many generations was influenced by the prevailing tradition of the joint family. It is a structure, in which the number of family members increases at the expense of parents, children, spouses, and so on, and they all live together. The Indian family is numerous, sometimes up to sixty people live in the house. In this way, the linear family is formed. As a rule, the head of the linear family is the oldest man. He assumes the right to solve all important issues and set the rules, and all family members have to agree with that.

With respect to the marriages, the vast majority of Indian supports caste traditions. In India, there is a regulation to marry outside the gotra, but within the caste.  Inter-caste marriages are tolerated but not encouraged. For centuries, arranged marriages were a tradition in Indian society, although men and women have always had a choice of who they want to marry. Nowadays, most marriages in India are scheduled by parents of the couple or respected members of the family, albeit with the consent of the bride and groom.

According to approach to kinship and marriage, India can be divided into two broad regions – the north and the south. In the north, they seek for marriage with the families that are not related by blood. The marriage of blood relatives is prohibited. As a result, the inhabitants of one village enter into marriages with residents of hundreds of other villages. In South India, marriage makes stronger already established family ties. There is no division of relatives by blood and marriage ties. However in the south, marriages are getting within a limited circle of family and all its members are blood relatives. The purpose of such marriages is to create a small, strongly connected group of relatives.

Orthodox Judaism does not prohibit polygamy. It was common among the upper castes. Female beginning in the culture of India manifested in the preservation of vestiges the matriarchal system of kinship and family organization. India is one of the few countries in the world where people, practicing polyandry still live. This practice has stopped after the adoption of the law on marriage, forbidding polygamy in 1955.

Historically and currently, in some regions of India, the joint family plays an important role. Parents choose a bride for his son outside the village and neighboring villages, even from a family of the same caste, which has no blood ties to them.

Family, Marriage, Kinship in Chinese Culture

In old China, the family (Jia) was formed as a big family community consisting of 5-6 (sometimes more) small patriarchal monogamous families. The composition of the small family was usually simple. The state account of "average family" meant 5 people, but, in fact, it could be even greater. Married sons lived together with their father who was the head of the family. When the division, the parents stayed with their eldest son. Collusion about marriages was made by old people, thus, the bride and groom did not see each other before getting married. The legacy was divided between sons equally.

Until recently, the ideal of Chinese society was a society of large families. Elaborated customs dictated the behavior of each member of the family in relation to each other. Chinese ideal meant reverence for the ideals of family and obedience to public foundations. However, after the fall of the Manchu dynasty and in subsequent periods of revolution, Chinese family in the urban areas gradually began to approach to the type of family that had been widespread in Western Europe. Few families have sufficient wealth to maintain the existing ideal of a large family. During the 1920s and 1930s, Chinese men and women were given the right to choose their own spouse, and divorce has become a common phenomenon.  Polygamy, concubinage, child marriage, arranged marriages, dowries (fee for carrying out the marriage) were banned, and restrictions on remarriage of widows were lifted.

The traditional focus on large family caused tremendous overpopulation in China. In the 1970s, the state introduced strict family planning rules that allowed most couples to have no more than one child. The desire of the majority of rural households in China the birth of sons has led to the use of ultrasound and other technical means to identify the male fetus, and often, getting rid of the undesirable female one.

Family, Marriage, Kinship in American Culture

The family belongs to the most important social values. The American family is nuclear, monogamous, partially patriarchal, and partially egalitarian. The norm for it considered the local residence and bilateral relationship. In every country where the process of industrialization advanced significantly, there is a set of new family models. One of the most notable phenomena is the romantic love as the basis for marriage. In American society, factors such as religious belief, race, social class and age, determine a group of members which the individual prefers to marry. Preference for the representatives of religious groups is generally confirmed by a high level of marriage between them.

Two Anthropologic Theories

Anthropologists analyze family, marriage and kinship with the two main trends: functionalism and conflict theory. Supporters of functionalism analyze the family in terms of its functions or social needs, which it serves. They claim that due to major changes occurring during the last 200 years the institution of the family is developed almost in the same way across all the regions.  major changes in family functions are related to its destruction as a cooperative labor pool, as well as limited ability to pass status of the family from parents to children. Among the main functions of the family should be noted socialization of children. With the emergence and development of the industrial society and the welfare of the states functions of the family and its members have changed radically all over the world.

Proponents of the theory of conflict give the main value to the distribution of power within the family. Under the influence of the industrial revolution, the family was transformed into a set of monetary relations. According to the current embodiment of this concept, a family is a place where economic production is carried out and the redistribution of material resources. This gives rise to conflicts between the interests of each family member, and other members, as well as society as a whole. According to the theory of conflict family, marriage and kinship issue is different for regions and the way of its development depends on the economic and political environment. 

The Way in Which Understanding of Family, Marriage, Kinship Concept Affect the Perception of the Issue in Own Culture

Understanding how family, marriage, kinship are treated in other cultures gives the opportunity to suggest that the nuclear family in our culture remains an extremely fragile form. If the romantic hope of happiness in marriage is not carried out, the couple does not feel the need for the further union. Moreover, the circle of relatives and friends does not longer have the impact on a married couple, in order to help the spouses to remain together. Therefore, the modern family in our culture is under a lot of internal and external stress. Moreover, in recent years significantly increased the number of heterosexual couples who live together but do not marry. That can not be found in cultures described above. Most non-conjugal couples do not have children. It is also the distinguishing feature of our culture which is not peculiar to other ones. However, such kind of families challenges the monopoly of the family in the regulation of sexual relations between adults. A particular concern is the legal aspect of these relationships since partners, and probably their children have fewer legal rights in case of rupture than married couples. 

Furthermore, the one more aspect which characterizes the families in our culture is romantic love as a basis for marriage.  It can be said that in a society where marriages are not arranged by the senior members of the family it leads almost everyone to marriage. Romantic love still holds the couple together longs enough.

The features of family, marriage, kinship in our culture in comparison to others give the opportunity to suggest the possibility of several tendencies in the development of future of the family concept. Among them, the preservation of the modern family; a return to the traditional family; the destruction of the family; the revival of the family (by improving the dating services with the use of computers, consulting, etc.) and create a "fake" family based on common interests and needs can be noted. On the other hand, the family in our culture in contrast to above-mentioned cultures is flexible and resistant. In the end, signs of the complete destruction of the family are not observed.


The institution of the family performs a very important function in society. In the cultural and historical development, not only the form of family relations but also the content of these relations, in particular, between husband and wife has changed. With the emergence of monogamy, this change obtained a qualitative nature in a greater degree. The basic function of the family in most of described cultures was the reproduction of the population. The matrimonial institution was a stable formation. Depending on the economic situation in the region, one the type of marriage - monogamy or polygamy dominated. Some vestiges of the old system are alive to this day. For example, in some countries, polygamy is very common now. Differences in forms of marriage in different countries are primarily due to the socio-economic situation in these regions, as well as religious features, cultural and historical traditions. In most cases, marriage was largely seen as a form of economic transaction, in which everything is pre-thought out and defined. Nowadays, in traditional society, as a rule, one can see the type of nuclear families, mostly patriarchal.

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