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Family in Anthropology since (1980)

New Directions For Family Studies, Putting Theory Into Practice: Family Studies Of The 1980s And Early 1990s

Until the last decades of the twentieth century, anthropological definitions of the family were heavily influenced by largely unexamined Western cultural assumptions about biology and its relationship to kinship. Indeed, disentangling the history of family studies from kinship studies in anthropology is very difficult because, among researchers, kinship early on became the basis for understanding family. In an effort to make cross-cultural comparisons meaningful, anthropologists concerned themselves with attempting to find a universal definition of the "family"—one that could be used across time and place. Family was distinguished from household, with "family" most often defined as a group composed of individuals who share some genetic connection—expressed most obviously in the nurturing of children—and having jural rights to property, especially land. In practice, the first part of this definition resulted in a tendency for researchers to place women at the emotional and reproductive centers of the family, while the second part served to place men, through whom inheritance usually occurred, in the jural and productive center. "Household" referred to individuals sharing residential space, domestic resources, and usually productive tasks but who may not share a genetic connection. It was argued that households were distinct from families but sociologically important because households reflect the structural linkages between kinship reckoning and social groups. However, it is in the family (not the household) where the necessary reproductive activities of childbearing and child rearing take place, and it was "the family" that was frequently imbued with certain affective or emotional orientations. At its extreme, the core unit of a family was defined by Ward Goodenough as primarily composed of a mother and her children but as potentially including others who are vaguely defined as "functionally significant" (Yanagisako, p. 164).

The late 1970s marked a turning point in anthropology for studies of the family. Invigorated by new ideas from both within and outside the academy, this was a time when old, embedded assumptions about the universality of the family and its sociological purposes were debated and ultimately discarded. Especially in American anthropology, the new approaches to the study of the family were influenced by two intersecting currents. First, some scholars were concerned with contributing to the debates about the possible social changes to the family brought about by the American feminist movement. At the time there was much public discussion about the potential dangers of the inevitable decline of the "American family," which opponents of the feminist movement claimed would necessarily accompany changes in women's social roles. Using cross-cultural evidence, feminist anthropologists such as Jane Collier, Michelle Rosaldo, and Sylvia Yanagisako sought to expose the unsupported assumptions that guided popular and academic discourses concerning the "ideal" composition and configuration of the family. The second intellectual influence was a discipline-wide shift in the orientation of social theory writ large. Anthropologists were moving away from the almost century-long pursuit of identifying "types" and defining human universals—necessarily etic categories—toward more nuanced analyses of cultural meanings and their relationships to particular social forms and processes.

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