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Family in Anthropology since (1980)

New Directions For Family Studies

By far the most important anthropological work concerning the family to emerge in the 1970s was Yanagisako's comprehensive article "Family and Household: The Analysis of Domestic Groups" (1979). This review of almost a century of anthropological work exposed the problematic assumptions that guided studies on the family, and it set an agenda for further study. It is important to understand Yanagisako's critiques in detail as they were central in establishing theoretical approaches to the family for the next twenty years. Yanagisako grouped previous studies into two types: those concerned with identifying similarities in cross-cultural family types and household formation; and those that took a more developmental perspective focused on the evolution of particular family types over time. She found both types of studies lacking.

Yanagisako critiqued family studies that sought to identify cross-cultural universals on several fronts. First, she argued against static definitions of the family. In particular she posited that definitions that focused on the genealogical composition of a family, and especially those that reduced it to the mother-child "core," did not reflect reality but rather the Western intellectual tendency to draw unsupported parallels between the biological/natural world and the sociological. While the mother-child dyad is clearly essential for biological reproduction, cross-cultural evidence indicates that it is not the only possibility for social reproduction. Similar biological constraints do not necessarily create similar ideological or moral orientations. Not only did it become apparent that mothers do not have the same role in child rearing across cultures, but it was also clear that the nurturing of children is not done exclusively by mothers. Hence the mother-child core of the family is revealed to be only an idealized Western construct, not an ethnographic truth. Indeed, the concern for debunking the tenacious idea about the universal nature of mothering continued to be explored throughout the 1980s by scholars working in multiple disciplines. Anthropological critiques were influenced by feminist scholars outside of anthropology including Sara Ruddick and Nancy Chodorow, who refuted assumptions about the "natural" and immutable qualities of maternal love and attachment and, by extension, the universal significance of a mother's role in the family.

Second, Yanagisako argued that many family studies placed too much emphasis on categorizing families into immutable types such as nuclear, joint extended, and so on. These types were determined by examining the intersection of geneological connections and residence patterns. In addition to limiting the possibilities for family configuration to etically generated categories, this practice serves to obscure meaningful differences that may be inherent within typologies. Families that look the same structurally (joint extended, for example) may in fact behave very differently in practice, and those differences may be extremely important. Unfortunately, differences become obscured under the weight of homogenizing stereotypes about how families of any given configuration should ideally function.

The effort to categorize families into types also contributed to the second group of studies that Yanagisako critiqued, the ones oriented toward understanding the development of particular types. In particular she argued that identifying a limited range of family forms serves to reinforce (increasingly) questionable ideas about cultural evolution. The logic of the evolutionary argument is as follows. If family "types" could be shown to have consistent associations with particular subsistence strategies—the nuclear family with industrialization, the joint extended with agriculture, and so on—then family formation could be seen as an adaptation to subsistence. Hence the direction of change in family forms could even be predicted over time.

However, as Yanagisako pointed out, the problems with these studies are numerous. First, the family as a social institution, and individuals as members of them, become divested of all agency and dynamism in this model. Possibilities for both inter-and intrafamilial differences disappear. Second, the relationships between families and larger social structures and forms becomes mechanistic and unidirectional—as subsistence forms change, families will necessarily change in particular and predictable ways. Nuclear families "naturally" evolve to meet the needs of industrial capitalism, and so forth (for a critique of this idea, see Moore). Obviously this type of thinking leaves the door open for the labeling of some family "types" as abnormal when they do not mirror the established, adaptive norm. For example, as Carol Stack describes, the black, matrifocal family in America was often portrayed as deviant because it differed from the nuclear family norm. Stack, however, never fully moves away from an adaptive framework as she argues in All Our Kin (1974) that the matrifocal family is an adaptation to American poverty.

Finally, the focus on families as self-contained units operating in particular ecological settings denies the connections and relationships that all families have with larger social institutions and formations, including the state. Indeed, both the reification of the mother-child core bond and the focus on households as self-contained economic units serves to reinforce the mistaken notion that the domestic or private realms (in other words, families and households) exist outside of and independent from the public sphere.

In an attempt to set out an agenda for new studies of the family, Yanagisako urged researchers to move away from trying to delineate forms (and universal definitions) toward an analysis that is sensitive to the myriad activities and diverse meanings created within and by families. Mirroring David Schneider's groundbreaking work on kinship, she argued that families are "symbolic" systems laden with multiple and complex meanings. These meanings are important not only for understanding the domestic domain but because they can lead to greater understanding of broader cultural themes. Yanagisako also borrowed from gender studies, especially the work of Rosaldo, and urged a rethinking of the public (male)/private (female) split so often seen in family studies. Researchers should explore not only how women may operate in the public domain but how their domestic activities and roles impact the political. Finally, Yanagisako urged researchers to put the analysis of the family in a broader, more comprehensive framework. In particular, studies ought to include a consideration of the impacts that inequality (both societal and intrafamilial) have on family configuration and meaning and how relations of production and inequality affect domestic groups. Rather than necessarily viewing families as statically functional or adaptive institutions, intrafamilial dynamics should be explored, including tensions over the distribution of power and resources. The family should be viewed as a historically situated and dialectically responsive "ideological" unit composed of individual actors, not as a concrete thing that can be tacitly defined and described.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Evolution to FerrocyanideFamily in Anthropology since (1980) - New Directions For Family Studies, Putting Theory Into Practice: Family Studies Of The 1980s And Early 1990s