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Family in Anthropology since (1980)

Putting Theory Into Practice: Family Studies Of The 1980s And Early 1990s

As noted above, prior to the 1980s, discussions of the family in anthropology were almost exclusively linked to larger studies of kinship, a topic that held a central position in anthropological analyses from the inception of the discipline. Kinship studies, which suffered under similar, if not harsher, critiques as the ones for family studies, fell somewhat out of favor in the 1980s. However, that does not mean that work on the family had been abandoned. In fact, it could be argued that it was reinvigorated by its repositioning. Discussion of the family now appeared to take a more central role in social analysis in part because of its very close linkages to the important emerging theme of gender. Ethnographies were increasingly considered incomplete without a significant and meaningful discussion of women's roles, and this often meant a lengthy discussion of the family.

The following section highlights just a few of the major themes addressed in anthropology of gender in the 1980s and early 1990s, with a special emphasis on their contributions to larger theoretical concerns in relation to anthropology of the family. These themes include history and colonialism, relations of production, and intrafamilial dynamics. Each topic reflects the concerns that Yanagisako outlined above as well as those reflected in the discipline-wide shift away from formalist thinking. No clear distinctions are made here between the 1980s and the early 1990s, since work on the family during this time reflects an evolution of ideas rather than a real paradigm shift.

History, colonialism, gender, and the family.

Much of anthropological writing as a whole was woefully bereft of historical contextualization. Almost from the beginning, anthropologists adopted the technique of writing in the ethnographic "present," which served to create an image of the culture under study as timeless and relatively unaffected by historical influences. That radically changed in the 1980s as anthropologists rediscovered history as an important analytic tool. This turn toward the historical included interest in private as well as public life, and the domestic world was laid open to historical reconstruction. Colonialism in particular became a pivotal theme to address, and feminist scholars, among others, concerned themselves with attempting to show how gender roles and family relations were historically, not naturally, created.

While the exact circumstances obviously vary considerably, under colonialism important economic relations changed; these impacted the ways in which families engaged in productive activities and ultimately the form and configurations of families. Under European colonial rule, land relations were altered, thereby impacting who could and could not own land. In some cases families lost all of their lands, reconfiguring family production patterns and shifting possibilities for inheritance, while in other cases women lost the ability to own land and the productive benefits that entailed. Moreover, land was often alienated from those who long worked it, changing household production from auto-production to dependence on patron-client relations or wage labor. In many parts of the world, for the first time, men, women, and children were sent from their households to work for others. Over time, households in some regions became increasingly linked to global, not domestic, economies, altering the meaning of productive work and often putting control over it, usually via wage labor, into the hands of men. In sum, researchers noted that as inheritance, division of labor, and production patterns changed, the family was transformed in unique and locally specific ways.

Along with economic changes, colonialism also brought with it important ideological shifts. European ideologies of gender and especially Christian morality toward sexuality significantly altered gender and family relations. Using Hawaii as an example, Patricia Grimshaw writes that women's lives were considerably different prior to colonialism and the work of Christian missionaries. Descent was traced through the male and female lines, adolescent female sexuality was not restrained, marriages were easily terminated, and infants were often adopted and/or reared by extended kin networks. The overall picture is one of relative freedom for at least some Hawaiian women to make choices about sexuality and marriage. Christian missionaries actively worked to expunge these ideas, and in doing so they shifted Hawaiian families toward greater control over female sexuality and ultimately toward patriarchy. Elsewhere, Christianity has been associated with the dissolution of extended family networks because it stresses individual, not group, responsibility.

Relations of production and the family.

Another area of considerable research in anthropology on the family concerns understanding the relationship between economic change, women's roles, and changes in the composition and functioning of the family. Among the themes most frequently explored by anthropologists are the impacts of incipient capitalism and the effects that the increasing penetration of the world economy has had on family roles and domestic orientations. How, for example, does unequal access to wage labor produce changes in men's and women's influence and roles within the family? How might participation in capitalism influence family configuration and intrafamilial dynamics? The evidence is plentiful, if not straightforward.

In Latin America, for example, anthropologists such as Hans Buechler and Judith-Maria Buechler have found that women who are engaged in petty commodity production or in market vending often find that their ability to support themselves and their children financially can free them from oppressive, patriarchal relationships with their husbands. Through work, entrepreneurial women have created networks beyond the family, allowing them the financial and sometimes the social freedom to reconstruct their family lives. However, access to income generation does not always translate to a drastic change in women's roles within the household. According to Florence Babb, Peruvian market women, much like their North American counterparts, often work a double day—first in the market and then at home—resulting in little real change in family relations.

What is clear from the cross-cultural evidence is that capitalism does not necessarily provide the conditions for equality within households and in fact may reinforce patriarchy. In places where wages are low and the state options for child care are very limited, women often find their abilities to access wage labor severely constrained by practical, if not ideological, considerations. Women often take the lowest-paid jobs, which offer flexibility, or they find they are unable to work except perhaps at the very margins of the informal sector. Rather than empowering women, wage labor often makes them more dependent on male wage-earners than they may have been in an agricultural setting where men and women share the productive tasks. Similarly, families often become more patriarchal as the sole male breadwinner takes on the responsibility of "head of household." The point of interest on a theoretical level is the recognition that the effects of any particular structural or economic change, in this case the penetration of capitalism, are never uniform, and they vary not only regionally but also locally and intersect with a range of other important cultural variables.

Family dynamics.

Interest in inequality extended beyond the analysis of how social inequalities inscribe themselves on families and led some scholars to explore more deeply the ways in which inequality is manifest in intrafamilial dynamics. This was fairly new terrain for anthropologists because most studies left unquestioned the assumption that families were for the most part unified and coherent institutions. It had long been presumed that families function in a manner that implies a degree of cooperation between members and that decision making within a family involves a consideration of shared, mutual goals. Families, it was thought, were corporate groups in which hierarchy was generally unquestioned and decision making relatively smoothly enacted for the good of the family, not the individual. Yet an examination of the day-to-day lives and decision-making practices of families gives evidence that families are often far less harmonious than these functionalist theories would imply. Families, like states, are domains in which hierarchy and domination are negotiated continually, often mirroring other structural inequalities but sometimes not. The nature and content of familial conflicts, how they change over time, and the ways in which families resolve them (if at all) are important areas of scholarly concern because they reveal domains of important cultural and social tension.

One area where the conflictual role of intrafamilial dynamics has been most obviously documented is in the shifting nature of families engaged in the various forms of labor migration. One of the effects of the unequal penetration of capitalism globally has been that families must send away one or more of their members to seek wage labor. Sometimes this migration results in a rural-to-urban move of one individual or the whole family and sometimes in the international migration of one or more family members. In all of these cases families often face radical changes. Conflicts and tensions are myriad. They can appear between husbands and wives as they negotiate between urban and rural gender roles and expectations. Generational tensions can mount as young adults find themselves responsible for navigating a world their parents cannot understand. Siblings can find their worlds colliding in unexpected ways as they vie for scarce educational resources. And immigrant fathers may find their child-rearing preferences in conflict with host-country norms.

Anthropological work on the intersection of family and the global economy also contributed to our understandings of families as constructed units and not necessarily biologically based ones. For example, focusing on the Caribbean, Christine Ho discusses the emergence of what she terms "international families." International families are organized primarily around women and include kin, fictive kin, and friends who participate in mutual aid and exchange networks that span multiple cities and even continents. Ho argues that international families are responding to particular global economic inequalities, but she points out that this response is creative and dynamic and not preordained by circumstances.

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