Is there a family?- Collier, Rosaldo, and Yanagisako
Family is viewed as a natural category stemming from our need to relate to our closest kin. The
Family (TF) has become an ideal to be achieved rather than a reality. We don’t pay attention to its
cross- cultural nation or to the complexity of human interactions as they occur.
Malinowski’s Concept of the Family
M wrote that Australian aborigines were not sexually promiscuous and distinguished legal marriages
from casual unions. Thus, marriage was indubitably cast as a universal human institution that filled a
Overview: Families exist to nurture the young. There were three main features of these marriages.
First, these were bounded units defined by husband and wife. This didn’t necessarily imply
extramarital affairs, but it did imply a mother, father and child. Second, there was a shared common
space for this family (i.e. a hearth or fire). Third, there was an emotional investment between
generations. There is a structural- function ring to this, and has the same functionalist flaw: the
function is not dependent on the institution and does not necessarily explain the existence of the
The existence of a family does not indicate an importance to it for insiders. For example, being able
to name a mother, father, sister is possible to the Zinacantecos of Mexico, but their primary concern
is the house they live (which varies from 1 to 20 people). Also, there is no need for families to live
together (i.e. gender separation amongst Mundurucu of South America). Finally, there is no
universality to the emotions experienced by family members (i.e. strained relationships between
mothers and daughters).
Families are not universal as Malinowski conceived them. Two questions: Why are families still
considered a universal, natural institution? Is there an anthropological alternative?
There was a new obsession with forward- progress in the late 18th century. It conceived humans as
becoming more “civilized”. Moreover, it placed morality squarely in the human realm and worried
thinkers about the potential negative ramifications of human control of morality.
Although families were not defined as universal, women as nurturing, connective and reproductive
were defined as constant. They viewed primitive as matriarchical, but they asserted that women
were complements to men. Thus, women played a passive role in history but the female sphere
continued to exist nonetheless.
Despite their biases, these 19th century writers correctly pointed out that family is a recent
European, state- based construct. There is no evidence of a universal concept of family. Kinship is
obviously important universally, but the specific kinship associated with families is not. This is
especially true given the private vs public nature of families. Different conceptualizations of these
two spheres make the idea of a universal family even less plausible.
Toward a rethinking
Even a critical analysis of the idea of family within our own culture (specifically, American) is
important. There is a tendency to emphasize the nurturant aspect of families (i.e. when arguing
Let’s say we say we need families because we need nurturance and the family provides it. When we
examine nurturance closer, we mean a need for an emotional bond. This bond is in opposition to the
competitive and objective nature of work (and thus the marketplace).