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Harvesting rice, wheat, and other grains also entails essential input by women. Women may accommodate their reproductive and child-rearing roles by engaging in work that is more compatible with child care, such as cooking, and in activities that occur closer to home and are interruptible and perhaps less dangerous, though cooking fires, stoves, and implements such as knives certainly can cause harm! They gather or process nuts while their children are napping; they take their children with them to the fields to weed or harvest and, in more recent times, to urban construction sites in places such as India, where women often do the heaviest and lowest-paid work.

In the United States, despite a long-standing cultural model of the stay-at-home mom, some mothers have always worked outside the home, mainly out of economic necessity. This shifting group includes single-divorced-widowed mothers and married African-Americans pre- and post-slavery , immigrants, and Euro-American women with limited financial resources. But workplace policies except during World War II have historically made it harder rather than easier for women and men to carry out family responsibilities, including requiring married women and pregnant women to quit their jobs. While pregnant women in the United States are no longer automatically dismissed from their jobs—at least not legally—the United States lags far behind most European countries in providing affordable child care and paid parental leave.

What is natural about the family?

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Like gender and sexuality, there is a biological component. In the past, conception usually required sexual intercourse, but that is no longer the case thanks to sperm banks, which have made the embodied male potentially obsolete, biologically speaking. There is also a biological relationship between parents and offspring—again, more obvious in the case of the mother since the baby develops in and emerges from her body. Nevertheless, DNA and genes are real and influence the traits and potentialities of the next generation.

We all know there are biological fathers who may be unaware of or not concerned about their biological offspring and not involved in their care and biological mothers who, after giving birth, give up their children through adoption or to other family members. Clearly, then, parenthood, mother-father relationships, and other kinship relationships with siblings, grandparents, and uncles-aunts are not simply rooted in biology but are also social roles, legal relationships, meanings and expectations constructed by human cultures in specific social and historical contexts.

Urban Anthropology

This is not to deny the importance of kinship; it is fundamental, especially in small-scale pre-industrial societies. But kinship is as much about culture as it is about biology. Biology, in a sense, is only the beginning—and may not be necessary. We all know that it is not necessary to be married to have sex or to have children. Indeed, in the United States, a growing number of women who give birth are not married, and the percent of unmarried women giving birth is higher in many northwestern European countries such as Sweden.

With what rights, obligations, social statuses, access to resources, group identities, and all the other assets—and liabilities—that exist within a society? Children have historically been essential for family survival—for literal reproduction and for social reproduction. Think, for a moment, about our taken-for-granted assumptions about to whom children belong. Not in human societies. One fascinating puzzle in human evolution is how females lost control over their sexuality and their offspring!

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What conditions must be met? Throughout most of human history, kinship groups and, later, religious institutions have regulated marriage. In some countries, like India, there is a separate marriage code for each major religion in addition to a secular, civil marriage code. Cross-culturally, the U. In addition, U. But a majority of societies that have been studied by anthropologists have allowed polygamy multiple spouses. Polygyny one husband, multiple wives is most common but polyandry one wife, multiple husbands also occurs; occasionally marriages involve multiple husbands and multiple wives.

Across cultures, then, most households tend to be versions of extended-family-based groups. These two contrasts alone lead to families in the United States that are smaller and focused more on the husband-wife or spousal and parent-child relationships; other relatives are more distant, literally and often conceptually. On the other hand, nuclear families own and control their incomes and other assets, unlike many extended families in which those are jointly held.

This ownership and control of resources can give couples and wives in nuclear families greater freedom. Often there are explicit norms about who one should and should not marry, including which relatives. Another major contrast between the U. Of course, even in the United States, that has never been entirely the case. Some religions explicitly forbid marrying someone from another religion.

But U. These so-called anti-miscegenation laws, directed mainly at European-American and African-Americans, were designed to preserve the race-based system of social stratification in the United States. During slavery, most inter-racial sexual activity was initiated by Euro-American males. It was not uncommon for male slave owners to have illicit, often forced sexual relations with female slaves.

Euro-American women, especially poorer women, who were involved sexually with African-American men were stereotyped as prostitutes, sexually depraved, and outcasts. Overall, stratified inegalitarian societies tend to have the strictest controls over marriage.

Patriarchal societies closely regulate and restrict premarital sexual contacts of women, especially higher-status women. One function of marriage in these societies is to reproduce the existing social structure, partially by insuring that marriages and any offspring resulting from them will maintain and potentially increase the social standing of the families involved. Elite, dominant groups have the most to lose in terms of status and wealth, including inheritances.

Since marriages affect families and kin economically, socially, and politically, family members especially elders play a major role in arranging marriages along lines consistent with their own goals and using their own criteria. In Nuosu communities of southwest China, some families held formal engagement ceremonies for babies to, ideally, cement a good cross-cousin partnership, though no marital relationship would occur until much later.

This does not mean that romantic love is purely a recent or U. Romantic love is widespread even in cultures that have strong views on arranging marriages. Nevertheless, cross-culturally and historically, marriages based on free choice and romantic love are relatively unusual and recent. We have certain expectations about the trajectories of relationships and family life in the United States—young people meet, fall in love, purchase a diamond, and then marry.

To some extent, this specific view of family is changing as same-sex relationships and no-longer-new reproductive technologies expand our views of what family can and cannot be.


Still, quite often, we think about family in a rigid, heteronormative context, assuming that everyone wants the same thing. What if we think about family in an entirely different way? In fact, many people already do.

In , 10 percent of American adults lived in cohabitating relationships. Meanwhile, 51 percent were married in state-endorsed relationships, and that percentage has been dropping fast. It is true that adults with limited resources face challenges raising children when they have limited access to affordable, high-quality child care.

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  • They struggle when living wage jobs migrate to other countries or other states where workers earn less. In an economic system that encourages concentration of resources in a tiny fraction of the population, it is no wonder that they struggle. But is the institution of marriage really to blame? The number of cohabitating unmarried individuals is high in many parts of Europe as well, but with better support structures in place, parents fare much better.

    They enjoy parental leave policies that mandate their jobs be held for them upon return from leave. They also benefit from strong educational systems and state-subsidized child care, and their children enjoy better outcomes than ours. Few people can easily dismiss these concerns, even if they do not reflect their own lived realities. And besides, the family model trumpeted by politicians as lost is but one form of family that is not universal even in the United States, much less among all human groups, as sociologist Stephanie Coontz convincingly argued in books including The Way We Never Were and The Way We Really Are The Navajo, Kiowa, and Iroquois Native American cultures all organize their family units and arrange their relationships differently.

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    Figure Na grandmother with her maternal grandchildren. Na people living in the foothills of the Himalayas have many ways to structure family relationships. One relationship structure looks like what we might expect in a place where people make their living from the land and raise livestock to sustain themselves.

    They have children, who live with them, and they work together. A second Na family structure looks much less familiar: young adults live in large, extended family households with several generations and form romantic relationships with someone from another household. If both parties desire, their relationship can evolve into a long-term one, but they do not marry and do not live together in the same household. When a child is conceived, or before if the couple chooses, their relationship moves from a secretive one to one about which others know.

    Even so, the young man rarely spends daylight hours with his partner. The state is not involved in their relationship, and their money is not pooled either, though presents change hands.

    If either partner becomes disenchanted with the other, the relationship need not persist. They enjoy everyday life with an extended family Figure The third Na family structure mixes the preceding two systems.


    Someone joins a larger household as a spouse. Perhaps the family lacked enough women or men to manage the household and farming tasks adequately or the couple faced pressure from the government to marry. As an anthropologist who has done fieldwork in Na communities since , I can attest to the loving and nurturing families their system encourages.

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    • It protects adults as well as children. Women who are suffering in a relationship can end it with limited consequences for their children, who do not need to relocate to a new house and adjust to a new lifestyle. Lawyers need not get involved, as they often must in divorce cases elsewhere in the world. A man who cannot afford to build a new house for his family—a significant pressure for people in many areas of China that prevents young men from marrying or delays their marriages—can still enjoy a relationship or can choose, instead, to devote himself to his role as an uncle.

      Women and men who do not feel the urge to pursue romantic lives are protected in this system as well; they can contribute to their natal families without having to worry that no one will look out for them as they age. Like any system composed of real people, Na systems are not perfect, and neither are the people who represent them. In the last few decades, people have flocked to Lugu Lake hoping to catch a glimpse of this unusual society, and many tourists and tour guides have mistakenly taken Na flexibility in relationships as signifying a land of casual sex with no recognition of paternity.

      These are highly problematic assumptions that offend my Na acquaintances deeply. Na people have fathers and know who they are, and they often enjoy close relationships despite living apart.