Matrifocality: An emerging empirical and theoretical issue
The residential systems we have identified reflect a broad range of
domestic forms, which are evident in numerous social systems around the
world. However, they do not cover all the eventualities. Notable exceptions
include some New Guinea societies, in which unrelated males reside together
in a central “men’s house,” separately from their wives
(see Dani households),
where young boys live in a group camp separately from their parents, and
the Israeli kibbutz, where the settlement's children
are reared in a communal childcare facility. A much more widespread phenomenon
is represented in the matrifocal family, an almost minimal domestic order
in which the fundamental unit is simply a woman and her children. This
is typical of people whose ways of life are affected by poor employment
opportunities and low incomes and is sometimes identified as a salient
feature of the “culture of poverty.” It is also becoming an increasing
frequent family form in many post-industrial societies, including
the United States and Canada.
Despite its apparent simplicity, understanding and explaining its forms
and functions have presented a major challenge to anthropological analysis.
matrifocal, or its synonym, matricentric, simply means
or female centered and can be understood to designate a domestic form in
which only a mother and her dependent children are present or significant.
Adult males in the capacity of husbands and fathers or of brothers and
mothers brothers are either absent or, in some formulations, present but
marginal to family life. The term should not be confused with
where husbands are present in their wives households or with
where brothers assume male domestic responsibilities. Moreover, the arrangement
is not particularly associated with matrilineality nor is it the product
of an obvious residence rule. It is usually results from an
undesired accident: a
father either refuses to acknowledge responsibility for his children,
abandons his family, or dies. It is prevalent in communities in which men are
not able to meet domestic commitments because of unemployment or poverty.
Major examples have been drawn from Latin American and Caribbean squatters
settlements and American Black ghettos.
Anthropological treatment of matrifocality reflects
many of the
classificatory and explanatory problems in the description and
analysis of domestic units. Major controversies have
been initiated over whether this residence form:
© Brian Schwimmer, All rights reserved
can be understood as an expression of deeply rooted cultural values or
simply an accommodation to economic hardship,
adequately takes into account the interresidential networks of aid that
are often highly significant in low-income communities, and
adequately represents the domestic cycle.
Department of Anthropology
University of Manitoba
Created: October 2003