Matrifocality: An emerging empirical and theoretical issue

The residential systems we have identified reflect a broad range of possible 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), Nyakusa “age villages,” 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 form 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.

The term matrifocal, or its synonym, matricentric, simply means mother 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 matrilocality, where husbands are present in their wives households or with natalocality, 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:

  1. can be understood as an expression of deeply rooted cultural values or simply an accommodation to economic hardship,
  2. adequately takes into account the interresidential networks of aid that are often highly significant in low-income communities, and
  3. adequately represents the domestic cycle.

© Brian Schwimmer, All rights reserved
Department of Anthropology
University of Manitoba
Created: October 2003