10 Cultural Universals: The Role of Family in Culture

We’ve talked about geography and language and their relationship with culture over the past couple weeks.

Family is the third universal in our ten-part series.

Whether you’re from a culture which is centered around a nuclear family or one that embraces an extended family model, the family unit is an integral part of your cultural and your personal development.

This is why family dynamics are a common focus of cultural studies. From family member roles to labor division to rites of passage, culture begins at home and the family is its core.

Collectivist vs. Individualist

While there are obviously many family structures across cultures, let’s focus this discussion on two main distinctions: collectivist and individualist cultures.

One of the main ways in which these groups differ is in their family dynamics. Individuality is obviously stressed in individualist cultures, while interdependence and conformity are valued by collectivist cultures. And these dynamics are prevail within the family.

As Marcia Carteret, M. Ed., writes in “Cultural Differences in Family Dynamics”:

“Individualistic cultures stress self-reliance, decision-making based on individual needs, and the right to a private life. In collectivist cultures absolute loyalty is expected to one’s immediate and extended family/tribe.”

In other words, collectivist cultures put the needs of the family/group (the collective) before individual needs.

Nuclear vs. Extended

In examining the prevalence of nuclear and extended families in developing and developed countries, the un.org writes:

“The presence of two adult members per household in developed countries is an indication of the predominance of the nuclear type of family; on the other hand, the presence of more than two or three adult members in a household in developing countries indicates prevalence of an extended type of family or of a nuclear family with adult children present.”

The nuclear family is composed of parents and their children. This model is commonly followed by Western cultures and developed countries. Children are often raised to become independent and move out on their own when they reach adulthood.

The extended family model is often found in collectivist cultures and developing countries in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, as well as in Hispanic and American Indian cultures. In this model, the extended family – including grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins – are an intimate part of the familial network.

Whereas individualist cultures prize privacy and independence, with the nuclear family living separately from the extended family, collectivist cultures often share the household across generations. In a multi-generational household, you might find three or more generations cohabitating. Grandparents might live with their adult children and grandchildren.

In some of these households, the eldest son brings his new wife to live with his parents at home. The daughter-in-law submits to the mother-in-law.

“Relatives” unrelated by blood may even play a significant role in the family, with tribal leaders being consultive beings in American Indian families and godparents serving this role in Hispanic families.

Next week, we’ll talk more extensively about familial roles and rites of passage across cultures.

The Baobab Theory of Culture

Most folks who are interested in culture have heard about the Iceberg Theory.

The phrase was coined by Ernest Hemingway and applies to his style of writing – a.k.a. the theory of omission. But it also applies to culture.

The idea is that the deeper meaning of a story is below the surface. Or, in the theme of our blog, the deeper meaning of a culture…

Like an iceberg, that which we see of culture only makes up a small portion of the whole. What lies below is even more astounding and impactful.

But I’d like to expand on the Iceberg Theory and compare culture to a baobab.

The Baobab

We talked last week about the mythical baobab tree.

For the purpose of this theory, the baobab’s huge trunk and canopy will represent the visible part of culture.

Traditional clothing, food, art, architecture, language, gestures, appearance, behavior – this is all represented in the visible part of the baobab.

Behavior is often regulated by norms. Folkways, mores, taboos and laws are all represented above the surface.

The small branches at the edges of the canopy represent folkways, the most flexible of the norms. As the branches extend toward the trunk, they become thicker and more rigid. These are a society’s mores. They’re stricter and often based in deeper values.

And the trunk, itself? This represents a culture’s taboos and laws. Punishment for those who do not adhere to these two sets of norms is the most severe. Society members must comply, or they’ll be ostracized or imprisoned.

Know Before Traveling

While knowing the baobab – or the visible part of a culture – is only the beginning of full-on cross-cultural integration, this basic intro would probably be enough for brief travel to a foreign country or a short business trip.

For instance, if you’re traveling to Greece, it would be nice to know that their official working day ends during the early afternoon. Moreover, when formal events are held at work, they are often attended by only employees of the same rank.

Or if you’re on business in the UK, you’ll find that business culture there is quite direct. You’ll also find that the Brits are often on first-name basis with fellow colleagues and superiors. This may seem in stark contrast to the stereotypical image of their formality.

On the other hand, if business takes you to Portugal, you might be addressed very formally as “doutor” (doctor), whether you have a doctorate or not. Everyone with a university degree is honored with this title. You’ll also find that nepotism isn’t an issue in Portugal, as business and personal relationships are often intertwined.

Below the Surface

While all of these aspects are visible parts of the cultural baobab, this begs the question: what lies below the earth?

In the baobab’s case, an enormous network of roots spread into the soil as a culture’s underlying invisible values. We’ll talk about these roots next week.

The Baobab Tree: Grown from Greed & Envy

The first time you see a baobab in the wild African savannah, your jaw drops.

The baobab is unlike any tree you’ve seen elsewhere. Awe-inspiring and unique.

Growing up to 30 meters, this tree lives for thousands of years, and has a gigantic trunk, some of which stand 11 meters wide. For nine months, the baobab is leafless and appears lifeless.

But inside, it stores the lifeblood of mankind: water. In fact, it is known as the tree of life.”

The thick trunk that dropped your jaw is corky and fire-resistant. Perfectly created for the dry and parched desert. Other times, the baobab trunk is completely hollow. This is because spirits live inside the tree…or so they say.

Once rainy season hits, tiny leaves and sour fruits blossom from the top branches and grow to about the size of a coconut.

It’s hard to imagine that anyone can reach these fruits, as the baobab appears to grow upside down.

The Upside Down Tree

“The devil plucked up the baobab, thrust its branches into the earth and left its roots in the air.”

This is how one Arabian legend describes the baobab.

And it may be true.

If you see the baobab from a distance, the tree looks all wrong – the branches look like capillary roots and the trunk the tap-root.

Some legends suggest the baobab grows this way, because it was punished for its greed and envy. One of these legends reads:

“The baobab was among the first trees to appear on the land. Next came the slender, graceful palm tree. When the baobab saw the palm tree, it cried out that it wanted to be taller. Then the beautiful flame tree appeared with its red flower and the baobab was envious for flower blossoms. When the baobab saw the magnificent fig tree, it prayed for fruit as well. The gods became angry with the tree and pulled it up by its roots, then replanted it upside down to keep it quiet.”

Practical Use

As with most living things, local people use all aspects of the baobab.

From eating and applying the fruits and leaves for food and herbal remedies to mowing down the bark’s fibers for cloth and rope, every inch of the tree is practical. Every inch of the tree is used – for fishing and hunting tools, temporary shelters, water reserves, and wherever else your imagination may take you.

Many cultures who inhabit areas where baobab trees grow also consider the tree religiously and culturally significant.

Metaphorical Use

The baobab’s shape is remarkable. The roots stretch wider and deeper than you’d probably guess. And this wide deep spreading is a visual representation of culture.

Next week, the baobab will become useful once again when discussing our underlying theme – culture – in metaphorical terms.