Inuits & Alternative Family Structures

What if you lived in a culture where an alternative family structure was the norm?

Last week, we talked about modern family structures in the West.

We noted that the West’s norm of a nuclear family with father + mother + children is evolving.

While such a family is still the norm, same-sex couples can adopt, divorce is more common, leading to patchwork families, and family structures that were once considered “alternative” are becoming more mainstream.

But, as we also noted in last week’s post, alternative family structures aren’t really new or modern at all.

The Exchange

Anthropologist Arthur J. Rubel of the University of Alaska delved into the “alternative” lifestyles of the Inuit and Aleut peoples of Alaska and Greenland.

In 1961, he put forth a summary of his and others’ findings, the field research of which dated back to 1888.

In his published article, he tells about the relations between Komallik Eskimos, who researchers noted would exchange their wives usually for not more than one night at a time.

Moreover, regarding the Eskimos nearer the Bering Strait, he writes:

“It is a common custom for two men living in different villages to agree to become bond-fellows or brothers by adoption. Having made this arrangement, whenever one of the two men goes to the other’s village he is received as the bond brother’s guest and is given the use of his host’s bed with his wife during his stay.”

He further notes that, on St. Lawrence Island, the wife-exchange was considered a special ceremony with the tribe’s religious system incorporated into the exchange.

He writes:

“This ceremony, called the kaezivas, implicated the closest kinsmen and their wives.”

You can take this anthropological study with a grain of salt. Remember, Rubel was looking at it through his own cultural lens, which can often distort things.

Exaggerated Interpretations

When interpreting anthropological studies, it’s important to note that the researcher’s own culture  – with all the values and norms that accompany it – often drives the narrative.

This study, for instance, was proven to be exaggerated. Contrary to what was presented in the published study, the wife-exchange was not a widespread custom. And, although such behaviors did occur, they were often more complex and practical than described.

For example, when a man who lived near the river wanted to hunt game for a season, and another who lived in the woods wanted to fish for salmon, they might exchange places – and wives – because the hunter’s wife would be happier cleaning hides, while the fisherman’s wife would prefer preparing fish.

So, there was often practicality at play with this behavior.

Moreover, recent studies have suggested that these villages were so isolated that, without extra-marital relations, the genetic pool would have died off, thus threatening the population, altogether.

Comparing traditional societies with modern ones is not a fair comparison. After all, modern societies no longer survive off of hunting and gathering.

However, even modern cultures differ in their view of marriage, sex, and family structures, according to their cultural values and norms.

Next week, we’ll travel to Japan and dive into those differences between East and West.

Family, Sex & Love: A Look at Humankind’s Social Fabric

From linguistics to archaeology, anthropology is the study of humankind, past and present, and the origin of all cross cultural studies.

Family, sexuality, and love are topics of much interest to anthropologists.

Each of these themes is at the core of humanity.

We’ll cover them in detail over the upcoming weeks.

Why These Topics Matter to Cross-Cultural Management

If you’re coming to this blog for corporate success across cultures, you might think that family and sexual mores don’t apply here.

However, I’d argue that they do for two reasons:

  1. A culture’s social fabric is woven by family structures. By better understanding family-related values and norms, you’ll integrate much more smoothly into a society than if you have no clue about the important roles that family members play.
  2. Sexual mores often evoke the strongest emotional reactions, as these norms are amongst the earliest socialized norms in a culture and are often enforced by religious and social taboos. Awareness of unfamiliar social mores will help you avoid crossing boundaries and keep you clear and well away from those dratted taboos.

In effect, any information about a culture’s values and norms will fortify understanding and help you view a culture through their own lens. Only when you can see from the culture’s perspective can you truly identify with their mentality and integrate cross-culturally.

Family, Sex & Love in Culture

Of these three topics, family structures is one of the more thoroughly researched of all anthropological studies.

The study, Family: Variations and Changes Across Cultures, explains why:

“In order to study psychological phenomena cross-culturally, it is necessary to understand the different types of family in cultures throughout the world and also how family types are related to cultural features of societies.”

Family structures are the blueprint for societal structures, as well as mentality. This is why some knowledge of family values and norms will gain you significant headway when managing across cultures.

Sex is also on the mind of many an anthropologist. Although, according to The Cross-Cultural Study of Human Sexuality, “Anthropology has long had a love-hate relationship [with it].”

This is largely due to the own sexual mores of those anthropologists in question. Across many cultures, the topic is seen as taboo or controversial, so sexuality remains a “rarely studied” topic of human experience.

Moreover, love and romance is mixed in with family and sexuality and has been since the dawn of time.

According to Love Across Cultures:

“Although love needs to be framed within a cultural context, many scholars believe that romantic love is transcultural. Elaine Hatfield and Richard L. Rapson (1996) viewed passionate love as common to virtually all cultures, and indeed, romantic love has been found in most countries of the world.”

Over the next few weeks, we’ll dissect research on all three topics in more detail, taking a look at remote and predominant cultures, alike, to discover both shared and divergent values and norms in these themes.