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.

Modern Family: Evolving Family Structures in the West

We’re all too familiar with the ideal family structure in the West.

The more traditional structure is a nuclear family: a man and woman (preferably married) with kids.

The nuclear family all living under one roof.

In most traditional relationships, the parents are expected to be sexually loyal to each other. That means exclusivity.

Pretty straight forward, right?

Nothing is that simple…

Evolving Family Structures

The above is the most accepted form of family structure in many a Western mind; however, in reality, family structures are changing.

Marriage between same-sex couples is now legally recognized in many Western countries and, in some cases, those couples may have their own children and/or adopt.

In such family structures, it’s still a pretty straightforward nuclear household, aside from the man and woman at the top being replaced by a same-sex couple.

However, in cases of divorce, structures become more complex. 

PsychologyToday estimates that, in the US, the chances that a marriage will end in divorce are around 42 to 45% (although the divorce rate has dropped 18% from 2008 to 2016).

And in Europe, 2015 divorce rates range from 12.4% in Malta to a whopping 72.2% in Portugal.

Divorce results in a multilayered family structure, with the emergence of what some call “patchwork families” becoming more and more common.

Patchwork families are those of divorced parents with kids.

In such cases, children do not live under the same roof as both biological parents, perhaps alternating households or, in circumstances where sole custody has been granted to one parent, living in a single-parent household.

When this happens, the child may have to integrate into another way of life every other weekend or whatever the custody agreement entails. Moreover, they may be introduced to a stepmom or stepdad, who might also have children of their own.

Modern Family

One pop culture example of the evolution of Western family structures is depicted in the US television series, Modern Family.

modernfamilychart
Adapted from Wikipedia

The above chart was adapted from Wikipedia. It illustrates the layered nature of a multi-generational family in all its complexities:

  • Clair and Phil: the more traditional “nuclear family”
  • Mitch and Cam: the married same-sex couple with an adopted daughter
  • Jay and Gloria: the father and stepmother with children from different marriages

The show is successful for a reason. Not only is it funny, but it’s a modern reflection on our ever-changing family structures.

…But Is This New?

The really funny thing is these so-called “modern” families are not modern at all.

Traditional societies have long accepted patchwork families, as well as families with same-sex parents.

Moreover, the idea of sexual exclusivity in a nuclear family is not as universal a concept as you think.

Tune in over the next couple weeks, where we’ll explore both of these themes.

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.