Fast Facts: Forms of family


Featured Image: “The Dream” by Paul Gauguin.

  • Marriage, in one form or another, is nearly universal across cultures and history. In researcher Lisa Vaughn’s summation, marriage joins the kin of both families together, prescribes the rights and duties of partners and provides a shared store of property to give children.
  • That being said, the main reason people get married is for love. In the vast majority of cultures practicing arranged marriage, the couples are actively involved in choosing who they marry.
  • Deep ties with the extended family are the norm for most of the world, according to Vaughn. In Balkan republics, for example, extended family households called zadruga included multiple nuclear families, headed by the lead male and his wife.
  • Native Hawaiians often gave their children to their parents to raise. They, in turn, had privilege over their own grandchildren. In the “hanai” adoption system, a family adopts a child from another family and raises her as their own. The practice of hanai bound families and communities together and preserved Hawaiian culture down the generations. It still exists today.
A Roman mother with her children, 250 A.D. Image: Brescia Museum.

A Roman mother with son and daughter, 250 A.D. Image: Brescia Museum.

  • Infant adoption was rare in the ancient world. But adult adoption was common for carrying out estates and other duties. Many Roman emperors were adopted to ensure peaceful handovers of power. Adoption was discouraged by the Medieval Europeans, however, because it disrupted the all-important, blood-based family houses. The system of apprenticeship employed orphans later on.
  • Different societies have different ideas about where a new family should live, according to psychologist James Georgas. Some live close to the husband’s paternal family, others with his maternal side. Traditional families from Northern Europe and the U.S. usually live in a new place by themselves, but still maintain contacts with relatives.
  • In Georgas’ summation, nuclear families are often found in mobile, hunter-gatherer and urban societies, while extended families are often found in agricultural ways of life.
  • Most cultures throughout history and across the world have polygamy (17 percent do not), but the majority of individuals across cultures tend to be monogamous. For example, multiple wives are permitted in Islam, but 90 percent of husbands in Qatar, Kuwait, UAE, Oman, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia only have one wife.
  • Polyandry is the practice of one wife with multiple husbands. Groups like the Amazonian Wari understand some families to have partible paternity, the idea that one child physically comes from multiple fathers.

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  • From the James Georgas link: “The large nation-state with centralized powers, such as the British Empire, or the United States in the 18th century, or Germany in the 19th century, does not represent the globe. In India or the Arabic countries, for example, nations were created in the 20th century based on many ethnic groups or clans. For most people throughout the world, the central government was a powerful, distant, unfriendly institution whose only contact with their community was to collect taxes and impose unwanted laws.”

    “Small communities were composed of extended families, tied together through blood relationships, through marriage and forming a clan, through the need for survival. The family loyalty was to the extended family and the clan and not to the state, because the family and the clan was the basis for survival, protection and development. This is still the case in many polyethnic countries throughout the world. In these small communities, all issues related to the family were decided by the leader or elders of the community without formal laws, and continued through tradition.”