Re: "Family"

Dwight W. Read (dread@ANTHRO.UCLA.EDU)
Thu, 18 Jul 1996 10:25:04 -0700

Kephart replies:

>I think it is a mistake, especially for anthropologists, to argue that "family"
>is a cultural construct separate from biology. The H. sapiens "family" is of
>course heavily symbolic, i.e. defined by culture and language. However, the
>minimal "family", a mother and her dependent child(ren), is a social trait
>shared with our fellow hominoids and almost certainly with our common ancestor,
>and, therefore, in some sense prior. What we do that is different from our
>fellow hominoids is to define, culturally, who else is to be included in the
>category "family" and in what ways we do or do not interact with them.

I agree that it would be erroneous to argue that there is no biologically
based predecessor to what we call a cultural construct. The interacting
unit of female + biological offspring clearly is such a predecessor.
However, it does not follow that what culture does is merely ADD to this
--or at least if that statement were true, then we would universally find
that the concept of a "family" includes female + biological offspring. We
need look no further than the current controversy over male homosexual
marriage and male homosexual parenting to see that the concept of family is,
for some at least, divorced from mother+biological offspring.

I suggest that what culture has done is to act upon an already existing
condition (female + biological offspring forming an interacting unit) and
abstracted from this already existing condition the symbolic elements upon
which a construct which (a) can include this already existing condition as
one form of its instantiation, but (b) does not require that this be the
only instantiation.

Biological precondition

EMPIRICAL LEVEL ONLY abstraction CULTURAL LEVEL (1st abstraction)
female + offspring ----------------------> mother + child

Note that whereas male can be ambiguous at the biological level (he provides
sperm, but outside of pair bonding or male controlled primate harems his
connectedness to offspring is unknown, hence natural selection cannot
"select for" male parenting (with this statement to be qualified by what we
are finding out about alternative ways in which the biological connection
between male and offspring can be identified at a biological level)), at the
cultural level father is given definition, but in ways that may bear little
or no resemblance to any biological reality; e.g., the cultural denial of a
male procreative role in the creation of offspring as expressed by some
groups. Or, it is defined by his status vis a vis her; e.g. mother's
current husband is child's father among the Tiwi, for example. He is father
only so long as he is husband.

So, more accurately, we have

female + offspring -------------------------> mother + father + child
ambiguous male

What the diagram identifies at the cultural level is the basis upon which
genealogical reckoning is based, and even here it is not evident that there
is universality at the level of detail (e.g., my previous post which argues
that for us, we use parent and child as atomic concepts, with female parent
= mother and male parent = father as derived concepts, whereas the Shipibo,
say, use father and mother directdly as atomic concepts). There is yet
another level of abstraction that is needed before we can properly talk
about "family" at a cultural level, namely the abstraction needed to arrive
at kinship (with kin defined as those persons I identify via the kinship
terminology strucuture).

(genealogical) ------------------------------> {terminological)
mother+father+child Kin Terms +
kin term structure =
abstractly defined and
generated structure

For our terminology, we have concepts such as Self, Parent (Mother, Father),
Child (Son, Daughter), Spouse (Wife, Husband) as atomic terms, with other
terms derived by taking products of these symbols. At this level of
abstraction, there is no logically necessary connection from term (e.g.,
Mother) to instantiation of the term (e.g., biological mother). (We find
empirical support for this claim in terms of the way in which courts are
making decisions about homosexual couples; e.g., a recent case in which a
woman and her lesbian partner were both deemed to be Parents--the notion
that a Child has 2 Parents was upheld, even though this meant that both
Parents are of the same sex, hence the feature derived at a symbolic level
(bifurcation of Parent into Father + Mother) is suspended and so "Child has
Parent 1 and Parent 2" becomes instantiated, in this instance, with Parent1
= 1 female and Parent2 = lesbian mate.

Family is culturally defined at the second level of abstraction; i.e. Family
= Mother + Father + Child, where Spouse of Mother = Father is also one of
the structuring equations. This means that content for the categories (who
can be a Mother? who can be a Father? who can be a Child?) must be
determined through cultural rules of instantiation; e.g., in our system, the
prevalent (but not necessary) rule has been that Mother --> genealogical
mother --> biological mother. These are NOT double arrows, hence the
CONTENT of the category, Mother, is subject to change in the face of
redefinition of the arrows even when the structure remains constant.
(Consider what has been happening with in vitro fertilization, surrogate
mothers, etc.). Note that the model also suggest a reason for the concern
by homosexuals for marriage (I'm thinking of comment made by one commentator
to the effect that since marriage is not such a great institution in the
first place, why the insistance on marriage--of course, one rationalization
stems for legal and economic considerations). The cultural model includes
marriage as the relationship between Mother and Father as part of the
definition of Family (of course, individuals can freely call themselves a
family regardless of their lack of adherence to this cultural
construct--what is of concern is cultural knowledge, not individually
generated instances of behavior and how individuals choose to label their
particlar instances).

The cultural model states that Family must have Parent 1 married to Parent
2. Hence if there is to be Family and instantiation of the form: Partent 1
--> male homosexual and Parent 2 --> male homosexual partnet, it follows
that for the structural equation Spouse of Parent = Parent to be true, then
the two homosexual must be married to each other. This argument suggests
that the push for homosexual marriages arises out of deep
structural/cultural level which includes marriage of the two Parents as part
of the definition of Family.

Now back to biology. WHile we can view biological mother/female + offspring
as a precursor, it is NOT the same phenomenon, hence it is not an instance
of Family.

D. Read