final.the hierarchy of family structures.doyle.myers

This research topic submitted by ann e. doyle ( ) on 5/6/98 .

Ann Doyle

The Hierarchy of Family Structures


The following paper is an exploration of family structures, the hierarchies that exist within each, and survey data taken from college-aged students focused on current thoughts about contemporary American family structure and hierarchies existing within. The concentration of the exploration is to define whether or not family structures and their subsequent hierarchies are derived from sociobiological or culturally adaptive means in contemporary America. By defining each type of family structure and the hierarchies that exist within each, a clearer understanding will be achieved of the historical and cultural contexts of each structure. Reporting the collected data answered by college-aged students will help define what people in the contemporary United States believe to be the pervasive family structure and the hierarchies that exist within that structure. The students also answered questions concerning the nature of family structure and were asked whether it was culturally adaptive or sociobiologically derived. Based on research and the collected data, this author would assert that contemporary family structure and subsequent hierarchies existing within each is culturally adaptive rather than sociobiologically derived in the United States.


The following is an explanation of the different family structures which exist, the hierarchies found within each, which hierarchical structure is predominant and examples of each in a contemporary global society.
The explanation of the three different types of family structures is crucial to begin comprehending the choices that cultures have in constructing familial relations. There are different hierarchies, some of which are surprising, that are found typically in each structure. These hierarchies have an influence upon lineage, inheritance, and are crucial to comprehending the societies in which each are found. As each structure and subsequent hierarchy is explained, a particular group will be given as an example to better understand how each is actualized.
First, there is the family structure of monogamy. This structure assumes that there is one man and one women in a relationship and that their offspring are theirs alone. As Philip Kitcher writes,
"When terms like ‘monogamy’ are applies to humans, they are usually employed to designate the social or legal arrangements found in a group. A society is said to be monogamous when there is some available arrangement (legal, economic, or ceremonial) that pairs males with females; at any given time their pairings have to be one-to-one. Legal monogamy can obviously coexist with sexual promiscuity." (1985, p.191)

Many current societies believe that they practice the family structure of monogamy to include contemporary "Western" society. Biologically, monogamy is beneficial for males because it ensures them a female partner for sexual reproduction and the furthering of their genes to offspring. It does not, however afford males the luxury of furthering their offspring too prolifically since their female partner can only reproduce according to her anatomy.(Holcomb 1993, p.46) In monogamous families, there is usually a high percentage of parental investment because the offspring are the only products of the parent’s genes. Serial monogamy has been suggested as the current trend in contemporary society by some researchers. With divorce rates high and remarriages occurring often in the United States, many feel that although contemporary Americans are normally still practicing monogamy, they are doing so serially - marrying one partner, divorcing or being widowed, marrying another. The hierarchical structures that arise under this type of family structure are varied. Patriarchy and patrilineage is one hierarchical model that includes the males of the home having more power over the women of the family and lineage is traced through male descendants. This type of hierarchical structure is most common in "Western" monogamous families although it may be slowly changing. The second hierarchical structure is that of matriarchy and matrilineage consisting of the females of the home having more power over the males and the family lineage is traced through the women or mothers. This type of structure is not terribly common although the incidence of it is rising with more single-mothered homes and no identity of the fathers of offspring. Finally, there does exist some compromise between the two extreme structures and is most common in contemporary Western cultures. Patriarchy is slowly turning to a mix with matriarchy. Both parents of offspring are recognizing the need to collectively invest in the care of their young.
Second, the family structure of polygyny arises. This structure is defined by one man married to several wives or engaging in extra-marital affairs and the women mate with only one man (Kitcher 1993, p.192). There has been a great deal of controversy surrounding this type of marital union in "Western" societies yet it was popular both in the past and exists in the present, especially with western defined "backwards" communities. From a biological standpoint, this type of marital structure allows men to pass their genes on through many different women thus furthering his line and traits. There are many societies that practice this type of familial structure and it is the second-most common structure. The nineteenth century Mormons in the United States practiced this family structure as well as the contemporary Yomut Turkmen and the Yanomamö of Venezuela and Brasil. Polygyny is and was usually the practice of royal families to keep the King/Ruler’s genes in the family and many times in ancient Egypt, Thailand, Hawaii, Buganda (Uganda) and Nyanza (Zaire) and other cultures incestuous sexual and marital relations were established for the very purpose of potential cloning of the father. If a child were born from the genes of a man and his sister, there is a relationship of genes of .75 rather than the usual .5 of common descent. (Lumsden and Wilson 1981, p.85) Polygyny was designed by men for men and the usual hierarchical structure that exists is that of patriarchy and patrilineage. In most societies where polygyny exists, it is usually because men need to prove their worth and wealth with the number of wives they can support and subsequent children each union may produce. Women are not scarce, nor highly prolific and in some instances, like the Yanomamö, women are taken/ bartered for/stolen from other villages or tribes. Matriarchies and matrilineages are almost non-existent in polygynous societies and most of the power rests with the men of a group with little or no power given to women or female children. There is little compromise in the way of power/hierarchical structures in polygynous-practicing cultures.
Lastly, the family structure known as polyandry will be examined. This marital structure assumes that there is one woman with several husbands. This structure is rare and exists only with maybe three groups of observable peoples in the world - the Nayar and Marquesans of India, the Chimuk of Nepal. The structure also occurs sometimes in other cultures and is usually related to infanticide when it crops up.(Stephens 1988, p.354) Again, from our "Western" standpoint, this type of marital union is only found in "backwards" communities. Fraternal polyandry is the most common type of polyandry and is defined when two or more brothers marry one woman. This family structure, in theory, is more threatening to men because is suppressed each male’s reproductive capabilities because there is only one woman with whom most sexual relations occur. As Weigel and Taylor write:
"…a male sharing his wife with other males would tend to decrease his genetic representation in the next generation compared to monogamy, because he is expected to father fewer offspring. This loss in gene replication could be compensated somewhat by sharing a wife with his brothers (instead of unrelated males), in which case offspring born to the female, if not sons and daughters, would be nieces and nephews."(American Anthropologist 1982, p.406)

Polyandry is inherently strengthening for women in societies that practice this family structure. The structure, in theory, supposes that women are the controllers of the family line and assumes that it is they who carry the power since they would selectively choose the men they would marry to father their offspring. Polyandry is has also shown to be a deliberate strategy which increases reproductive success.(Zeh 1996) Yet most of these practicing cultures have institutions of patriarchy and patrilineal hereditary lines because the men are related. Female infanticide is widely practiced, there are sometimes many fewer females in the group, and women are viewed as baby-makers and farm hands rather than respected wives. The reasons men are willing to practice fraternal polyandry are to not break up family land in parcels and support a higher standard of living.(Schuler 1989 p.809) Hence, there is no real proof that matriarchies exit today, or really ever have in the past. The Matriarchy myth is one that anthropologists are currently combating as they see it is a myth made by women two decades ago to empower them.(Antonelli 1997, Amoros 1985)
It is important to note that there exists another pseudo-family structure of promiscuity. This is defined by Krebs and Davies as:
"Both male and female mate several times with different individuals, so there is a mixture of polygyny and polyandry, Either sex may care for the eggs of the young. Polygamy is often used as a general term for when an individual of either sex has more than one mate."(Kitcher, p.192)

Polygamy pervades the first three family structures. Serial monogamy or extra-martial affairs are what is manifested when polygamy enters monogamous family structures. Polygyny is disrupted by promiscuity when the male or females of a familial structure have sexual relations with others outside of that structure. In polyandrous structures, promiscuity invades a set marital codes with either gender of a spouse having extra-marital affairs with those outside the established bond.
The point in discussing each of these family structures and the hierarchies that exist within each is to help define what contemporary American family structures look like. By researching the benefits both biologically and culturally of each type of union, we may further be able to engage in a frank discussion about which structure is most prevalent in today’s society and which type of hierarchy exists within that structure. The data presented suggests that there is a certain type of marital structure today, that it is changing from past structures and that the influences over the changes are primarily cultural, not biological in nature.


When first beginning this project, it is important to understand what options there are to choose from when trying to define contemporary American family structures and the hierarchy that exists within each structure. I first wanted to know the nature of human nature and what types of structures were out there around the world in different cultures to be able to empirically view contemporary society and its standards. Doing much research on these three (or four) family structures was important in defining what options we humans have chosen. Next was to research the different types of hierarchies that exist - both alone in theory and in cultures where different ranks of power are played out. Finding out how patriarchies manifest themselves was interesting to note that patrilineage usually came along under this system of power distribution. The next step was to delve into the realm and discussion of matriarchies and subsequent matrilineal lineage patterns. I thought it interesting to discover that many believe that matriarchies never really did exist and that most of the theories we read about were conceived by the feminists of the 1970s to give them more power. I found no empirical data to suggest that in fact matriarchies ever did exist in history or currently. Matrilineage was then pursued and I have found no convincing data to suggest that this lineage pattern exists, either although some has been written. I then tried to learn more about the contemporary theory of co-parenting and caring for offspring which lead me to also unconvincing "hype" material in parenting magazines and journals. I felt that now was the time to go out and survey the public. I wrote up one survey that asked a variety of questions. I did not know exactly what I was looking for, but I knew that I needed data which I could empirically asses about thoughts on contemporary family structures and the hierarchy that exists within. (see enclosed survey) I then analyzed the data taken from thirty answered surveys and used pure calculating numbers and also comparative/contingency tables. I looked at the p-values of many of the comparison tables to draw some concrete solutions about what people thought was happening to contemporary American family structure and hierarchy. I believe that I did find some interesting results, although much of the data is not useable because of high p-values and data showing little correlations.

· see survey and graphs before reading on
I believe that I have found some interesting number figures as well correlations taken from the survey conducted. Graphs under A) are assessing the pure frequencies with which people answered the questions: Does society or biology make men traditionally more powerful in the home? and Is patriarchy or matriarchy what most families today experience in married unions? The statistics when overlapped proved that most people felt that patriarchy is what most people experience and that society not biology makes men more powerful in the home. The next set of correlations were drawn from asking the questions: Do you think matriarchies ever existed? and Is patriarchy or matriarchy what most families today experience in married unions? (B) The data shows that most people thought that matriarchies had existed totaling twenty-four people yet twenty-one of those people felt that patriarchy was the dominant familial hierarchy today in married unions. Next, the data from the questions: Who makes most of the "everyday" decisions in your family? and Who makes most of the "big" decisions in your family? is to be analyzed [C]. Most responded that their mothers made most "everyday" decisions while their fathers made most of the "big" decisions. Yet it should be noted that both parents for each decision had the second-highest rating. The Chi-square p-value on this chart was unusually high, I suppose relating the frequency of parents making both big and everyday decisions for their family unit. I then asked myself, I wonder if there is any correlation between fathers who make most of the "big" decisions and who has more power in the home (D). Although many fathers did make the ‘big" decisions, neither parent had more power, according to the survey data. The Chi-square p-value indicates that there is no major correlation between the "big" decision maker and the more powerful parent. I wondered if mothers who seemed to make more "everyday" decisions then might have more power in the family unit (E). The numbers were already present yet the p-values changed and there is a fairly high correlation between the mothers making everyday decisions and holding more power in the home expressed by the p-value of .0288 - which I found quite interesting.
I then moved on to analyzing data with questions answered concerning what people thought about family structures changing today.(F) By asking: Is family structure changing today? and Does biology perpetuate patriarchy systems now? I found that there was no real correlation although many people did think that family structures was changing and biology did not perpetuate patriarchal systems. So I then went back to looking at overall parental power again and tried to correlate it with the data gained from asking the question: Did your mother or father come to their marriage with more money? (G) I found that usually most everyone’s parents came to their marriage with the same about of money and that neither had really any more power. Could this mean equality??? The p-value was high on this correlation so there really is not concrete evidence about anything, really. So I thought, if parents of a person who answered this survey were divorced, then I wonder if there is any link with the person who raised the child having more power. By analyzing the data gained by asking: Who did you live with while growing up? and Which parent has more parental power? I though maybe some conclusions could be drawn not just psychologically but also empirically.(H) I found that half of the children of divorced parents were raised by their mothers, most felt that their mothers had more power yet half of the surveyed people felt that neither parent had more power, no matter who had raised them. The high p-value indicates that there is little correlation between the parent who raised you and more parental power.
Back to the society or biology debate. The last two correlations I tried to make were between the questions: Does biology perpetuate patriarchal systems now? and In the past?(I) I found that there was much uncertainty about biology perpetuating patriarchy systems now but twenty-three of thirty survey-takers thought that biology did in fact perpetuate patriarchy in the past. This correlation was proved correct by the arrival of a high Chi-square p-value coming in at .1127. Finally, I needed to answer the last lingering thought in my brain about who has more overall power in the home and does society or biology make men traditionally more powerful in the home.(J) This correlation was a disaster. There is the data staring us in the face of most people feeling that there is no parent having more power, and the data that most people think that society makes men more powerful in the home. The high p-value is evidence that there is very little correlation between the two - although I though I should just make sure.
I feel pretty comfortable in saying that I didn’t really know what to expect from the survey data and I received some very interesting findings. The three correlations that are the strongest are: most people’s parents make both the "everyday" and "big" decisions with neither having more power; the mother who actually does makes the "everyday" decisions sometimes has more parental power; biology maybe perpetuates
patriarchal systems now but definitely did so in the past. Most of the other correlations that I tried to draw from the data were not very successful. Oh well. Yet is was interesting to notice that some of the correlations were anti-each other. There seemed to be no major power struggle in most people’s family structure and the hierarchies were not seen as too great by most. It was also funny to see that many people believed in the matriarchy myth.
see statview at annd for my graphs


There are many conclusions to be drawn out of such extensive data. I think that one of the most important things to be said is the people toady do not think that biology perpetuates patriarchal systems of hierarchy in family structures. This is foremost in my mind because the data also concludes that patriarchal systems are what most families experience today in married unions. This would mean that people do not believe that biology is a factor in the hierarchical systems that pervade contemporary family structures. This must mean that people think that society is the cause of patriarchal systems existing in family structures, as supported by the fact that many people felt that society was the cause of men having more power in the home.
Twenty-four of the thirty people surveyed also felt that family structures are changing today. I also think that this is very important point. The fact that most people thought that neither of their parents had more power in the home and that one parent did, it was the mother who made most of the "everyday" decisions. This I do think is incongruous with the idea that most people think that patriarchy was the more prevalent than matriarchy in their homelife. I think the fact that many people surveyed thought that matriarchal systems in family structure did exist ever may contribute to some of this shift. There has been a social movement in the United States in the past two decades that has in fact given women more power - not just in the home, but in the workplace as well. The fact that most people thought that patriarchal systems still ruled is a sign that women still have much to gain.
I believe that I can conclude that there are gains for women in hierarchical structures in the United States today. The times are changing and family structures are changing with them. Monogamy is not always the case anymore. In the United States, I believe that many people practice some form of promiscuity with extra-marital affairs and sexual interactions with more than one partner. Polygyny is not widely practiced nor is polyandry. These marital practices are actually illegal in many states. I think that if there were some universal laws about the nature of human nature, then wouldn’t all societies subscribe to one form of family structure over another? There are sociobiological explanations for all three (or four) types of family structures yet in the United States, it is the culturally imposed structure that seems to work best. The United States does not have a significant infant mortality rate and the death rates are growing longer and longer. Monogamy (or serial monogamy) has served us well and in contemporary society I believe that it is culturally derived, not dependent upon sociobiological means. I do not think that most people when having sexual encounters with mates think about the furthering of their genes - either consciously or subconsciously in the nature of human nature (evolutionarily based). Of the people surveyed, biology does not have very much sway in many human interactions, if at all.
In conclusion, I will site Philip Kitcher stating:
"The conclusion I have reached is an articulation of a point made by S.L. Wachburn. After noting that even in humans monogamy is no a unitary behavior that might have a genetic basis, Washburn continues, ‘The use of such words by sociobiologists shows a total misunderstanding of social science. Even ape behavior is far too complicated to be analyzed by labels and guessing’(1980, 261)(p.196)"

I too believe that the nature of human nature as far a family structures and the hierarchy that exists within is much too difficult to try to find the "truth." I think that sometimes the sociobiologists do not really understand that different ecological constraints actually do have an affect upon human behavior and interaction. "The Victorians believed that social and biological evolution progressed together," states Richard Morris.(1983, p.94) Are we like the Victorians who also were terribly ethnocentric and firmly believed that monogamy was the top rung on the ladder of civilization as far as family structure was concerned. I should hope not. Sometimes, sociobiology forgets about the socio- part and investigates through purely evolutionary and biological means. This is a mistake. One cannot separate a phenomenon or even any everyday occurrence from its surroundings.
If I had to do this all over again, I think that I would like to do more surveys. I really don’t like them but I think that they are a useful tool. I think that I would also be more explicit in what I really meant by some of the questions. I would also like to survey the general population, not just college-aged students. I also think that I would graph my data differently. I think that there needed to be some ANOVA tables pr those based simply on rates rather than trying to link everything together - it was a little difficult to see everything. I think that I am pleased with the amount of research that I completed, yet I felt as though there was too much to get down and that it all became very confused in my mind. I think that researching more in what these little magazine articles say about contemporary structures would be very interesting not only in reporting my thoughts but in trying to figure out which system is perpetuating what. I thought that this was a useful endeavor for me and my learning development and am glad to have had the opportunity.

References Cited

Amoros, Celia. The Matriarch

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