Family System in India

After reading this article you will learn about:- 1. Introduction to the Family in India 2. The Modernization Thesis 3. Household Versus Family 4. Recovering ‘The Family’ 5. The Family in the System of Families.


  1. Introduction to the Family in India
  2. The Modernization Thesis
  3. Household Versus Family
  4. Recovering ‘The Family’
  5. The Family in the System of Families.

1. Introduction to the Family in India:

India occupies a special place in the comparative sociology of the family as a textbook case of the working of a ‘joint family system’. Nonetheless, few questions have been as confused, or as confusing, as that of the Indian joint family- its definition; its composition; its functions; its history; and, of course, its future trajectory.

The ideal of the Indian joint family has long been an important ingredient in national self-imaging as the social institution that uniquely expresses and represents the valued aspects of Indian culture and tradition; thus it has become rather difficult to separate fact from value, behaviour from norm and indeed, to talk dispassionately about the subject at all.


This is more so since the joint family and its supporting value system (often termed ‘familism’, as distinguished from ‘individualism’) are widely believed to be under threat from alien values and an alien way of life.

Historically, the concept of the ‘Indian joint family’ was the product of the engagement of British colonial administration with indigenous systems of kinship and marriage, notably with respect to the determination of rights in property and responsibility for revenue payment.

Seeking to understand the principles of Indian legal systems, the British turned to the Hindu sacred texts, the Dharmashastras, or parallely, for the Muslim population of the subcontinent, to the Shariat and the rulings of Muslim legalists.

This approach, retrospectively termed the ‘Indological’ approach to Indian family studies, confirmed the ‘joint family’ as the typical and traditional form of family organization in India, located it within the discursive domain of the law, and defined its special features.


An important influence in putting the Indian family on the map of comparative family studies and in shaping the Indological approach to the Indian joint family was the pioneering work of Henry Sumner Maine (1822-88), Law Member of the Council of the Governor-General in India from 1862 to 1869.

Relying on the classical textual sources of Hindu law, read along with contemporary ethnographic and administrative reports, Maine projected the Indian joint family as a living example of the earliest or ‘ancient’ form of the human family whose outlines could also be discerned in the legal system of ancient Rome as well as in Celtic and Slavic survivals of earlier forms of social organization.

Maine termed this type of family the ‘patriarchal family’ for the reason that it was constituted by a group of persons related in the male line and subject to the absolute power (patria potestas) of the senior most male member. In Maine’s understanding, the patriarchal family functioned as a sort of a ‘corporation’, existing in perpetuity, whose living members were coparceners in a joint estate.

Family property was divided equally among sons before or after the death of the ascendant; alternatively, the undivided family might expand over several generations to become an organized and self-regulating ‘brotherhood of relatives’, the ‘village community’, that Maine believed to be a characteristic South Asian form of social organization.


Maine proposed that this ancient form of social organization, based on the principle of ‘status’, would in due course evolve through several stages into one based on ‘contract’, with the patriarchal joint family being replaced by the monogamous conjugal family unit of the contemporary western type associated with the individual ownership of property and linked to the power of testation.

Many of the early generation of Indian sociologists identified the patriarchal joint family of the Sanskrit legal and sacerdotal texts as the ‘traditional’ form of the family in India.

In a discursive environment shaped by the force of ‘cultural nationalism’, they regarded the joint family as a unifying civilizational ideal that had been ‘very widely held by all Hindus—the rich as well as the poor, the learned as well as the lay, the city men as well as the village folk’.

This viewpoint was vigorously propounded in the writings of the Sanskrit’s/sociologist G.S. Ghurye who, in his erudite Family and Kin in Indo-European Culture (1955), claimed an Indo-European pedigree for the Indian joint family.

By implication, of course, he also excluded from this venerable heritage the structurally quite different sub-continental culture of Dravidian kinship, the kinship practices of non-Hindu communities, and a wide range of non-Brahmanic usages.

Reconciling the unitary Sanskritic heritage with the empirical variety of contemporary Indian family and kinship practices was a problem that several of Ghurye’s students at the Sociology Department of Bombay University sought to address explicitly.

For instance, following the general line of Lewis Henry Morgan (1871), Irawati Karve sought to link Indian kinship systems, through the structure of their vocabularies of kinship terms, to the major sub-continental language groups and sub-linguistic areas.

By these criteria she identified four main types of kinship organization in India:

(i) An Indo-European or Sanskritic type in the north, where kinship practices were essentially continuous with those described in classical Sanskrit sources;

(ii) A Dravidian type in the south;

(iii) A mixed ‘central’ zone between the two; and

(iv) A geographically non-contiguous Austro-Asiatic type (of Mundari and Mon-Khmer linguistic affiliation) in the East.

Counterbalancing this heterogeneity, Karve then proposed three unifying factors through the subcontinent:

(i) The all-India institution of caste, notwithstanding its many regional variations;

(ii) The patrilineal or matrilineal ‘joint family’ (which she defined as ‘a group of people who generally live under the same roof, who eat food cooked at one hearth, … hold property in common and … participate in common family worship and [who] are related to each other as some particular type of kin’; and

(iii) The Sanskritic heritage, wherein one may find descriptions of almost all the kinship practices still found throughout the subcontinent.

In Karve’s formulation, then other words, the Hindu joint family had a positive role to play as a unifying force beneath the enormous variety of Indian kinship systems, as well as being an important instrument of social and economic security.

It was another matter that, particularly in its northern variant (in continuity with the classical model), it was very hard on women: a price to be paid, perhaps, for the greater goal of civilizational continuity and unity.

2. The Modernization Thesis:

The conviction that the traditional Indian joint family system was in the process of breaking down gained currency following early British censuses which revealed that, empirically speaking, this type of family structure was by no means as prevalent as the strength and persistence of the ideal would have led one to expect.

The Indological training of many of the first generation of Indian sociologists predisposed them to think likewise. However, the idea gained social scientific legitimacy in the post-World War II period when theorists of ‘modernization’ identified the Anglo-American nuclear family, focused on the conjugal couple, as the family type best adapted to the requirements of a modern, industrial society.

The most influential contribution to the sociology of the family in the post-War period was that of the eminent American sociologist and social theorist, Talcott Parsons, whose theory of family socialization and interaction was an important constituent in his structural-functional and comparative theory of society and social.

Parsons was responding to the widespread post-War perception that the rising divorce rate, declining birth rate, and changes in sexual morality portended the imminent break­down of the American family.

To the contrary, he asserted that such changes were indicative of the stresses of a period of ‘transition’, and not signs of a trend to dysfunction and disorgani­zation per se. According to Parsons, American society was presently witnessing the culmination of a long-term process of the ‘isolation’, ‘differentiation’, and ‘specialization’ of the nuclear family as a bounded sub-system of society.

This was the inevi­table result of the logic of the modern occupational system with its emphasis on mobility and individual performance- ‘As the occupational system develops and absorbs functions in society’.

Parsons wrote, ‘it must be at the expense of the relative prominence of kinship organization as a structural component in one sense, and must also be at the expense of what previously have been functions of the kinship unit’.

Complementing the isolation and loss of function of the nuclear family in modern societies, according to Parsons, was the enhanced emphasis on both the parental and the conjugal bonds (the latter, paradoxically resulting in increased strain on the institution of marriage).

Now ‘stripped down’ to its elementary structural characteristics and ‘root’ functions, the contemporary American nuclear family afforded a unique empirical example of the ‘minimal structural and functional essentials’ of the human family as a special type of small social group.

That is, in its elementary structure, the family comprised four basic roles differentiated along the two axes of generation and of sex—father, mother, male child, female child—the differentiation of generation amounting to a differentiation in terms of power, and the differentiation of sex to a differentiation between ‘instrumental’ and ‘expressive’ functions.

There is something both candid and narcissistic about Parsons’ formulation- candid in its recognition that the functional stability of the American nuclear family was dependent on a supposedly ‘naturally’ given generational hierarchy of authority and sexual division of labour, narcissistic in that the family pattern thus valorized within an evolutionary theory of societal development was both ideally and empirically typical of the white American, middle class family (father as breadwinner, mother as housekeeper), delegitimizing other family patterns.

Writing in the 1950s, Parsons had clearly not envisioned that the ‘transition’ of the American family would be a continuing and open-ended process.

A com­bination of demographic factors (declining birth and death rates), variations in sexual and conjugal arrangements (for example, gay and lesbian marriages, the legal recognition of live-in arrangements), as well as the impact of new reproductive technologies of motherhood and fatherhood, have since changed the face of the American family, even its white middle class variant.

Moreover, with the introduction of programmes of economic liberalization, govern­ments worldwide have begun to review the costs of their welfare programmes, seeking to restore to families the burden of care (of the young, of the aged, of the invalid, and the handicapped) that the modern state and its agencies had assumed during several decades of welfarism or socialist construction.

The declaration of a UN International Year of the Family in 1994 was an indication of a growing and worldwide sense of crisis in the institution of the family, precipitated by the downsizing of welfare programmes, as are continuing appeals for the reinstitution of ‘family values’, marital fidelity, and premarital continence.

In many countries this conservative backlash, targeted especially against the sexual emancipation of women, has also been associated with anti-western xenophobia and with the rise of religious fundamen­talism.

Focusing on the typical family pattern of white, middle class Americans as the most ‘advanced’ type of kinship organization, functionally adapted to the requirements of modern industrial society, Parsons himself had little interest in other modes of family life except insofar as these served to validate his general theory.

But his functionalist perspective on family organization, albeit slightly modified, was assimilated into the ‘development’ literature of the 1950s and 1960s, notably through the influential writings of William J. Goode.

Goode’s World Revolution and Family Patterns (1963) is an ambitious comparative survey of modern changes in the family in five different areas of the world (the Arab world, Sub- Saharan Africa, India, China, and Japan), set against the background of the historical evolution of the family in the modern West.

According to Goode, the process of industrialization is bound to bring critical pressures to bear on traditional family structures as increased physical and social mobility separates individuals from larger kin groups and as functions formerly performed by the kin group are taken over by other social agencies.

Allowing that the actual patterns and directions of change would differ (depending on the characteristics of the traditional kinship and family systems concerned), Goode nonetheless concluded that all societies the world over were in the process of moving towards the same end, that is towards the institutionalization of what he termed the ‘conjugal family’ form:

It is clear … that at the present time a somewhat similar set of influences is affecting all world cultures. All of them are moving toward industrialization, although at varying speeds and from different points. Their family systems are also approaching some variant of the conjugal system.

In presenting the comparative evidence from the five different societies of his study, Goode had found the Indian case to be particularly problematic.

First, as he candidly admitted, there was in fact no conclusive evidence that the majority of Indians had ever lived in extended families in the past (notwithstanding ideals to the contrary), nor that Indian families were at present moving decisively towards a conjugal family pattern.

Second, to the extent that there appeared to have been some changes in this direction (for instance increased emphasis on the husband-wife bond as against that of mother and son; a higher level of contact between a married woman and her natal family; a decline of patriarchal authority in the family; greater freedom of choice of marriage partner), these changes could not plausibly be attributed to the impact of industrialization per se, since they had in fact preceded any significant level of industrialization.

Nevertheless, and remarkably in the face of the paucity of his evidence, Goode remained convinced of the historical inevitability of a global revolution in family patterns towards the conjugal pattern presently exemplified by the West. As he wrote in the conclusion to his monumental survey.

In this investigation, we have, in a very deep sense, pointed to both the present and the future while attempting to make a sociological analysis of the past half-century- As an illustration, in suggesting that various of these family changes are now taking place in India and the Arab world, we are pointing in effect to data that will appear, behavioral patterns that will become more pronounced, attitudes that are emerging but will become dominant in the future…. We are suggesting that processes are at work which will lead to the changes indicated.

Needless to add here, perhaps Goode’s conjugal family pattern was projected not merely as an ‘ideal type’ in the neutral Weberian sense of the term but, on balance, as a morally superior social and political ideal which (like capitalism as an economic system) institutionalized the individual’s ‘freedom’ to ‘choose’, and offered people ‘the potentialities of greater fulfillment, even if most do not seek it or achieve it’.

Two further aspects of Goode’s reading of the Indian data on the modernization of the family might briefly be noted. First, Goode observed that in India, ideological change (expressed, for instance, in progressive legislation or in the opinions of the educated elite) was far ahead of behavioural change, which remained relatively slow.

Second, reflecting on the resilience of traditional Indian family patterns, Goode suggested that these family patterns are not merely dependent variables, changing in response to the exogenous impact of industrialization, but that they ’embody or express most of the factors that have impeded India’s social development’.

This is a hypothesis that, in one form or another, has had a long history, notwithstanding the lack of sound empirical evidence to support it. Oft-cited as a refutation of Goode’s thesis is Milton Singer’s (1968) study of the family histories of nineteen Madras industrialists.

While Singer had indeed found some inter- generational changes (in residence, household size and composition, occupation, and educational levels) which he speculated might functionally be associated with urbanization and industrial entrepreneurship, he also noted an inter-generational persistence of joint family living in many cases, the constant interactions of both nuclear and joint families with their relatives in villages, the continued sense of joint-family obligations even on the part of those actually living in nuclear families, and the continuity of aspects of family occupation (for instance continuity in the professions of trade and business) despite new educational specializations.

Singer interpreted his findings as indicating the potential of the Indian joint family for ‘structural adaptation’ to new circumstances. This type of joint family organization, he concluded, is not only compatible with the development of modern industry, but may even constructively assist the establishment of a modern industrial enterprise.

As a number of critics have pointed out, the value of Singer’s study was compromised by his failure to define with precision the concepts of ‘nuclear’ and ‘joint’ family and his conflation of ‘family’—a genealogical construct—and ‘household’—a residential and/or commensal arrangement of persons who are mostly (if not invariably) kin.

In retrospect, however, one can appreciate the importance of Singer’s principle of ‘structural adaptation’ as a way of reconciling both persistence and change in the realm of Indian family and kinship.

3. Household Versus Family:

The lack of uniform operational definitions of the concepts of ‘joint’ (or ‘extended’) and ‘nuclear’ (‘conjugal’ or ‘elementary’) family, and the conflation of ‘family’ and ‘household’ were not confusions peculiar to Milton Singer’s work.

On the contrary, they were, and still remain, widely prevalent in studies on the Indian family in the discipline of sociology as well as in other social sciences. Under the circumstances, one wonders how the sociologist can be expected to answer the only question that anyone seems to want to ask of the Indian family- ‘Is the joint family disintegrating?’, and what general conclusions can be built on such shaky foundations.

Two sociologists in particular, A.M. Shah and Pauline Kolenda, working independently along rather similar lines, have contributed significantly to clarifying the conceptual issues involved in assessing trends in the composition of the Indian family.

In a series of articles from 1964, now collected in The Family in India (1998), and in his earlier monograph on The Household Dimension of the Family in India (1973), A.M. Shah had sought to spell out the features of what he considered a properly ‘sociological’ approach to the Indian family (as distinct from the ‘Indological’ or ‘legal’ approach that had earlier prevailed).

Shah’s clarification had two distinct aspects. First, following M.N. Srinivas’s emphasis on field-based, as against text- based, approaches to the study of Indian society, he stressed the importance of the empirical observation of kinship behaviour (in the ‘field’) as the proper basis of sociological generalization.

He also cautioned against the methodologically dubious procedure whereby present ethnographic realities are posited against an ideal picture of family life derived from normative and prescriptive textual sources, and conclusions drawn therefrom on the nature and direction of social change.

Second, in line with current sociological usage, Shah recommended that the object of study should be what he called the household ‘dimension’ of the family, the household being defined as the strictly commensal and co-resident group. This focus discounts the features of ‘coparcener ship’ and ritual corporateness that had defined the Hindu joint family in the Indologically oriented literature.

Substituting the commensal and co-resident ‘household’ group for the more imprecise and polysemous term ‘family’, the question, ‘Is the joint family disintegrating?’ is rephrased as, ‘Is the joint household disintegrating?’.

This question is supposedly more amenable to empirical verification—that is so long as comparable time-series data are available—but unfortunately, neither family nor household data have hitherto been elicited with uniform definitions in mind.

However, Shah urged, meticulous attention to methodological questions, the judicious use of data sources, and a cautious approach to generalization can enable the sociologist to monitor longitudinal trends, at least in patchwork manner.

Moreover, as time goes by there will be further opportunities for anthropologists and sociologists to restudy communities that they themselves or others had earlier studied, an exercise that is by now well under way.

Several household-classification schemes have been devised by sociologists to enable them to capture with greater precision the multiple forms of household composition and the dynamics of household change in India.

Of these, the scheme that has had widest currency (in its original form, or somewhat modified) is the twelve-type classificatory scheme proposed by Pauline Kolenda in her pioneering ‘Region, Caste and Family Structure: A Comparative Study of the Indian “Joint” Family’, based on an analysis of twenty-six post-1949 ethnographic studies and household censuses.

The scheme has proved pragmatically useful for highlighting aspects of household composition that tend to be obscured in the dichotomous classification of households into either joint/extended or nuclear/elementary types.

For instance, by a dichotomous classification, the commonly encountered domestic group composed of a widowed mother or father along with a married son, his wife, and children, is classified by some analysts as a joint household (depleted), and by others as a nuclear household (supplemented)- depending on the scheme adopted, the relative proportions of joint versus nuclear households in the population under study will be skewed accordingly.

Again, a simple joint/nuclear categorization obscures the phenomenon of single- person households, a household type which may be of both sociological and practical interest. It is no easy matter to sum up the burden of the empirical research that has been conducted on patterns of household composition and change in India.

A number of observations may be hazarded, nonetheless, with the caution that they are more in the nature of the deconstruction of well-entrenched stereotypes than a positive input into remapping the field:

(1) The joint household is rarely the statistically predominant form of household; nuclear households are usually more numerous.’ However, even with the majority of households being nuclear in composition, the majority of persons in a population might still reside in joint or supplemented nuclear families.

(2) Overall, the proportion of joint over nuclear households does not appear to be decreasing. The average size of the household has actually been increasing over the last century and a half and, while there is no direct correlation between household size and household type, there is every likelihood that proportions of joint households have been increasing as well.

Indeed, such an outcome would appear inevitable given population growth, increased longevity, greater pressure on land and housing, the usual norms of household formation, and the preponderant rule of patri (viri) local residence, the absence of state-run social services, economic development and the accumulation of assets, and an overall encouragement in the wider political culture to the Sanskritization of custom.

It is pertinent to note in this context that some longitudinal studies (in rural settings) have registered increase in both nuclear and joint household types over time, accompanied by a decline in households of other types (sub-nuclear or supplemented nuclear, for instance. The demographic fact of increased life expectancy may be the simple key to this latter type of change.

(3) Despite the predominance of nuclear households, many or most people would experience living in several different types of households. Households, like individuals, have a ‘life-cycle’ of development as individual life courses web in complex ways with trajectories of household expansion, fission and replacement, and with wider socio-economic forces.

This is the phenomenon that anthropologists have termed ‘the developmental cycle of the domestic group’

(4) A ‘stem family’ form (of parents residing with a married child), structurally if not developmentally similar to the classic pattern of Europe or Japan, may be an emerging pattern of family organization and an important social mechanism for care of the elderly (Statistically, widowed or widower parents are frequent ‘supplements’ to the nuclear household.

(5) Rural households tend on average to be larger than urban households 5.59 to 5.33 members respectively in 1991; parallely, joint households are more numerous in rural than urban areas. However, it would be premature to accept these findings as supporting the proposition that urbanization leads to nuclearization, at least not without a very careful monitoring of longitudinal trends.

Such composite figures may only conceal the complexity and heterogeneity of the processes involved. For instance, India has had a long history of urbanism, and probably a relatively high proportion of persons in the old cities live in joint households.

On the other hand, while new migrants to the towns and cities may come initially as individual workers and then establish nuclear families, the passage of time combined with the governing principles of household formation and the pressures of urban living may well encourage the development of joint households in due course.

Similarly, while the lifestyles and occupational mobility of the professional middle classes may discourage joint-household living, another section of the urban middle class (for instance those engaged in business enterprise) may prefer to maintain joint households along with their joint business and property interests.” Such communities may also be the social reference groups in urban centres.

(6) There appear to be significant regional differences in the prevalence of joint households. Utilizing a combination of census data and anthropological field studies from the first decade after Independence, Pauline Kolenda had shown that the joint household is strongest through a contiguous belt across north India, and weakest in south India.

This mapping coincides in its broad outlines with the distinctions that have been made between north and south Indian kinship systems, centring around marriage practices. In sum, Kolenda’s work suggested that regional patterns may be more consistent than some of the other factors that have been hypothesized to correlate with preference for joint or nuclear households, for instance caste status or landownership.

(7) Notwithstanding nuclear-household residence, there is strong and generalized commit­ment to joint-family values and norms of kinship behaviour. While urban nuclear families may be relatively isolated from close kin, perhaps translating neighbourhood relations into a kinship idiom instead, in the village context individual households may well live under the same roof as close kin, or in adjacent houses.

Property and ritual observances may be common, and codes of conduct (for instance a woman’s veiling herself before senior affines) will apply as in the case of a regular joint household.

Similarly, through much of India (especially north India) the norm of house­hold formation follows the pattern whereby brides are initially recruited into the households of their husbands’ patrilineal kin (‘patri[viri]local residence’), although the young couple may move out of the joint household and set up separate residence in due course of time.

While the work of Kolenda, Shah, and others has succeeded in nailing the myth of the ongoing ‘disintegration’ of the Indian joint household, an enormous amount of research still remains to be done to chart the dynamics of the household life cycle and the complex processes of family change in the South Asian region.

Kolenda’s data in the studies cited (1967, 1968, and 1989) is derived from ethnographic monographs and surveys of the first decade after Independence, and from the 1961 Census of India.

Since the 1970s, some regions of the country have begun to register fertility decline, indicating significant changes in traditional family- building strategies. However, the task of monitoring these processes in all their heterogeneity— over regions, castes, classes, and communities, and through individual life cycles—has barely begun.

4. Recovering ‘The Family’

Privileging the concept of ‘household’ over that of ‘family’ has no doubt introduced a wel­come precision into scholarly discussion on the Indian family and has enabled more rigorous comparative studies of households across cultures and over time.

At the same time, the exercise has also been self-limiting, if not actually self-defeating. Driven by the one-point agenda of pronouncing authoritatively (one way or another) on the fate of the Indian joint family in modern times, inquiry has been largely restricted to quantitative and morpho­logical aspects of household form/composition at the expense of the more ineffable dimensions of family life and relationships.

It has excluded address to the other reality of the family as a property-sharing or ritual unit distinct from the strictly co-resident or commensal group, as well as investigation of the economics of the household as a unit of production, distribution, and consumption.

Overemphasis on the household does not allow speculation on the role of the family in the organization of human reproduction, in the social­ization of citizens, or in the provision of welfare—questions which are mostly left to other disciplines to address.

The emphasis on household discounts as sociologically irrelevant the ubiquity of ideals of joint-family living that may be fervently ascribed to even when the individuals concerned actually live out some or the greater part of their life courses in nuclear households.

Perhaps the time has now come to backtrack to the point from where sociologists of the Indian family had set out on their quest for greater precision, replicability, and general methodological rigour through the conceptual distinction of family and household, and to begin a more broad-based reconstruction of the field of Indian family and kinship studies.

Such an enterprise would include, but also go beyond, what has been described as a shift of focus in Indian family and kinship studies in the 1990s, from ‘structure’ to ‘process’. It might involve, for instance:

(i) Taking a new and critical look at revisions of the history of the family in Europe and North America, and in other regions as well, themes so far taken up, if at all, mainly by social demographers;

(ii) A re-engagement with the now relatively dis-favoured functionalist and structural-functional approaches to family and kinship in social anthropology and in Parsonian sociology, short of endorsing their status-quoist and sexist assumptions;

(iii) Openness to insights from the ‘cultural’ approach to kinship studies as a means of understanding both the ideology of the joint family and, more generally, the nature of indigenous conceptions of relatedness;

(iv) Recognition of the structural implications of marriage alliance in determining the role of the family in the wider kinship system;

(v) Exploration of the political economy of the household—both the intra-household distribution of resources and the imbrication of the household economy within the wider national and global economies;

(vi) Consideration of the relations of contradiction and collusion between state, community, and household; and

(vii) A general openness to insights from other disciplines, taking back on board themes that have been largely marginalized in recent sociological research on the family in India.

As suggested earlier, some of these are the product of the informal division of labour between sociology and anthropology on the one hand, and between these disciplines and social work on the other.

In many instances, as will be evident in the discussion that follows, one finds that the writings of feminist scholars have provided a bridge across these conventional disciplinary divides, and suggested new emphases and directions.

Kinship Ideology:

Anthropologists studying primitive societies have had long-standing interest in indigenous theories of procreation—what are often called ‘descent’ or ‘procreative ideologies’ in anthropological parlance—linked, in particular, to the functioning of unilineal descent groups and justifying the rights and duties associated with membership in such groups.

In the South Asian context, where kinship systems are largely (though by no means exclusively) based on patrilineal descent, such ideas are seen as the foundation of a pervasive ‘patriarchal’ ideology which rationalizes the differential access of men and women to the material and symbolic resources of society.

An influential input into this mode of thinking in the Indian context has been Leela Dube’s paper (1986) on the ubiquitous South Asian procreative metaphor of ‘seed and earth’: man is the active principle, providing the ‘seed’ of the child’s future identity, and woman merely the passive ‘field’ in which this seed is sown and nurtured.

This theory of the unequal contribution of the sexes to the process of reproduction, Dube argues, ‘provides the rationalization for a system in which woman stands alienated from productive resources, has no control over her labour power, and is denied rights over her offspring’.

By contrast, she observes, some of India’s matrilineal communities have had quite different theories of procreation, along with their different understandings of women’s entitlement.

Other feminist writers have pursued this reasoning further, seeking correlations between the descent principle and a number of other features of the system of kinship, marriage, residence, and succession, along with other indicators of women’s status and ‘bargaining power’, as has Dube herself in a recent comparative study of gender and kinship in South and South East Asia.

The connections thus made between the principle of patrilineal descent, its expression in a masculinist procreative ideology, and aspects of the ‘secondary’ status of women in south Asian society are both insightful and compelling, and of wide ramification through diverse domains of social life including public administration and law.

But this is clearly not the whole story Dube’s own paper shows that the status of the mother is also a significant component of the child’s identity, since placement in the caste hierarchy is ultimately a function of the status of both parents, not of the father alone.

The special status of motherhood in Hindu society is therefore not merely an extension of the mother’s role as father’s wife or ancestress, but derives from cultural understandings of the unique ‘natural’ bond that exists between mother and child in consequence of the mother’s ‘sacrifice’ in bearing and nurturing the child with her blood and milk.

Also, as Louis Dumont and others have demonstrated, the important concept of ‘sapinda’ in Hindu kinship reckoning is not exclusively agnatic, but varies from an exclusively agnatic orientation in the context of oblations to ancestors, to a modified patrilineal emphasis in the context of birth and death pollution and inheritance rights, to a more even-handedly cognatic emphasis in the exogamous rules governing marriage.

In fact, the problem is not only with the rather uncomfortable fit between metropolitan kinship theory and ethnographic evidence from the non-western world but, it has been suggested, with the theory itself.

In particular, the so-called ‘descent’ approach to kinship studies within the structural-functional tradition is problematic in several respects that have been highlighted in the anthropological literature, including from the perspective of the ‘alliance’ and ‘cultural’ approaches. It is to the latter—that is the ‘cultural’ approach—that I draw attention immediately, reserving for later some comments on the relevance of ‘alliance’ theory.

In his path breaking American Kinship: A Cultural Account (1980 [1968], David Schneider had set out to describe the ‘meaning’ of American kinship as a ‘system of symbols’ independent of the anthropologists’ usual classificatory inventory of principles of descent, residence, inheritance, succession, etc.

Proceeding from analysis of the American kinship terminology, Schneider had characterized the cognitive universe of American kinship in terms of an opposition of relations by ‘blood’ (conceived as ‘natural’, permanent, and substantive), and different types of relations ‘by marriage’, that is, relations of a more contingent character, governed by an express ‘code of conduct’ and conceived as based in ‘law’ or ‘culture’ rather than in ‘nature’.

In a patchy sort of way, different scholars have picked up and elaborated on different strands of Schneider’s work in the Indian context. Inden and Nicholas, for instance, have looked at the principles of classification of relatives in the culture of Bengali kinship and the codes of conduct that these relations require, augmenting this analysis with consideration of the symbolic structure of Hindu rites of passage (samskaras) which work to ritually transform the person through successive stages of the individual life-cycle. 

Concepts of Person (1983), link the idiom of kinship in north and south India to constructions of personhood and, in particular, to caste identity. T.N. Madan (1983) has looked at the Kashmiri Pandits’ ideology of householder-ship and its relation to their sense of community, while John Gray has similarly argued that understanding the dynamics of the Nepali household as an institution must begin with an appreciation of the meaning of ‘householder-ship’ in the Nepali worldview.

The Nepali household, he argues, is a ‘structure of consciousness’ before it is a group of persons or a set of shared functions.

In a rather different idiom, Margaret Trawick (1996) has elaborated on the meaning of ‘love’ in the culture of Tamil kinship—not merely the contrast of ‘erotic’, ‘conjugal’ love versus non-erotic ‘consanguineal’ love that Schneider (1968) proposes in the context of American culture, but love (Tamil, ‘anpu’) construed as the multiple and contradictory attributes of ‘containment’, ‘habit’, ‘harshness’, ‘dirtyness’, ‘humility’, ‘simplicity’, ‘servitude’, the ‘reversal’ of normal social hierarchies, ‘confusion’!

Others see the culture of South Asian kinship as an instance of a more encompassing ontology that is reflected in many different domains: architecture, medicine, religion, law, land, and labour relations, etc.

From the viewpoint of the discussion here of the ‘ideology’ of the Indian joint family as a component of the wider kinship system, one of the most interesting inputs has been Veena Das’s essay on Punjabi kinship (1976).

Punjabis, she says, acknowledge the strong emotional bonds arising from the ‘natural’ sexual relation of husband and wife, and the ‘natural’ procreative relation of parent (especially mother) and child, but they insist that these emotions must be kept—socially speaking—’backstage’, to be ‘sacrificed’ and transcended in the interests of the manifest solidarity of the patrilineal joint family.

In these terms, the joint family might be defined not so much as a specific type of household formation, but as an ideology and code of conduct whereby the relations of husband and wife and parent and child are expected to be subordinated to a larger collective identity. This ideology finds constant affirmation in the world of Indian popular cinema.

In fact, kinship ‘ideologies’ (ideas about how the family is constituted and how it functions) inform public discourse in many domains, including administration and the law. and are embedded in many provisions of public policy.

Similarly, culturally embedded ideas of sexuality and procreation are seen to inflect judgements on points of Hindu personal law that are formally phrased in the quite different legal idiom of marriage as ‘sacrament’ versus marriage as ‘contract’.

Or judgements in rape cases disclose the pervasive cultural assumption that the violent ‘sexualization’ of a virgin girl devalues her currency as an object of exchange between men, and renders her effectively unmarriageable.

With the studies just cited, one shifts from rural or village India to the ‘modern’ sector of Indian society, focusing on the urban middle and upper-middle classes whose self-image and concepts of person are projected on to the national canvas as the Indian culture of kinship.

There remains, still, much scope for the continuation and refinement of the cultural approach, with reference to other ethnographic regions of the subcontinent as well as to the kinship ideology of the lower caste, tribal, and marginalized groups of Indian society of whose concepts of personhood one as yet knows very little.

The Social ‘Functions’ of the Family:

Aside from the insights afforded by the cultural approach to family and kinship studies, it would be worthwhile to recall some features of the functionalist perspective on the family that are routinely rehearsed in most elementary texts on the family.

In reviewing the current literature on these dimensions of Indian family life, it will be clear that sociologists/anthropologists have relinquished much ground to other disciplines. The suggestion is that this ground should now be reclaimed.

Biological Reproduction:

Foremost among the family’s social functions is its role as the usual and legitimate site of biological reproduction. Human fertility is both determined by and impacts upon family values and structures in the wider context of society and culture, but the complex mechanisms of this reciprocal action remain the subject of academic controversy.

For instance, in an influential early article (1955), Kingsley Davis had speculated that the dysfunctional levels of fertility that presently characterize certain underdeveloped and agrarian societies, such as India, are linked to the prevailing type of family organization (that is unilinear descent groups and joint households).

In such systems, Davis observed, the nuclear family of procreation is able to share the burden of child raising with a wider kin group. Consequently, the age of marriage tends to be quite young, and numerous offspring, especially male offspring, are viewed as a positive asset to the group, providing security to the parents in their old age when few other means are available.

Considering their common focus on the reproductive functions of the family, one might have expected that anthropologists/sociologists and social demographers would be in constant dialogue.

Regrettably, this has not usually been the case. In fact, sociologists have sometimes been quite dismissive of survey research methods applied to the sensitive area of human reproduction (a particular target has been the knowledge-acceptance-practice [KAP] focus of the early family planning surveys), and have insisted that reproductive behaviour can only be viewed in the wider context of culture and social structure.

For their part, demographers have been impatient with the ethnographic detail of micro-level fertility studies, and have questioned the generalizability of such studies to the wider canvas of regional or national population planning.

The position has changed somewhat since the 1980s, however, particularly with the more nuanced elaboration of a regional perspective on Indian demographic behaviour and family patterns.

A number of important studies have now demonstrated considerable consistency between demographic variables such as fertility rates, household size, sex ratios, sex-differentiated infant and child mortality, and women’s age at marriage, and the regional patterns of kinship organization described by anthropologists, particularly the north/south contrast.

These different patternings of kinship organization are seen to correlate with different degrees of ‘female autonomy’ (as measured by proxy variables such as the mean distance between natal and conjugal homes; freedom of divorce and remarriage; literacy rates; work participation rates; and women’s inheritance rights), and with different degrees of ‘son preference’.

In general, the north Indian region (the states of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, and Haryana) is strongly masculinist on most measures; the south (the states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and Maharashtra), much less so; while the eastern region (Bihar, West Bengal, and Orissa) lies in between, with mixed characteristics.

These differentials also correspond, more or less, with the success or otherwise of state-sponsored measures of population control, though there are some notable exceptions to the pattern which merit close attention, and trends of change which promise to reverse long-established patterns.

For their part, some sociologists have sought to test demographic hypotheses through intensive participant observation fieldwork at micro-level (a good recent example is Patel 1994), while others have used large-scale survey methods to confirm trends that are perhaps less obvious when viewed close up.

Notable here is Monica Das Gupta’s study (1987) of sex-differentiated child morbidity and mortality levels in a micro region of rural Punjab that had been intensively studied in the 1950s. Her work demonstrates the greatly impaired survival chances of higher birth order girls (as compared to their brothers and to first-born girls), despite the overall economic development of the region and significant declines in both fertility and mortality.

She links this disparity with sex-differentiated access to food and clothing and, most crucially, medical attention. Revealingly, and disconcertingly, this disparity is shown to be inversely related to mothers’ educational levels.

The collaboration of social demographers and anthropologists/sociologists has been stimulated by the urgent need for population control, but this narrow focus has produced some distortions and blind spots as well.

First, notwithstanding recent changes in international population-control policies, the emphasis of research and intervention has been, until very recently, quite one-sidedly on female reproductive behaviour. (This emphasis appeared especially compelling following the politically disastrous promotion of male sterilization during the national Emergency in India [1975-7].)

Second, focus on population magnitudes has tended to marginalize address to the social implications of the new reproductive technologies (NRTs) now patronized by the middle and upper-middle classes.

The important exception here has been the linked practices of amniocentesis and sex-selective abortion, which have attracted much public attention (if not equally serious scholarly address) as pathological indicators of the strength of Indian son preference.

But there are several other dimensions to the NRTs which deserve greater sociological scrutiny for the light they throw on Indian kinship ideologies and family-building strategies, and for the connections they demonstrate between economic development, class formation, and the exaggeration of some traditional features of Indian family organization.

This may be another, and rather more malign, dimension of the ‘adaptive’ capacities of the Indian family that Milton Singer (1968) had alluded to. That is, traditional pathologies may be exaggerated, not eliminated, by processes of modernization and economic development.


Sexuality is one area where the disciplinary division of labour between sociology and anthro­pology is revealed most clearly. Considering the intimate connection between procreation and sexuality, it is remarkable that, after the pioneering work in this area of the redoubtable G.S. Ghurye, sociologists for the most part seem to have scrupulously avoided investigating Indian sexuality.

There is no Kinsey Report, no Hite Report, and no monitoring of changing sexual practices except from the very narrow perspective of conjugal procreative behaviour in the context of population control. Anthropologists, on the other hand, seem to have no such compunctions: in fact, eroticizing the sexual practices of object societies is a conspicuous sign of their ‘othering’ enterprise.

Expectedly, then, the significant inputs into the study of sexuality have come from anthropologists, along with psychologists and psycho­analysts, social historians (particularly those influenced by the work of Michel Foucault), and social workers dealing with sexual pathologies, incest, and domestic violence.

Latterly, feminist researchers, too, have broken their self-imposed silence to address male and female sexuality as a major topic of both theoretical and practical concern (John and Nair 1998; Uberoi 1996a). Some of this work is referred to in the brief discussion that follows.

First, there, is the suggestive anthropological writing on ‘procreative ideologies’, already referred to, and the inputs of some psychologists and psychoanalysts who have sought to explore the oedipal tension of the mother-son relation in India, usually counterposed against the sexual dynamics of the conjugal relation.

In addition to this, one may also note the continued reference to an ‘Indological’ or ‘Sanskritic’ model of conjugal sexual relations whereby sexuality is deemed legitimate only for the production of male offspring to continue the ritual offerings to ancestors: and not, primarily, for the production of pleasure.

Otherwise, sexual activity for males is perceived as a source of sin, impurity, and danger which is likely to impair both physical well-being and spiritual development.

A second exploration of sexuality may be found in the quite extensive anthropological literature on Hindu life-cycle rituals—particularly those of marriage, childbirth and, most conspicuously, female puberty.

In many communities through south Asia, a girl’s menarche is marked by a series of rituals which simultaneously celebrate her attainment of fecundity and marriage-ability while underlining her state of impurity and vulnerability and dramatizing the danger she now poses to her natal kin.

Once again, however, the richness of the ethnography of the ‘traditional’ sector of Indian society is in no way matched by comparable work on the urban and more ‘modern’ sector, and one is left to speculate on where and whether a girl’s coming of age in the contemporary urban milieu is stigmatized or celebrated, ritually marked or unmarked, or transformed into some other idiom, secular or ‘medicalized’, through agencies such as the multinational pharmaceutical companies.

Yet another trend may be found in the recent critical literature, for the most part by ‘Subaltern’ historians and feminists, which has begun the process of reassessing the last century and a half of Indian social reform. As is well known, Indian social reform efforts were largely concentrated on two issues: the removal of untouchability and the improvement of the social condition of women.

A major emphasis of this latter project involved community and state interventions to regulate female sexuality inside and outside of marriage in line with upper- caste, Sanskritic norms and/or Victorian standards of propriety.

Deconstruction of the discourse of social reform shows that both the nationalist and the reformist agendas, even on such questions as the abolition of sati and female infanticide or the raising of the Age of Consent, were more ambiguous and complex than superficial appearances and received opinion might suggest.

Particularly problematic was the process of the codification of customary and religious law, and interventions into the ‘reform’ of matrilineal systems of kinship and marriage , which often, in fact, placed new and untoward restrictions on women’s freedom of action.

Finally, on the theme of sexuality, it is likely that the AIDS crisis will increasingly focus attention on aspects of Indian sexuality, beyond procreation, both inside and outside of marriage. Indeed, the effect of this new and now donor-driven orientation, proceeding impatiently from research to policy recommendations, has already been felt, though to date more in social work than in anthropology/sociology proper.


Following on from the family’s role as the site of biological reproduction is its role as the first, the so-called ‘primary’, agency of socialization. After initial enthusiasm during the 1950s, when the study of child socialization practices was linked with the comparative study of personality types and political cultures, sociologists/anthropologists appear to have almost abandoned the study of child socialization to the disciplines of psychology, psychoanalysis, and child development.

Indeed, with the exception of a paper by Urvashi Misri (1985) on the Kashmiri Pandit understanding of the child and of childhood, sociologists have not reflected particularly on the cultural meaning of the concept of ‘childhood’ in the Indian context.

The Pandits, according to Misri, see the child as both an individual with his or her own unique  karma, and as a sharer in the inherited bodily substance of father and mother. Childhood is a process of separation of the child from divinity, with the child’s loss of innate sacredness and purity being matched by the incremental attainment of adult community identity through successive rites of passage (samskaras).

Contrariwise, and in a more secular mode, Krishna Kumar points to the traditional continuity between the world of the child and the adult world. Kumar suggests that contemporary social processes have brought about a new distantiation of the child and adult worlds in urban India as children’s schooling on the one hand, and adult work schedules on the other, now structure childhood and adolescent experience.

Obviously, too, the ‘invention’ of Indian childhood is being reinforced for the middle classes by the new post-liberalization consumerism, which has identified childhood and adolescence each as a distinctive life stage—and consumer market segment!

Krishna Kumar’s work has succeeded in bringing under examination the cultural practices of the Indian urban middle classes whose obsessive concern with their children’s education, employment, and marriage instances the modern family’s critical role in the reproduction of class status.

Similarly, Andre Beteille has argued (1991) that in contemporary India it is the institution of the family (rather than the traditional caste group) that now ensures the social placement of the younger generation—through arranging school and college admissions, professional training, and employment opportunities.

There is one aspect of the process of child socialization that has received considerable attention from sociologists/anthropologists. This is the process of socialization of the girl child and her internalization of feminine gender identity through a variety of social mechanisms. One of the important mechanisms of sex-role socialization is the sex-differentiated allocation of family resources.

Another is the series of life-cycle rituals, particularly those of puberty and of marriage. In the north Indian patrilineal kinship system, in particular, a young girl is made aware early on that she will ‘belong’ after her marriage to another family, a family of strangers, and that, except in the greatest adversity, her rights, responsibilities and entitlements will pertain in that family.

As in all societies, the process of maturation involves the internalization of gendered codes of bodily deportment and of social space. Sex segregation is strongly, if unevenly, marked throughout much of South Asia where purdah (the veiling and seclusion of women) is practised to greater or lesser extent among Hindus as well as (albeit in different form) among Muslims.

Women’s relative seclusion and their inability to access the public domain on equal terms with men have been identified as important impediments to their economic independence and betterment.


A major function of the family is that of care and nurturance-of the young, the handicapped, the sick, the unemployed, the aged. Indeed, in some ‘biologistic’ explanations, the care of the helpless infant and the protection of the pregnant and lactating mother are the very raison d’etre of the human family as a social institution concerned with the reproduction of the species.

In the upper income ‘developed’ societies, and especially in the erstwhile socialist states, many of these functions had been taken over by agencies of the state.

However, the dismantling of socialist regimes and policies of liberalization have created a crisis of welfarism worldwide, stalling the aspiration for comprehensive social welfare in developing countries and restricting the state’s commitment to areas of dire distress, or to sectoral investment in programmes which conspicuously further other developmental goals.

Perhaps this explains why the agency for initiating and prosecuting social-welfare schemes has been substantially relocated from the state to international organizations on the one hand, and to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) on the other.

In public discourse in India, problems in the delivery of welfare are often construed as evidence of a crisis in the family, rather than, for instance, a failure of state planning or a lack of political will.

Thus it is widely believed that the Indian joint family is a type of family organization perfectly adapted to providing the maximum degree of security to its members, but that this function has been seriously impaired by the expansion of an ‘individualistic’ ethos, and by new socio-economic trends such as occupational and spatial mobility, and the enhanced participation of women in some sectors of the workforce.

This is all a matter of speculation. In fact sociologists tell us very little about how families cope with severe stress, about the ways in which familial care supplements or substitutes care provided by the community and the state and, in general, about the principles of the Indian moral economy in normal and abnormal times.

In consequence of the disciplinary division of labour between the theoretical and the applied sciences, such questions have not been a prominent focus of the sociology of the Indian family, and are largely left to social workers to address.

Feminist writers have been at the forefront of efforts to investigate the familial and extra- familial resources that households draw on to cope with adversity, whether these be the normal ups and downs of everyday life, or situations of extreme distress.

At the same time, they have been wary of accepting at face value, the valorization of the family as an efficient instrument of care, perceiving here a convenient rationalization of the state’s withdrawal from welfare responsibilities and its shifting of this burden to families.

Similarly, they have critiqued the presumption that altruism is the governing principle of family relations, highlighting gender asymmetries in the allocation of family resources and bringing the issue of domestic violence prominently on to the public agenda.

The duality of the family as at once the site of oppression and violence and a ‘haven in a heartless world’ has been graphically illustrated in recent writing on the Indian Partition.

While male family members often took the lead in persuading their female kin to commit suicide for the sake of family honour, or themselves executed their own womenfolk, families also rallied to provide shelter and sustenance to victims and, wherever possible, to cover up the history of their women’s abduction during those traumatic times.

Similar stories could no doubt be told of the survival strategies of families in other situations of extreme distress and deprivation.

Production, Distribution, and Consumption:

As noted, the distinction between ‘family’ and ‘household and the definition of the household as the co-resident and commensal group were analytical refinements introduced to deal with two conceptual problems. The first is what one might term an ‘enumerative’ problem, arising from the fact that a house (as a material structure) might contain several distinctly demarcated social groups (‘hearths’).

The second is the confusion arising from the ‘Indological’ definition of the family as a property-sharing group. That is, as a result of the often uneven and staggered processes of family partition, the kinship group constituted by shared property interests might be smaller, or more likely larger, than the co-resident/commensal domestic unit.

Ethnographers describe many cases where hearth-group units are separate, but where landed property continues to be jointly cultivated and the proceeds shared.

That is why many sociologists had, contra the ‘Indological’ approach, discounted relations in property as defining features of ‘household’ membership. Of course, the criterion of commensality in the definition of the household does imply a certain sharing of budgeting and consumption.

Nonetheless, there has been a well-developed and continuing tradition in social anthropology which attends to the ‘domestic group’ as a unit of ownership, production, consumption, and distribution, as well as of reproduction, and this emphasis has now been strengthened by the important work of several feminist scholars.

Crucial to the familial organization of production is the sexual division of labour, both within the household itself and between the private realm of the household and the world outside.

Feminist scholars, particularly those operating within a Marxist framework, have seen women’s confinement to the domestic, reproductive sphere, their inability to access the public domain on equal terms with men, and the ‘naturalization’ of this arrangement at the ideological level (‘woman’s place is in the home’) as the historical and contemporary source of women’s subjection.

They have particularly taken issue with those traditions in sociology/ anthropology, and some earlier feminist writings, that have placed the opposition of the private and the public realms at the centre of kinship theory.

Following the suggestive lead of Jack Goody and S.J. Tambiah, feminist social scientists have recently sought to explore connections between the sexual division of labour in the household and the wider political economy, the structure of property rights, the nature of marriage payments (bride wealth or dowry), the frequency of divorce and remarriage, sexual permissiveness, restrictions on women’s movement in public space (especially the institution of purdah), and modes of production in different ecological environments.

An outstanding example of the empirical investigation of the hypothesized connection between women’s work (particularly their participation in agricultural labour) and their overall social status is Ursula Sharma’s comparative case study of women’s economic roles in a village in Himachal Pradesh, where women participate actively in paid and unpaid agricultural work, and one in Punjab, where women have been increasingly withdrawn from the agricultural labour force.

Though the Himachali women were publicly more visible, Sharma concluded that they did not on this account have conspicuously more domestic or extra-domestic ‘social power’ than their Punjabi counterparts.

She attributed this to a complex of social structural and cultural factors, but especially to women’s effective exclusion from inheritance rights in land in both states (notwithstanding the formal provisions of the Hindu Succession Act of 1956), and their ultimate economic dependence on their male kin.

Additionally, even where women did have title to property (in inherited land, in dowry goods, or in wages), Sharma stressed, this property was rarely—given cultural and social structural constraints— under their own control and management.

The measurement of women’s socio-economic status in terms of the rate of their partici­pation in the workforce is a somewhat problematic issue which one need not go into at this point, except to note that these measures fail to capture and account for the quantum and value of women’s unpaid labour and their productive work in the domestic sphere, in home- based industry, and in reproducing class status through what Hanna Papanek has aptly termed ‘family status production work’.

This latter aspect of women’s work has also been addressed by Sharma in the course of a study of the economic roles of employed women and housewives in an urban centre of north India (Shimla, Himachal Pradesh) (1986).

As in the rural study already mentioned, Sharma found that neither ownership of property nor monetary earnings in themselves could ensure women’s economic indepen­dence, since their control over these resources was constrained by generational and sexual asymmetries of power within the household, and by social codes of feminine deportment.

In any case, without reciprocal adjustments by their male kinsmen, women’s participation in the labour force, for the most part, resulted in their shouldering the ‘double burden’ of unpaid housework and paid employment.

The economic and political role of the household as an intermediary unit between the individual and the state is prominently acknowledged in public policy and administration, public goods and services being routinely allocated to the household as if it were a single unit of consumption.

Similarly, the household is seen as a self-regulating administrative unit, whose individual members are identified in terms of their relations to the household ‘head’ (usually assumed to be the senior most male member), who is their representative in the public domain and whose authority over other members is questioned only in the event of exceptional abuse of power.

These commonplace assumptions have been challenged recently—at the theoretical level within economics, as well as on pragmatic and ethical (equity) grounds.

For instance, economist Amartya Sen (1983) has urged interrogation of commonplace assumptions on the nature of the household as an economic institution, arguing for its recognition as an arena of both cooperation and conflict, of the mutual ‘bargaining’ over resources, in which some members are structurally so placed that they are likely to get the worst end of the bargain.

In the context of the Indian family, Sen points to gender as a major basis of disadvantage, affecting notions of entitlement and access to land, food, education, and medical attention, and severely compromising the life chances of females vis-a-vis males, differentially through the life course.

This approach has been further elaborated by Bina Agarwal who, like Ursula Sharma (1980), has stressed that it is particularly their restricted access to land as the major productive resource in South Asia that has placed the greatest limits on women’s bargaining position in the family.

Though the assumption of the ‘unitary’ household is not one that sociologists/ anthropologists have been wont to make (as noted, Parsons had maintained that the modern nuclear family was a basic and functional unit of society precisely because of its generational hierarchy of authority and sexual division of labour), the economists’ linking of the political economy of the household and the wider society with reference to the goal of distributive justice has been an important corrective to the status quoist assumptions of functionalist anthropology/sociology, as well as to the gender blindness of neoclassical economics.

Family Roles and Relationships:

Though the analysis of family roles and relationships finds little place in discussions of change in household composition, descriptions of both normative expectations and behavioural patterns have been, and rightly continue to be, a mainstay of anthropological, sociological, and social psychological writing on the family.

Apart from interviews, surveys, and the participant observation of family-interaction patterns, sociologists and others have found in literature, the arts, the contemporary mass media and ‘folklore’ rich sources of data, albeit to be used with caution and sensitivity to the constraints of genre.

In particular, folklore and women’s genres have provided important insights into cultural norms, as well as evidence of vigorous critiques of these same norms from the viewpoint of the disadvantaged.

Among the issues that have dominated cross-cultural research especially on changes in family, the relative priority accorded to different dyadic relationships is of special interest. It has been proposed, for instance, that the family system of (patrilineal north) India is based on the father-son relationship, while that of North America is based on the conjugal relation.

Others have argued that Indian kinship emphasizes the mother- son bond over that of husband and wife or of father and son. Still others argue that seen from the viewpoint of women, the overriding opposition is between a woman’s role as daughter/sister (that is patrilineal kinswoman) and her role as wife; or that functions of sexuality and procreativity have been dichotomously projected on to the complementary social roles of the wife versus the ‘other woman’ as in the feminine role structure of Indian popular cinema; and so on.

Certainly, most observers would agree that the introduction and valorization of the ideal of companionate and romantic marriage over the last century has simultaneously focused attention on the conjugal bond and given rise to cultural conflict over the ‘meaning’ of marriage and of wifehood.

Feminist historians and historically minded sociologists have taken the lead in exploring this theme, using a variety of data sources, from public debates on legal reform to the arts and mass media.

As Talcott Parsons might have predicted, the new emphasis on the conjugal relationship and on values of romance and companionship within marriage has put the conjugal relationship under extra strain, directing the sociologist’s attention to issues of domestic violence and marital discord and breakdown.

Some of the most sensitive and suggestive ethnography of Indian marriage and family relations is to be found in studies by psychologists and psychoanalysts, and by social workers who seek to understand the cultural and social ambience in which ‘violence is the form assumed by sexual love in a conjugal context’, where antinomies of ‘suspicion and sexual love’, ‘possession and desire’, ‘authority and affection’ intersect in the husband’s oftentimes brutal impress on his wife’s body.

5. The Family in the System of Families

The academic and public focus on ‘the family’ as the prioritized object of study tends to obscure two important facts. The first is the empirical variety of family forms, of which, as noted, South Asia presents a great number.

From this perspective, to speak of the Indian family is to assign normative value to only one of these many types (that is the patrilineal joint family of the northern type). The second is the fact that ‘the family’ pertains only in the context of what one might term a system of families.

It does not, indeed cannot, exist in itself. How such a system is to be interpreted, however, is the subject of much debate and the basis of theoretically opposed positions in the sociology/anthropology of family and kinship.

For instance, in A.R. Radcliffe-Brown’s structural-functional anthropology, ‘the basic unit on which the kinship system is built’ is the ‘elementary family’, consisting of a man, his wife and their children, and comprising the ‘three basic relationships’ of:

(i) Parent and child,

(ii) Siblings, and husband and wife as parents of the same child or children. Each member of the elementary family connects with a member of another elementary family in a second-order relationship (for example, mother’s brother) and each again in a third-order relationship (for example, mother’s brother’s son), and so on- This interlocking of elementary families creates a network of … genealogical relations, spreading out indefinitely’.

A not dissimilar perspective was proposed by Talcott Parsons who stressed that every individual is, uniquely, a member of tm different conjugal families: that into which he was born, called the ‘family of orientation’, and the ‘family of procreation’ founded by his marriage.

These two conjugal families comprise ‘the inner circle of the kinship structure’, each member of which is a connecting link with another conjugal family. A very different orientation has been suggested, however, by the French anthropologist, Claude Levi-Strauss.

In his model, the basic unit of kinship is not the ‘naturalized’ elementary family but the ‘family’ of a brother-sister pair, the sister’s husband and their child—or, more parsimoniously, the relationship of brothers-in-law. This elementary structure derives from the universal prohibition of incest, As Levi-Strauss put it.

The prohibition of incest establishes a mutual dependency between families, compelling them, in order to perpetuate themselves, to give rise to new families…. For incest prohibitions simply state that families (however they should be defined) can only marry between each other and that they cannot marry inside themselves.

Supplementing the social function of the incest taboo, many societies also prescribe certain categories of kinsfolk as desirable marriage partners, setting up by this means intricate systems of marital ‘exchange’.

Thus marriage is not (as it may appear from a commonsensical contemporary western perspective), primarily an arrangement between two individuals. It is an ‘alliance’ between two families, which is typically perpetuated into the next generation in the special relation of the mother’s brother to his sister’s children and perhaps, through further marital alliances, indefinitely

As is well known, south Indian kinship is structurally distinct from north Indian kinship, having ‘positive’, not merely ‘negative’, rules of marriage. But in either case, as Louis Dumont in particular has argued (1966), it is the relationship of affinity (i.e. of marriage) that ultimately structures the kinship system.

Expressed and consolidated in conventional patterns of gift giving and rules of kinship etiquette, Hindu marriage institutes a hierarchical relationship between ‘wife-takers’ (superior) and ‘wife-givers’ (inferior). In this way the kinship system of South Asian Hindus engages with the caste system, for each marriage not only links individuals and families, but also reproduces the hierarchy of Hindu caste society.

The ‘alliance’ perspective has been of singular importance in transforming the under­standing of Indian family and kinship and its many varieties, and in rendering the institution of ‘arranged marriage’, so called, in a new, and rather less exoticized, light.

That is, arranged marriage is not merely an expression of the authority of seniors over juniors in the family, but is essential to the reproduction of the family as a system of kinship and affinity embedded within the wider structure of caste. Needless to add, it also reproduces communitarian separateness.

6. Conclusion and New Directions:

In particular, it has followed one trajectory of this debate in the sociological literature—the redefinition of the object of study as the co-resident/commensal household. This gesture, though it introduced new rigour into sociological studies of changes in family composition, has had little impact on the terms and direction of public discourse.

This itself, perhaps, suggests a challenge- Is it not possible for the sociologist of the family to engage in a more constructive way with people’s own understanding of their family life, rather than simply dismissing this understanding as the empirically unfounded product of cultural nostalgia? Second, the focus on household composition as the aspect of family that can be empirically quantified has been self-limiting.

There is certainly a need for continued investigation of changing patterns of household formation, composition, and dispersion—over different regions, castes, communities, and classes in India.

Apart from any other justification, this is intimately connected to public policy in several domains. But this should not become a pretext for ignoring the more ineffable aspects of family life and relationships and the wide range of functions that households/families typically perform.

This does not imply acceptance of the idea that the family is functional, consensual, and homeostatic. On the contrary, sociologists need to confront (and not to abandon to psy­chology and social work) the dysfunctional and pathological aspects of family life, to recognize the family’s capacity for adapting to changing circumstances, and indeed to acknowledge that questions of justice, human rights, distributional equity, directed social transformation, and policy formulation are the professional business of sociologists in general, and sociologists of the family in particular.

Third, in following the trajectory of the debate on the modern fate of the Hindu joint family,like the participants in that debate, colluded in the equation of the Indian family with the Hindu patrilineal joint family It has thus marginalized consideration of the kinship patterns of non-Hindu and tribal communities, of communities following principles of matrilineal or bilateral descent, and of groups for whom the joint family is neither the cultural ideal nor an empirical preference.

Some writers argue that regional patterns of kinship overwhelm communitarian differences, but in general the perception of the Indian family that prevails, among sociologists and the wider public, is a generalized and hegemonic Indo-Aryan/north Indian one.

This returns us to our earlier discussion of the mindset of the earlier generation of Indian sociologists, and our observations on the important role of the family as the trope for community and nation.

A broadening of the agenda for sociological studies of Indian family and kinship suggests going beyond head counting and genealogical reckoning to engaging in methodologically eclectic and unconventional ways with new sources of data—literature, the arts, popular culture, and mass media,.with the data sources of the public domain law, politics, public administration, and with-historical records of various types. These are sources that sociologists have so far scarcely tapped.

The sociology of the Indian family, I have suggested here, seems to have been trapped in a debate which is no longer productive of new insights. It has also fallen victim to its own narcissistic preoccupations, in the sense that there is very little engagement with contemporary theoretical challenges in family and kinship studies, such as they are, nor much openness to insights from cross-cultural and historical research.

This is ultimately impoverishing. South Asian ethnography in the past was simultaneously shaped by, and itself contributed to shaping, the evolutionist and diffusionist theories of the pioneers of family and kinship studies in anthropology and sociology—Henry Sumner Maine, Lewis Henry Morgan, and W.H.R. Rivers; it provided grounds for the exploration of the integrative social function of religious belief and ritual in-elation to different levels of social organization; it afforded illustration of the structurating principles and inbuilt tensions of matrilineal kinship systems; it furthered the testing and elaboration of the alliance approach to kinship studies, as well as of the cultural approach in vogue during the 1970s; and it provided a well-documented instance of the impact of ‘modernization’ on the family in developing countries. Indian ethnography also substantiated the case for instituting a conceptual distinction between the ‘family’ as a genealogical construct and the ‘household’ as a residential-commensal unit in the context of historical and cross- cultural research on household dynamics. But that is all in the past: a legacy. For the present, I believe, there is urgent need for renewal.

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