Matrifocality Research Paper

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1. Introduction: Definition and Derivation of the Term

Although there is no generally agreed upon definition of matrifocality, and indeed the term has been applied so variously that its meaning is quite vague, for the purposes of this research paper it is defined as follows: ‘matrifocality is a property of kinship systems where the complex of affective ties among mother and children assumes a structural prominence because of the diminution (but not disappearance) of male authority in domestic relations.’

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The term ‘matrifocal family’ was introduced to solve a problem of empirical description as well as to suggest an alternative theoretical view of the domestic organization of rural African-Americans in the then British Guiana (Smith 1956). After considering (and rejecting) such terms as ‘matricentral’ and ‘matriarchal’ to refer to the internal relations among members of households, many of which were femaleheaded (but certainly not all), the term ‘matrifocal’ was used as follows:

The household group tends to be matri-focal in the sense that a woman in the status of ‘mother’ is usually the de facto leader of the group, and conversely the husband-father, although de jure head of the household group (if present), is usually marginal to the complex of internal relationships of the group. By ‘marginal’ we mean that he associates relatively infrequently with the other members of the group, and is on the fringe of the effective ties which bind the group together (Smith 1956).

In the last sentence the words ‘‘effective ties’’ is an undetected printer’s error; in the manuscript it reads ‘‘affective ties’’ which was, and is, the author’s intention.

The term was quickly taken up and widely used in Caribbean studies though not consistently or without debate; it frequently was confused with ‘femaleheaded.’ Since the 1950s both the use and the meaning of matrifocality has been extended beyond the Caribbean as it tracked the worldwide revolution in gender relations, in marriage patterns, and in domestic relations. Its appeal as a less precise, but more evocative, expression has value in pointing to the changes in kinship practices and gender relations in the context of broader socioeconomic and political changes, but for the analysis of those changes something closer to its original meaning is necessary.

2. The Term ‘Matrifocal’ and the Context of its Introduction

Beginning in the 1930s an upsurge of labor unrest and nationalism in the Caribbean colonies led to policies of ‘development and welfare.’ Family life became a central issue in those policies, on the assumption that anything differing from middle-class European family ideals was unsuited to the modern world. Sociology had developed quite complex theories purporting to show that the isolated nuclear family of man, wife, and children was not only the most highly evolved, but also the most adapted to modern industrial society with its complex division of labor and high degree of social mobility based on male occupations. These ideas converged with the assumption—the false assumption—that a stable nuclear family based upon legal marriage is natural, being found in all human societies. Given these assumptions, households containing women with children by several fathers, unstable conjugal relations, conjugal partners living together without being legally married, were all considered to be deviant, abnormal, or pathological.

More technical anthropological analysis had shown that counting descent through females did not alter male dominance; however, matrilineal descent, that is, the inheritance or transmission of power and economic resources from a man to his sister’s sons (rather than to his own sons), could lead to unstable marriage and complicated domestic organization when the contrary pulls of marriage and parenthood on the one hand, and loyalty to the lineage on the other, precipitated an array of varying domestic arrangements (see Fortes 1949).

The analysis of matrilineal systems was important for countering the ethnocentric assumptions of nuclear family universality and paternal authority patterns; unfortunately, it had little influence on the emerging discussions of matrifocality. A widely cited publication was a paper entitled A Sur ey of the Consanguine or Matrifocal Family in which the author defined the matrifocal family as ‘a co-residential kinship group which includes no regularly present male in the role of husband-father’ (Kunstadter 1963). Given this definition, it is not surprising that the author classifies extreme matrilineal cases where women and children live with, and under the jurisdiction of, the woman’s brother, as ‘matrifocal,’ but it also excludes cases where a husband father is actually present, and abandons the criterion specified by Smith (1956) who later stated that, the term ‘matrifocal’— specifically intended to convey that it is women in their role as mothers who come to be the focus of relationships, rather than head of the household as such—the nuclear family is both ideally normal, and a real stage in the development of practically all domestic groups (Smith 1973). Kunstadter also ignored the developmental cycle of domestic relations, pioneered by Fortes in his study of Ashanti. It was central to the original concept of matrifocality because it analyzed the changing focus of domestic authority and cohesion as children are born and mature. Kunstadter’s paper, because of its place of publication, its title, its simplicity, and apparent authority, became the most widely cited source on matrifocality, drastically modifying its meaning by equating it with a static definition of female-headed households.

3. Family Policy and the Search for the Causes of Poverty

In European and North American societies it had long been assumed that poverty and disorganized families were at once the cause and the result of each other. These assumptions were given vigorous new life, and a decided racial slant, by the declaration in 1965 of a ‘War on Poverty’ in the US, when it became evident that the material well-being of the African–American population actually had deteriorated in spite of revolutionary civil rights legislation. A report by the United States Department of Labor (1965) purported to find the cause of continuing social deprivation in family structure, and more specifically in the ‘matriarchal’ pattern of Negro families in which the roles of husbands and wives are reversed. The term matrifocal had been introduced precisely to avoid this kind of false reading of the data, but both critics and defenders of this report managed to negate that original meaning, moving towards Kunstadter’s view and equating it with matriarchal or female headed.

It is ironic that most of the suggested cures for poverty require a return to traditional gender roles (on the assumption that a stable nuclear family based upon marriage is both natural and necessary for the adequate socialization of children), while at the same time gender roles themselves were undergoing a radical transformation as women of all classes increasingly entered the labor force, bore children out of wedlock, and frequently raised them in households without a male head.

4. Matrifocality and Feminism

It was inevitable that the term would be taken up in the new wave of feminism that has done so much to transform societies in the latter quarter of the twentieth century. The idea of a stage of human evolution in which women were dominant is not new. The Swiss jurist Bachofen (1861), took Herodotus’s descriptions of the matriarchal system of the Lycians as its point of departure, but contributed to nineteenth-century speculations about the development of patriarchy out of primitive promiscuity through a stage of matriarchy. The same kind of research into myth and religion has been employed by recent theorists of cognitive or symbolic archaeology, most notably Marija Gimbutas and her followers. Admirers and opponents alike of Gimbutas’s theory of a woman-centered stage of European social development have made free use of matrifocality in their commentaries, referring to a matrifocal stage in the development of European civilization (Marler 1997). This kind of generalized use has spread far outside anthropological circles, sometimes being used to refer to almost any female focussed activity, whether motherhood is involved or not. The term has also found its way into discussions of animal behavior.

5. The Analytic Dimension of Matrifocality

Matrifocality has been identified by anthropologists in societies too numerous to list here, and including such varied cases as Java, Portugal, Thailand, Italy, South Africa, and Brazil, as well as the locus classicus of the Caribbean and urban North America. Many have used the broader definition of female-headed or female-dominated households and pointed to the economic difficulties faced by husband-fathers as a presumed cause of matrifocality, thus, implicitly (if not explicitly) characterizing such families as abnormal forms of the nuclear family. However, all raise the theoretical issue of the relations among class, status, gender, and the family. Matrifocality is never an isolated condition or a simple cultural trait; it must always be considered in the context of the entire social system of which it is a part.

One of the first studies to address that issue was the study of marriage in the context of race and class in nineteenth century Cuba (Martinez-Alier 1974). She showed the effect upon domestic organization of the marginalization of colored men and women in a society where racial purity and legal marriage defined social status and social honor. In later work Smith (1987) argued that the matrifocal family in the Anglophone Caribbean is an integral part of the complex status system that emerged out of the sla e regime, where men of higher status were able to marry equals and enter nonlegal unions (coresidential or visiting) with women of lower status, thus institutionalizing a dual marriage system that operated at all levels of the social system. It is not poverty that produces matrifocal families but the combination of societal norms, status, and property considerations

stressing nuclear families based on legal marriage, coexisting with nonlegal unions, illegitimacy, and matrifocal families at all levels of the hierarchy for those whose unions do not serve to conserve either status or significant property. Another example is O’Neill’s demonstration that in rural Portugal, illegitimacy and matrifocal families are closely related to the status and land-owning structure of local communities (O’Neill 1987).


  1. Bachofen J J 1861 Das Mutterrecht. Krais and Hoffmann, Stuttgart (1967 Myth, Religion, and Mother Right: Selected Writings of J J Bachofen. Princeton University Press Princeton, NJ)
  2. Fortes M 1949 Time and social structure: An Ashanti case study. In: Fortes M (ed.) Social Structure: Essays Presented to Radcliffe-Brown. Clarendon Press, Oxford, UK
  3. Kunstadter P 1963 A survey of the consanguine or matrifocal family. American Anthropologist 65: 56–66
  4. Marler J (ed.) 1997 From the Realm of the Ancestors: An Anthology in Honor of Marija Gimbutas. Knowledge, Ideas & Trends, Manchester, CT
  5. Martinez-Alier V 1974 Marriage, Class, and Colour in Nineteenth-century Cuba: A Study of Racial Attitudes and Sexual Values in a Sla e Society. Cambridge University Press, London and New York (reprinted as Stolcke V 1989 Marriage, Class, and Colour in Nineteenth-century Cuba: A Study of Racial Attitudes and Sexual Values in a Sla e Society, 2nd edn. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, MI)
  6. O’Neill B J 1987 Social Inequality in a Portuguese Hamlet: Land, Late Marriage, and Bastardy, 1870–1978. Cambridge University Press, New York
  7. Smith R T l956 The Negro Family in British Guiana: Family Structure and Social Status in the Villages. Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, (the full text of this book is now available, with the kind permission of Routledge, on-line at http: rts1 first.htm )
  8. Smith R T 1973 The matrifocal family. In: Goody J (ed.) The Character of Kinship. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK
  9. Smith R T 1987 Hierarchy and the dual marriage system in West Indian society. In: Collier J F, Yanagisako S J (eds.) Gender and Kinship: Essays Toward a Unified Analysis. Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA
  10. United States Department of Labor 1965 The Negro Family: The Case for National Action. Office of Policy Planning and Research, US Department of Labor, Washington, DC


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