Beyond the Household



In response to Carmen Diana Deere’s blog in 2020 on this website, I made the comment that critiques of interviewing only the head of the household in surveys have been made for about fifty years but nevertheless, the practice persists. Since then, there have been some analytical moves in agrarian studies that have helped expand the critical literature on ‘the household’ onto a larger field. In short, there is a deeper engagement with social relationships that derive from kinship and descent. Detailed field research reveals the continuing centrality of kin and descent relations, albeit in transformed and transforming shapes, in the current lives of millions of people across the world, in both richer and poorer regions. While gender relations remain central to these studies, the recognition of relations deriving from and connected to kinship – descent, marriage, residence, adoption – allows analysis to go beyond simplistic binaries such as women/men or young/old or rural/urban to reveal principles, practices and stratagems that support livelihoods, as well as play into both reciprocity and unequal differentiation, including class formation/reproduction.

An excellent example is Shah and Lerche’s 2020 study of migration in India. They state: ‘At the centre of invisible economies of care are shown to be the productive and reproductive work of kinship over generations … We … expand the focus of recent migration and social reproduction theory from gender to kinship over generations. …’. Drawing on Nancy Fraser’s 2014 view of social reproduction as the ‘forms of provisioning, caregiving and interaction that produce and maintain social bonds’, Shah and Lerche show that the role of kin relations extends far beyond that of ‘care’ to production, such as when members of kin groups enable migration for some by stepping in to tend fields, livestock, maintain assets, etc. They also emphasise that while gender relations are central to understanding how the migrant ‘households’ function, ‘an analysis of men and women [in different kin or other relationships] and different generations, is more important than just gender in the invisible economies of care which sustain a migrant worker in production’.

Similar detailed, including longer-term, studies come from South Africa. If any place could suggest a painful dislocation from ‘traditional’ modes of social interaction, then South Africa would top the list. However, recent research shows that relations based on descent, marriage and other kin connections continue to channel, shape, and be reshaped by, wider sets of social and political economic situations. A study in the Eastern Cape by Rosalie Kingwill discusses inherited titled land, which is referred to as ‘family property’ by the current holders but is, in practice, held by a patrilineally defined descent group (symbolized by a surname). All recognized members, men and women related through the patriline, are beneficiaries of the title, unlike formal customary law that vests land in males only. However, as the logic of the patriline requires, in‐married wives are not considered owners so that any attempt to include wives’ own patrilineal kin or to divert the ownership/title of the land to that ‘foreign’ descent group is met with challenge.

The significance of lineal ties is also shown in a study of cattle-keeping groups formed through land reform in Kwazulu‐Natal (Hornby 2014). The committees set up to manage the cattle and land tend to be led by men from locally significant descent groups. More generally, rights and obligations of all people operate across generations, and many devolve down patrilines. As several men explained to Hornby, not only were they responsible for funding their sisters’ marriages, but they also had ‘inherited’ obligations to help fund family ceremonies and old bridewealth debts which their fathers had incurred. Similarly, Deborah James (2012) describes the long‐term obligations between descent‐based groups where delayed transfer of bridewealth constitutes ties of indebtedness. As one man quoted by her said, ‘In marriage, when I pay lobola [bridewealth], I don’t pay the whole amount. I am in debt – I owe the family of my wife’ (22). This debt – and related resource flows – between descent groups usually lasts for years, and sometimes, as the Hornby case shows, across generations.

Other South African researchers seeking to understand the linked patterns of production and consumption insist that these include ‘the reproduction of distinctive forms of marriage, systems of kinship and community membership, as well as property relations that are not characterised by private ownership’ (Cousins et al. 2018, 1060). These relationships, centrally involving kin-based connections, enable complex patterns of multiple occupations, and rural-urban as well as international migration and transfers (Hornby and Hull 2023). The dense interdependence among members of different social groups and networks leads these latter authors to conclude that ‘households are held together through networks of distributional obligations, rather than because they are a cohesive unit of production. For this reason, mainstream understandings of the ‘household’ do not map easily onto this setting. … households are better characterised in terms of patterned, regular transfers of resources than in terms of units of co-production, co-residence or co-consumption.’ (2544).

Recent research by Chambati and Mazwi (2022) in post-land reform Zimbabwe shows the resurgence of lineal, clan and kinship ties in claims on land, labour exchanges and politics, a trend foreseen by Sam Moyo (2013) and one that helps produce ‘ethno-regionalism’.

More generally, a robust critique of the focus by government and others on the ‘nuclear family’ and ‘household’ in South Africa by Mpofu and Ndlovu-Gatsheni (2019) reveals how official statistics completely underestimate the prominence of three, even four, generation units; the permeability of ‘households’ in the movements of extended family members (defined by lineal and other kinship links) moving in and out; the flows of resources over time and space linking members; and the conception of a ‘household’ as ‘a home to a collective’ (206).

Kinship beyond Africa

Research from Central Europe and Vietnam (Hann 1993, Hall et al. 2011, Sikor et al. 2017), and Central and South America (Deere and León 2001), show the workings of kinship in social and political relations around land, work and political action. But the entailment of relations of descent and kinship is seen not only in rural or agricultural contexts but also in national and international politics. Collins’s (2006) study of regime transition in Central Asia found that over 80 per cent of the parliamentary seats in the Kyrgyz, Tajik and Uzbek elections went not to the new political parties (as theorists of the shift to democracy after socialism expected) but to clan members. Collins concludes that ‘kinship is the core foundation of clan relations and identity’, including where long-term ties convert a friend or ally into ‘kin’. Furthermore, ‘[o]nly an approach that puts … the organization of clans … at the center of the analysis will get at an understanding and explanation of the real nature of political order and disorder in Central Asia’ (24-26).

Similarly, studies discussed by the journal Comparative Studies in Society and History (2018) show the central role of kin, including clan, relations. Thus, a study of the United Arab Emirates reveals how kinship is a key idiom of modern Gulf nationalism. The ‘glorification of kinship’, especially in Saudi Arabia, seeks to bind the kingdom together, even in the face of ‘massive in-migration’ and a mixed, often non-Arab, population. In Jordan, the competition, often violent, over land and housing is linked to ‘the role of large agnatic kin groups in the communal defense of land’. The latter is part of broader processes of ‘struggle amongst agnatic kin groups, the Jordanian state, and transnationally situated financiers over the nature and disposition of markets and property’. Some Arab scholars have even suggested that the equivalent of ‘civil society’ in Lebanon is ‘kin society’ (Longva 2018, 114). In Argentina, labour unions cannot be understood without an analysis of the roles of kinship and ‘kinning’ (that is, treating people as if they were kin) in their operation (Lazar 2017).

These few examples all show that relations stemming from kinship, especially descent, play a flexible, adaptive yet durable role in people’s lives; they interact with, help shape and are shaped by the myriad of social, economic and political processes addressed by agrarian studies. They should thus be considered part of the analytical and theoretical ‘tool kit’ used.

The malleability of kinship

Kinship is neither totally fixed nor totally contingent. While kinship is everywhere associated with certain ideals, especially solidarity and mutual help, persons inhabiting kinship roles, as with other social roles, often fail to achieve these ideals. To hold a kin position does not determine the actual relationship, because kinship requires ‘work’ to make it effective – that is, the holder of a particular status has to work to act in the expected ways according to the associated ideals or principles. Failure to do so may result in not being considered a proper relative, and in being marginalized or sanctioned. Conversely, where two persons enter into a particularly warm, mutually beneficial and satisfying relationship, they may seek to emphasize one strand of the relationship over another; so, someone who is genealogically distant may be drawn closer by being called and treated like a brother or sister. Similarly, among migrants, workers and urban residents, kinship can be used to reinterpret good friends as relatives.

The extension of kin relatedness does not operate merely contingently or strategically but is based on ‘well-established cultural registers’ (Bjarnesen and Utas 2018, S3). The invocation of clanship among residents of Khayelitsha, a huge urban settlement outside Cape Town, is not merely a contingent and useful ploy, but is based on ‘sets of ideas … sedimented into consciousness through iterative practice … a cultural structure underlying people’s constructions of kinship links – an enduring yet historically and contingently changing one’ (Spiegel 2018, 91, 110; cf. Hall et al. 2011 for Java).

Kinship is both general and specific: as a general concept defining a type of relatedness, it is an essential part of the analytical toolbox for social (including agrarian) studies. However, like all abstract concepts (such as class or culture), it needs to be deconstructed into the specifics of the relevant context. Collins (2006) points out that political scientists who worry about using ‘essentialist’ concepts turned away from the use of clan towards more general terms such as informal institution, social network or clientelism. Her study of politics in Central Asia shows that these over-general concepts ignore or misrepresent the ways in which clanship shapes political life. Similarly, the use of the European, Latin-derived word ‘family’ as an analytical term for all societies fails to capture the specific dynamics of kinship, especially descent-based relations, which are central to rights and obligations, including those relevant to land (Peters 2021).

To this point, I have focussed on the importance of recognising, naming and analysing the significant role of kinship and descent in much of social, political and economic life, as shown in the cited studies. My final point, however, is the political importance of so doing, because of an ideological attack on the very foundations of these relations.

Since the mid-1990s, an international ‘pro-family’ movement, mainly led and funded by US Christian organizations, has fought against legislation and other actions that protect women’s and LGBTIQ’s rights (McEwen 2021). At the forefront of this movement are the Family Research Council, the World Congress of Families (WCF), and Family Watch International. The WCF, an international pro-family organization, has been especially active in mobilizing campaigns against LGBTIQ+ rights in African countries. WCF defines the ‘natural family’ as ‘the fundamental social unit, inscribed in human nature’ and promotes the notion that the nuclear family is universal to all of humanity and history, and ‘based on the marital union of a man and a woman, is the bedrock of society, the strength of our nations, and the hope of humanity . . . the ultimate foundation of every civilization known to history’. These definitions arise out of the major aim of these organizations, including those they have helped establish in countries such as Ghana, Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, Malawi and South Africa, namely to ‘bring the natural family message to the leaders and grassroots delegates, worldwide’ in order to ‘address the threat of Lesbianism, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights (LGBT) to the people’ (McEwen 2021, 45). These views are not limited to these ‘family’ organizations but typify many self-defined ‘conservative’ organizations such as the Claremont Institute (NYT 2024).

But in their challenges to what they define as dangers to a ‘healthy society’, they are promoting an ahistorical and erroneous notion that the nuclear conjugal family is, and always has been, the ‘natural’ unit for all humanity. The danger I want to highlight is that in its insistence that the fundamental unit of ‘healthy’ societies is the nuclear family, it also, willy-nilly, seeks to eradicate critical sets of social relations based on kinship and descent pervasive in these same societies.

In short, we now face not only a persistent failure of scholarship, research and surveys to recognize the multiple problems of privileging ‘the household’ in analysis. In addition, the fast-spreading ideological proclamation that the nuclear, conjugal unit is the ‘natural family’ for all humanity threatens to deepen the inability to recognize the significant role of relations of kinship and descent in multiple aspects of social life.

Pauline E. Peters is a social anthropologist and retired faculty member of the Department of Anthropology and the Kennedy School, Harvard University. She continues her research as a Fellow of the Center for African Studies and the Center for International Development at Harvard.

Photo by ILRI/Charlie Pye-Smith