Family as a Site of Reproduction

[These notes connect with the lecture on Kinship and Family – audio notes]

Families can be described as “sites of reproduction”  – this can be the case in two senses:  People as individuals and people as future labour power.

Families, loosely defined (often times in anthropology we will say household – the group that is co-resident and share productive and consumptive activities) are the social institutions that typically produce people. Families tend to be the foundational unit of society that contributes toward the socialization of children and youth and acts as a primary site for the construction of social identity.

A lot of family studies -even anthropological research- examines the nature and structure of families as a way to understand what makes particular individuals the way they are. Educational studies of student success very often highlight family structure as being strongly correlated with student achievement.  Not surprisingly the so-called white middle class family – two parents, two or three children, parents educated in some manner beyond high school- tends to produce higher rates of educational attainment in children.  There is a problem, however, with such a limited approach.  This is an example of a type of study that doesn’t place the object of study within the wider dynamics of structural power, but simply looks at the organizational power within the family unit.

Two basic critiques can be offered:

  1. Educational success is predefined in such a manner, located within a particular cultural understanding of what success is, as to be in some sense a self-fulfilling prophecy
  2. Empirical evidence shows other factors play as strong, if not stronger, a role in shaping education outcomes than family structure alone.  For example, research at UBC in the Faculty of Education has shown that rather than family structure, household income is a far better indicator of educational success than any other factor.  Using real estate appraisals one group of researchers has shown that the higher the house values the higher the likelihood of the household’s children going on to post secondary education.

What we can see here is that while the structure of a family may have some bearing on outcomes for children, the structure itself is neither the causal factor nor the only one that has a role to play.  We need to take into account the wider ideas of “structural power” that Eric Wolf describes.  We need to locate families within wider processes of society to understand what is actually happening.

So here we see that simply looking at the family as a unit the produces individuals misses a significant part of the overall picture.  This takes us to the second aspect of reproduction – the reproduction of labour power that occurs within the family.

In the late 1960s a group of theorists, around a political campaign called “Wages for Housework” argued that the primarily female labour used to maintain the home and to raise children was actually a benefit being transferred to the capitalist system itself. Their argument went as follows:  women cook, clean, parent, manage the household, provide services for their partners.  All these activities can be costed in the larger labour market.  If their partners, or the firms that employed their partners, were to pay for these services it would result in a sizable amount of money.

This argument was also relied upon a conception of the role of patriarchy, a gender ideology that places domestic power and authority into male hands, in shaping domestic relations.  Their point was not that capitalism requires women’s unpaid labour in the home, but rather that capitalism as an economic system was able to adapt and deploy women’s unpaid labour in the home as a benefit to the accumulation of profits by reducing the amount of money businesses would have to pay their employees.  Thus, a pre-existing patriarchal gender ideology (that disadvantaged women) was deployed by capitalism to transfer the responsibility for the maintenance of labour power and the reproduction of future labour power from capital to individual women doing unpaid labour in the home.

Privatized care of children in the home – that is raising children as a ‘choice’ and without significant societal support, is also a cost transfer from capital to individual families.  That is, the costs of producing, raising, and preparing future labour power are transferred primarily to the domestic unit.  This is a critical point as it shapes public debates about childcare and education. The dominant ideology places raising children into a private domain of individual choice and responsibility.  Yet, from an empirical sense, capital saves money by transferring as much of the cost of raising and educating children as it can into families. Thus, the countervailing or more balanced argument tends to highlight the overall societal benefit that families provide by raising children and sees the provision of childcare services (either through socialized daycare or parental release with pay) as a society obligation rather than as an individual responsibility.

So, by maintaining women’s labour in the home as unpaid, by transferring the cost of the reproduction of labour power into the home, and by highlighting ideologies of individual responsibility above collective obligations the structural power of social class reproduces a wide range of social inequalities.  Keep in mind that the wealthier members of society can purchase labour power to replace their own personal labour in the home.  So, for the wealthy, the privatization of labour within the family does not directly affect them, or at least it affects them in a quantitatively and qualitatively different manner than working class or poorer families.  The end result becomes a transferring of critical aspects of societal responsibilities onto the backs of those least able to pay and then telling them that it’s their fault.

A rather back to front situation if ever there was one.


What is Anthropology?

by Beth Penny (Anth 300 2011)

Upon telling people that I study anthropology, I am generally met with one of two responses: either intrigue about the idea of digging up dinosaurs or envy at the possibility of travelling to faraway “exotic” places. These responses embody the commonly held misconceptions about what anthropology really is. Ideas that the discipline has relevance only in shedding light the past, the exotic or the extinct (or the non-human) neglect to realise the discipline’s significance in contemporary Canadian society.

As a most simplistic definition, anthropology is the study of humanity. This subject matter encompasses all aspects of the human experience, everything from social structure to environment, kinship to politics. Though once considered to be the “handmaiden of colonialism”, anthropology has long since rejected this characterization. No longer solely focused on studying “exotic” peoples of foreign lands, anthropologists have expanded the scope of their subject matter to include peoples and cultures closer to home. Anthropological research has played an increasingly pertinent role in issues, policies, and debates in local, everyday society.

Canada is not culturally homogeneous; the idea of a melting pot society has been replaced with renewed interest in maintaining and celebrating cultural differences seen within people comprising one nation. Cultural difference, however, is not found without some degree of conflict. The issues arising from the cultural heterogeneity are where the role of anthropological study gains relevance, particularly with respect to First Nations.

First Nations have been and continue to be at the forefront of anthropological research in Canada, as historically marginalised and displaced peoples. The colonial process disrupted existing cultures, with lingering effects that are still felt today. In our seemingly modern, equal-opportunity society, not a day passes without a news article bringing to light an issue involving First Nations peoples in some respect. This alone should illustrate the still very present division between commingled peoples and cultures.

Anthropology can serve as a much needed cultural translator to open a dialogue and promote mutual understanding between historically distinct cultures. The need for this translation became very apparent in cases such as the Delgamuukw land claims of the 1990s, and persists today. This case saw two cultures at opposition: claiming ownership of the same land through different culturally practiced forms of documentation. The Delgamuukw case was essentially a ruling on validity of tradition and culture; although it was later overturned, that the initial judgement ruled against oral documentation as evidence keenly illustrated cultural miscommunication and marginalisation that continues in the postcolonial era. These are not issues of the past; a simple Google search for news articles on this topic will consistently yield articles that are merely days old.

Land claims cases such as this bring to light some of the tangible effects of an often unrealised cultural divide within what many consider to be a unified Canadian culture. Understanding the historical and cultural processes behind these cases is paramount in resolving these conflicts that have persisted far too long. In working closely with communities, developing relationships, gaining cultural knowledge, and expanding understanding, anthropologists play a key role in preserving cultural diversity and resolving conflict.

Humanity is fluid, constantly changing as the world changes; cultures evolve, politics vary, relationships transform. These changes present anthropologists with an infinite subject for study. Anthropology is not simply focused on the past or the foreign. Carrying out anthropological research at home is of relevance not just to the narrow world of academia but for communities being researched, policy-makers, and the general public. Developing mutual understanding and replacing the dominant colonial voice in favour of an open dialogue can help bridge this outdated but still prevalent cultural gap.


What is Anthropology?

An Anthropology Student’s Response to Familial Interrogation

by Deanna Ikari

Last weekend I went to my aunt’s birthday party. I don’t often go to family gatherings, and as a consequence of my frequent absences, my family – aunts, uncles, cousins, all older – felt entitled to the standardized interrogation regarding my current and future plans, naturally beginning with what I’m studying in school. I told my relatives that I’m majoring in anthropology.

“What’s anthropology?” was, unsurprisingly, the first response.

“Is it the study of bones?” was the second, equally expected query.

Speaking with fellow anthropology classmates, I have found that my family’s ignorance is not atypical. It is from a desire to alleviate this ignorance, perhaps an anthropological pursuit in itself that this article stems.

Anthropology as defined by American anthropologist Franz Boas, consists of four main subfields: archaeology, physical anthropology, linguistics, and cultural anthropology. Archaeology concerns the material remains of human cultures. Physical anthropology or biological anthropology as it is also known, looks at human evolution and is perhaps the reason for my relative’s question about bones. Linguistics seeks insight into culture by examining language structure, and cultural anthropology, arguably the largest field, takes a holistic view of the myriad of human activities and beliefs subsumed under the heading “culture.”

Cultural anthropology began as a discipline almost exclusively concerned with studying peoples who were then referred to as “primitive” and were largely located in the colonies of European countries. Colonies in Africa, Asia and South Asia and indigenous groups in North America were seen as ideal field sites for participant observation, a characteristic technique of anthropology and the primary means for cultural anthropologists to gather their information. Participant observation involves the anthropologist living among the group being studied. In doing so, he or she participates in activities and observes what is taking place while thinking critically about the interconnections between the various activities.

Many anthropologists have voiced the opinion that by learning about other cultures, we, the anthropological community that was until recently primarily situated in the West, can use our knowledge to critique our own habits and culture. This notion is expressed by Marcus and Fischer in their book, Anthropology as Cultural Critique: An Experimental Moment in the Human Sciences. Perhaps the most famous anthropologist to advocate such practice was Margaret Mead whose work on adolescence in Samoa is entitled Coming of Age in Samoa: A Psychological Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilization. Margaret Mead’s ethnography was published at time when the nature versus nurture debate was a major topic of academics, and Mead’s work placed her firmly in the “nature” camp. In Coming of Age in Samoa, Mead explains how Samoan girls experience adolescence as far less antagonistic than Westerners, and consequently that the turbulence of adolescence was not a biological phenomenon but a cultural one. Her findings influenced Benjamin Spock, a well known paediatrician.

In the past, groups residing in the colonies, such as the Ju/’hoansi in the Kalahari Desert were seen as pristine, untouched by Western civilization. For that reason they were considered to be prime candidates for ethnographic research. Today anthropologists take a very different view. Anthropologists now recognize the interconnections that exist between all cultures, and have become especially keen in exploring the effects that colonialism, the practice that initially facilitated their research. Here anthropology can be interdisciplinary, explicating practices that outsiders such as political scientists or aid agencies might not fully comprehend. Consequently, anthropologists are often seen working in tandem with such policy makers in former colonies such as Africa. For example, in South Africa it has been suggested that the spread of HIV/AIDS is related to the relative lack of agency that women possess to refuse sexual advances. A number of anthropologists have explored this relationship and its historical and cultural qualifiers. Their work demonstrates why a simple solution, such as making condoms more readily available, is not in itself sufficient.

Anthropology began as the study of what were then perceived as strange and primitive peoples, and as some have argued, aided and abetted the implementation of colonialism. Since then, anthropology has broadened its horizons of research, and in doing so has encountered and correlated efforts with other disciplines such as sociology and political science. Whether with application to the anthropologist’s country of origin or that of the people being studied, anthropological insight can be used to knowledgeably determine public policy. When my family asked me what anthropology was, my own response was somewhat less than eloquent; my definition was vague at best. Having taken time to carefully consider what exactly I am studying and to what end, I believe in the future I will be much more prepared to answer the inevitable question, “What is anthropology?”