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Residence Rules

In all known cultures, at least some people—usually the majority—live near or with kin. Which kin live together differs from one society to the next and from family to family within a culture, but one particular kind of household tends to predominate in a given society. This is in part because many cultures have explicit rules that specify where a married couple will establish their new home.

In most societies around the world, newly married people are required or expected to live with or near the husband's family. This patrilocal residence pattern is found in 70 percent of a sample of 1,153 cultures (Levinson and Malone 1980). Residence is matrilocal in 11 percent of these societies, with a married couple living with or near the wife's family. Couples live apart from both the husband's and the wife's families in 5 percent of cultures. Husbands and wives are expected to live with or near the husband's mother's brother in 4 percent, a pattern known as avunculocality, or the uncle's place. Residence rules that require a couple to live with or near the family of one or the other spouse are known as unilocal rules. In 7 percent of cultures, a married couple can live with or near the family of either spouse, based on bilocal residence rules. Sometimes couples change households over the course of their marriage. Patrimatrilocal residence rules require couples to live first with the husband's family and then with the wife's parents. In matripatrilocal cultures, the opposite occurs.

Particular rules of residence seem to occur more frequently in some kinds of cultures than in others. Neolocal residence is most common in societies whose economies depend upon money. The introduction of money into a culture means that individuals can obtain what they need on a flexible schedule, so that a husband and wife are no longer as dependent upon kin for the necessities of life. Further, in money-based economies, people are not as free to remain in one place; they may be required to move to where a job is available. Moving entire households composed of parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins is impractical. Therefore, as money economies make couples more independent and also more mobile, living with relatives becomes less necessary and less realistic (Ember and Ember 1983).

In most cultures, people live with relatives. Some theorists have suggested that the particular choice of relatives with whom to live is influenced by which sex makes the greater economic contribution in the culture (Levinson and Malone 1980; Murdock 1949). Residence would be patrilocal where men make the greater economic contribution and matrilocal where the contribution of women is greater. This theory is intuitively attractive, but in fact residence rules are not predictably related to the roles of men and women in the economy. However, residence rules are predictably related to warfare (Ember and Ember 1983). In particular, where wars tend to be waged between groups who live far apart from each other, interfering with the subsistence activities of the men, residence rules tend to be matrilocal. Perhaps this is because matrilocality allows a closely related and therefore cohesive group of women to take charge of subsistence tasks when the men are away. Where enemies are close to home, societies are more likely to be patrilocal. Perhaps under these circumstances, families wish to keep the men at home as a kind of militia. Bilocality also occurs in particular kinds of cultures. Societies that allow a married couple to live with either set of parents have often been recently depopulated by disease. Dramatic population reductions of this sort may mean that one parent or set of parents has died. The flexibility of the bilocal residence means that a particular couple can choose to live with whichever parents have survived (Ember and Ember 1983).

In most cultures around the world, people live in the company of kin. The particular patterning of household differs dramatically from culture to culture, but in all cultures, households are composed of relatives. This means that the most fundamental challenges of living are met with the help of kin. Human beings give and receive food from kin, accept the support of kin in the rearing of their children, go to kin when in need of help, and help kin who are in need. Human beings also treat kin preferentially and are, in turn, treated preferentially by kin. For instance, among the Philippine Ilongot, kin ties regulate all important interactions between people (Rosaldo 1980). Kin hunt together and cooperate in the performance of other subsistence activities. A man who must make a marriage payment receives contributions from his kin. Relatives visit each other, provide each other with food and medical knowledge, take care of one another, and tend each other's children. A man will request help from his nephew because he views the child as his own, and a woman will give a sister rice for her family because sisters should feed each other's children. This pattern of nepotism is captured in the familiar homily that "blood is thicker than water." Just as kin are favored over nonkin, closer kin are favored over those who are more distantly related. None of this is surprising. Biological evolutionary theory suggests that because relatives share genes, they should be disposed to be good to each other; contributing to the survival and reproduction of a blood relative results in the proliferation of genes identical to one's own. This is entirely consistent with the Darwinian claim that animals, including the human animal, act in ways that promote the representation of their own genes in the gene pool of their kind.

In the United States and other Western societies, the idealized kinship customs are monogamous marriage, neolocal residence, nuclear families, incest prohibitions within the nuclear family, bilateral descent, and Eskimo kinship terminology. However, there are often important intrasocietal variations in the overall importance of kinship and kin and specific customs, with the most notable ones involving social class and ethnic variation (Schneider 1973).


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Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaRelatives & Extended FamilyKinship - Descent, Kinship Terminology, Residence Rules