Family and Kinship: Patrilocality, Matrilocality & Neolocality

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  • 0:07 The Family
  • 0:46 Nuclear vs Extended
  • 1:35 Family vs Kin
  • 2:07 The Localities
  • 3:32 The Descents
  • 5:58 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Erin Long-Crowell

Erin has an M.Ed in adult education and a BS in psychology and a BS in management systems.

The family, as a social institution, is an extremely important subject of study for sociologists. In this lesson, we define family and kinship, and we discuss three different patterns of residency and systems of family lineage.

The Family as Social Institution

How big is your family? Do you have a mom and dad and one or two siblings? Do you have a stepfamily? Children? Cousins? Who did you think of when I first asked you about your family? The family, as a social institution, is a part of all societies. It's even considered the most basic of all social institutions by many sociologists. The family is studied extensively in sociology and is considered so important because it provides for some of the most fundamental human needs, including love and emotional security.

Nuclear vs. Extended Families

Traditionally, a family can be defined as a group of individuals who are related through common ancestry, marriage, or adoption. This could include parents, grandparents, children, siblings, first cousins, distant cousins, and so on. Of course, the structure and values of families do look different across different societies. For example, in Western societies, we tend to think of a nuclear family, which is a pair of adults and their children, as the epitome of a family. However, an extended family, which is two or more nuclear families who are related, is common in other societies. Sometimes, it's even normal for a large extended family to live under the same roof.

Family vs. Kin

Another word that some people use for 'family' is 'kin,' but they aren't technically synonyms. You may have heard a phrase similar to, 'she is kin to us.' That's because 'kin' is actually a synonym for 'related.' So, where family is the actual group of people, kinship is the relationship between family members. Mothers and daughters, uncles and nephews, sisters and cousins are all examples of kinships.

Patrilocality, Matrilocality, and Neolocality

Now, imagine that Robin Hood and Maid Marian were married and had two children. We'll name them May and Junior. The four of them together is a family: a nuclear family. Junior is kin to Marian, as he is her son. Now, let's picture where they live. In some societies, a couple lives with or near the male's family after marriage. This is known as patrilocality. In other societies, a couple lives with or near the female's family after marriage. This is known as matrilocality. Personally, I imagine that Robin Hood and Maid Marian would be a couple that chooses to live on their own after marriage, perhaps in the forest. This is what's known as neolocality because it's neutral and located away from both sides of the family.

If a family uses patrilineal descent, they trace descent only through male ancestors
Patrilineal Descent

Today, in Western societies, neolocality is typically the norm. A newly-married couple usually strikes out on their own, and it is not expected that they will live with or next door to either side's parents. However, some degree of patrilocality and matrilocality do exist. For example, some couples choose to live with or near their parents. This is completely voluntary, though, and is not required by society.

Bilateral, Patrilineal, and Matrilineal Descent

Imagine Robin Hood and Maid Marian's family, again, living in the U.S. today. Junior has just arrived home from school and shows his mother the family tree assignment he was given in history class. Marian helps him list out his grandparents and great-grandparents and tells him stories about ancestors from both sides. She does this because most families in modern societies trace lineage based on bilateral descent. Bilateral descent is a system of family lineage in which descent is traced through both the maternal and paternal sides of the family.

Bilateral descent is not used in all societies, however. Patrilineal descent is a system of family lineage in which descent is traced through only the paternal side of the family. Using patrilineal descent, family trees are traced through the males only. People are related only if they trace descent through males to the same male ancestor. For example, Junior's patrilineal line would include his father's father's father and so on.

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