The Matrifocal Family in Iberia: Spain and Portugal Compared

By Brogger, Jan; Gilmore, David D. | Ethnology, Winter 1997 | Go to article overview

The Matrifocal Family in Iberia: Spain and Portugal Compared


Brogger, Jan, Gilmore, David D., Ethnology


Although matriocality has faded somewhat as a topic in cultural anthropology, interest in the concept has revived in Mediterranean studies. Recent work in the northwest corner of Iberia (north/central Portugal and Spanish Galicia) reveals a highly matrifocal family structure. This anomalous pattern seems linked in some yet-undefined way with a prevailing emphasis on female dominance in this part of the Mediterranean world. Yet in the rest of the Iberian peninsula matrifocal families do not correlate with female power; in fact, the opposite is true. For example, in southern Spain, matrifocality coexists with male dominance and machismo within an honor-and-shame value system. This paper compares a village in central Portugal with one in Andalusia in an attempt to gain insight into this Iberian conundrum.(Matrifocality, gender, family, Iberia, honor and shame)

First coined by Smith (1956) to describe black Caribbean families, the term "matrifocal" has had a checkered career in anthropology. Ethnographers have applied it to a bewildering variety of peoples; the Javanese (Geertz 1961),the Igbo of Nigeria (Uchendu 1965), Portuguese fisherfolk (Br[phi]gger 1992), and urban black Americans (Stack 1974),to name just a few. Like other promiscuous neologisms, the word has undergone numerous semantic vagaries since its inception. Nancy Tanner (1974) tried to provide a workable definition, employing three heuristic criteria. The first of these is that the mother is "structurally, culturally, and affectively central" to family life. Second, this mother-centrality is "legitimate." Finally, the "priority emphasis" in the society is put upon the mother-child relationship, the conjugal nexus being relegated to secondary importance (see also Gonzalez 1970).

Naturally, not everyone favors the word matrifocal or accepts these criteria. Yanagisako (1977) and Cole (1991:62) prefer "women-centered kinship networks" because this phrase includes female relations outside the kindred and thus transcends the stereotype of a matriarchy based on the black urban American model. Writing about northern Portugal, Brettell (1986:9) substitutes "matri - centric" and "matri - centrality" for similar reasons. Also for Portugal, Willems (1962:70-71) introduces the odd term "matripotestal" to convey the sense of women being in authority within the family. Playing down the mother-child dyad, he thus adds a political or power connotation - about which more later. One may already see inherent methodological problems in this semantic diversity, not to mention capricious hyphenating.

Still, some agreement emerges based on a reading of the literature. To summarize, matrifocal may be taken to refer, first, to families in which the mother is central both structurally and affectively, and second (if only inferentially), to a distribution of authority in which women have a strong position relative to men. In such families, the husband/father has a reduced role, being physically and emotionally distant or entirely absent. Thus matrifocality often appears in association with heavy male emigration, seasonal unemployment, or (male) economic insecurity. It also occurs where there is high incidence of illegitimacy, as in northern Portugal (O'Neill 1987:235). These features are summarized by Cook (1992:156) as "low male salience."

Because the mother is more available in these families, she is also - by male default if not complicity - more active in family decision - making (Tanner 1974:155). However, this does not mean she is dominant over her husband when he is around. For example, Belmonte (1989:87) calls the Neapolitan slum family "mother-centered, father - ruled," a description that works wherever fathers are peripatetic or evanescent but not acquiescent. Matrifocal also has to be distinguished from cognates like matrilineal and matrilocal; it must not be confused with "matriarchal" as in Bachofen's Das Mutterrecht.

Oddly enough, despite the recent growth in mother - entered families, one rarely encounters the term today in anthropology. …

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