Beyond Joint and Nuclear: The Indian Family Revisited [*]

Article excerpt



The systematic study of the family in India dates back to the 1940s. The works of M.N. Srinivas (1942) and M.N. Banerjee (1944-45) appear to be the earliest published materials (See Bharat & Desai, 1995 for a comprehensive bibliography). Family research in India has, by and large, been a study of family patterns (Bharat, 1994), rather than of family dynamics (Uberoi, 1998), and its course can be chartered through a number of distinct phases, each phase being dominated by specific themes and questions (Oommen, 1991). It is this evolution of family research in India that is responsible for the genesis and perpetuation of the belief that the Indian family was essentially joint, and that following industrialisation and urbanisation, it has been replaced by the nuclear family. Thus, though family plurality has been an essential feature of Indian society, biases in research impeded the early recognition of this truth, making it appear to be a recent phenomenon. The present paper dispels myths and misconceptions re garding the family in India. Its description of the multiplicity of family forms simultaneously present in the country is enriched by the incorporation of available research on family dynamics and processes. It is important to note at the outset that the review of research presented herein is organised in terms of chronological phases. Though initially this may appear to underplay or even deny the plurality of family forms in India, the approach is adopted to facilitate an appreciation of how family research in India has evolved.


Though the family in India is one of the three most important social institutions for understanding Indian society (Karve, 1953), research on the family in India began sometime in the 1940s with the indological studies of ancient Hindu texts. These provided a normative view of the Indian family (Oommen, 1991). The works of Kapadia (1966), Karve (1953) and Prabhu (1958) illustrate the indological approach, followed by a similar description of the Indian family in the subsequent works of Gore (1965, 1968), Gupta (1978) and Ross (1961) among others.

In the works of the indologists, the joint family is portrayed as the characteristic feature of Indian society (Gore, 1968; Mandelbaum, 1959). Karve (1953:10) defines the joint family as "a group of people who generally live under one roof, who eat food cooked at one hearth, who hold property in common, who participate in common family worship, and who are related to each other as some particular type of kindred".

The essence of the joint family, as brought out in the works of Gore (1965, 1968) and Ross (1961), is described in the following section. The internal Organisation of the joint family, in terms of its structure, comprises a couple, their unmarried children as well as their married sons and their families. Variations along fraternal and familial lines do exist for a variety of reasons including developmental factors in the family life cycle. It is possible to look at the joint family as a multiplicity of genealogically related nuclear families living under one roof and sharing in worship, food and property. However, such a conceptualisation, besides failing to capture the essence of the joint family, living under the control of one patriarch, lays undue and unwarranted emphasis on the conjugal relationship. Looking at the joint family as a group of adult male coparceners and their dependents is more fruitful and realistic, in that it allows for an accurate comprehension of the importance of patrilineality and of familial and fraternal relationships. Additionally, it minimises the spousal and parent-child relationships, which, it is argued, facilitate the stability of the joint family.

As far as the relations in the joint family are concerned, system maintenance being of prime importance, familial and fraternal bonds are encouraged. …


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