Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Anthropological Approaches to the Arab Family: An Introduction

Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Anthropological Approaches to the Arab Family: An Introduction

Article excerpt


In this paper we draw attention to a number of methodological and conceptual issues related to the study of the Arab family. Our focus is on anthropological approaches. We choose this focus, not so much to consolidate disciplinary boundaries but to emphasize the usefulness of a holistic understanding of the social unit identified in society as "the family." One of our concerns is to determine to what degree the family exhibits a specificity peculiar to the Arab region. While it is certainly important to identify the characteristics of families in this region, it is equally important to de-mystify the term "the Arab family" and to challenge the assumption of an enduring, timeless, and unchanging entity.

The paper will start with a brief description of conceptual distinctions inspired by crosscultural approaches to the family, then discuss the attempts at reaching a definition of the Arab family.' Finally, the paper outlines the parameters of variation in family forms and functions in the context of broader social, political, and economic change.

What is the Family?

Anthropologists no longer try to arrive at a universal definition of the family; decades of research in a wide variety of societies have demonstrated that no matter how we formulate a definition of "the family," there will always be exceptional cases which do not conform to it strictly.2 For us the important point is to have a clear idea of what "the family" might be in the societies that we have chosen to study, that is, Arab societies. At least four different answers to the question, "What is the family?" can be distinguished analytically. It is a social unit:

( 1 ) based on common descent, or "shared blood"; (2) whose members share the same dwelling; (3) in which the members work to accomplish a particular set of tasks, such as the productionand distribution of food; and (4) through which individuals are socialized and acquire important elements of social identity, including gender identity, linguistic/ethnic/national identity, and religious identity. Each of these four definitions brings with it distinctive methodological issues.

To carry out research about "the family" it is crucial to distinguish between the two very different principles on which it is based: common descent and co-residence. The first principle specifies the rights and responsibilities allocated to kin, while the second defines membership in a household.

Once these general analytical features of families have been established cross-culturally, the analysis can only proceed toward culturally-specific forms. At this point we must take into account the particular society's own definition of "the family." Khuri (1975:103-105) complains that most previous works on Middle Eastern "families" do not clearly specify whether the units being discussed consist of groups of "relatives" or consist of people who are actually living together in a single house. The result is that earlier work is so general and vague as to be almost useless. This represents a failure to apply the general, cross-cultural analytical distinctions. What is more, many works fail to present clearly what the local meaning of terms such as "family" (ahal), "household" (bayt), and kin group ('a'ila). If we do attempt to apply these general distinctions and, at the same time, inquire about local meanings and specific cases, we find a great deal of variation. Let us look at "descent" in Arab families first.

Common Descent. Common descent can take many forms. In the Arab world it is often conceptualized as the sharing of physical substances (blood, flesh, and nerve)3 which are thought to be transmitted from one generation to the next through the process of sexual reproduction. Blood (Arabic: dam) is said to be transmitted from both parents to their children, while nerve (`as ab) is said only to be transmitted patrilineally. This notion of descent makes it possible for any individual to trace links through both paternal and maternal ancestors to a great many people. …

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