Asymmetrical Kin and the
Corinne N. Nydegger
Medical Anthropology Program University of California, San Francisco
At the popular level, in-law relations are a staple of comedy routines and family advice columnists. Surprisingly, students of the family have shown no interest in this topic during the past 30 years. Although network research during this period, sparked by Bott's ( 1957) work, expanded the narrow conjugal focus of family studies, this orientation did not encourage the examination of particular relationships among kin. Moreover, with the notable exception of Fischer's ( 1983) recent study of intergenerational women's relationships, inlaw studies reflected the dominant perspective of the field by taking the point of view of the child-in-law rather than the parent-in-law. Thus, the studies are not readily assimilated into kinship research, which customarily takes the perspective of the mature kin group with regard to marriage of its children.
Within this child-centered point of view, theorists offered contradictory suggestions for the locus of in-law problems: Komarovsky ( 1950), pinpointing the wife's family; Duvall ( 1954), emphasizing the son's family. The conclusions from the few subsequent studies ( Rogers & Leichter, 1964; Stryker, 1955) implied that in-law relations were largely a problem for women, that it was the classic wife/mother-in-law relationship that was problematic.
The data about in-law relations discussed here are derived primarily from the opposite point of view -- from the traditional kinship perspective of the parental family. From this stance, the relations look different: They are at least as problematic and consequential for men as for women.
My interest in this topic arose from unexpected findings in my research on fathers. Although interpretation of these results might be limited to the context of American family structure, I could not help but be struck by certain