The Role of the Family
It seems readily evident from an examination of the nature and role of the family in the developing world that form may indeed follow function. Many sociological studies conducted in recent years have indicated that the nuclear family is found at both the primitive and modern stages of economic evolution. The nuclear family predominated in early societies with subsistence hunting and gathering economies where food supplies were uncertain, and still predominates in modern industrial societies where the marketplace requires the geographical mobility of small, nuclear systems. This pattern of family roles in society, established over long centuries, still applies in most of the developing nations of the Third World.
Examinations of the sociological histories of various areas of Europe, Asia, and South America provide us with useful examples of the durability of the nuclear family. The nuclear family has always been important in the Third World societies of Eastern Europe, where households have been small and based on monogamous marriage, even where polygamy has been permitted. Ties to both parents’ relatives have been and still are respected, even when descent has been traced through only one line. Bonds between parent and child have always been legally and emotionally important. (Wolfe 198)
Many families in Third World nations are products of discontinuity. The intensification of agricultural production and the development of social systems based on land ownership have been important developments, as have changes in inheritance systems, which have evolved towards passing wealth to daughters as well as to sons. These inheritance systems, common to South America, favored the members of the immediate family over the lineage structure that controlled property in African systems. (Allan and Crow 102)
It is of interest to note that the family and its place in society have been affected in many Hispanic societies in South America by declines in religious belief as modernization develops. “The Catholic Church’s authority often competes with new value systems and the church generally loses respect and membership as progress advances.” (Smith 154)
More significant changes in the role and importance of the family are generated as Third World nations begin industrialization, which reduces the traditional productive functions of the family. Many Third World states have been primarily rural, agricultural societies, but in many cases land ownership becomes more centralized and towns expand as modernization continues, creating both a larger middle class and a landless proletariat. The middle class is often a diverse group including owners of large enterprises, managers and professionals, and small traders and shopkeepers.
In many African, Asian, and South American societies rural family households did much of the work within the home, and depended upon merchants to provide needed materials and marketing. Women and children were vital to the labor force, and the economic value of children as sources of family income encouraged high fertility. While landowners tend to become fewer, more powerful, and richer as modernization and industrialization develop, families who lose access to land and have to turn to household manufacture become poorer. What agricultural jobs remain are mostly for men, resulting in a decline in the participation of women in agriculture.
Families in the developing world have to adapt as industrialization brings workers together in factories and dramatically reduces opportunities for handwork in the home. This development adversely affects rural families, who rely on such work, and they often experience greater poverty. “Foreign owners of Third World factories rely heavily on the cheap labor of women and children, often recruiting and hiring entire families, so employment is possible but there are obvious negative factors as well.” (Rosen 109)
As industrialization proceeds, the higher classes in developing world societies often lead a movement away from women’s employment, relying instead upon men’s control of capital or high wages to support families. In circumstances such as this fewer married women take industrial jobs, but wages rise for the men and single women who do. Growing industrialization and urbanization separates many families from their kin, but working-class families often rely upon relatives who have preceded them to the city, so the family unit remains very important. For entrepreneurial families, kinship ties are critical for raising capital, hiring reliable employees, and inheriting wealth, especially in the close-knit Hispanic families of Central and South America.
The technological developments of recent years affect the family structure of Third World families in many ways, raising productivity and wages, and facilitating a pattern of male breadwinning and female homemaking. Working-class neighborhoods become more stable, and a matrifocal family pattern often emerges in which mothers and daughters retain lifelong bonds while men become somewhat marginalized.
In many developing nation societies divorce remains hard for working-class couples to obtain, but consensual unions and informal separations are common. Education replaces child labor, and children’s reliance on education rather than parental resources increases their freedom in mate selection. Fertility declines as children lose value in the household economy. Female employment declines in industries such as mining, but jobs open up in occupations requiring more education, such as clerical work, teaching and nursing.
The family role in Third World societies is also influenced by the migration to industrial cities. This development gives people more autonomy and privacy, but one negative result is the greater opportunity for family members in large, impersonal cities where no one knows their neighbors to get away with abusive or violent behavior. (Henslin 101)
As mass education and mass communications develop in the Third World they reduce class distinctions. In response, working-class families adopt certain middle-class customs such as low-fertility and investments in education. Middle-class families imitate working-class patterns in abolishing dowries, allowing children free choice of marriage partners, and accepting divorce. Furthermore, the separation of the industrial workplace from the home has created a conflict between the economic and family roles of women, encouraging those who can afford to do so to devote themselves to the home and children.
But as moral motherhood spreads from the higher classes to the working class, a counter-movement toward women’s employment is developing in many Third World societies, encouraged by such factors as women’s education, feminism, home technology, higher standards of consumption, and the insecurity of modern marriage. Women’s employment subsequently affects the family unit in that it encourages smaller families and grants greater social freedom to women, enabling them to end unsatisfactory marriages or raise a child without marrying the father. (Janssens 310)
The shift of authority from the church to the state in many South American and Central American societies also contributes to family change. The state allows divorces and legalized contraception, and provides economic support for single parents and the elderly. Divorced mothers receive little assistance from kin or from ex-husbands, and divorce settlements often fail to compensate for the weak financial position of many women.
But modern job opportunities and state support make it possible now for women in the Third World to live independently, although not without some lingering economic disadvantages. Disputes over property and visitation often make the post-divorce situation unpleasant for all concerned, especially the children. In addition, increases in step parenting and isolation from kin often increase the risks of child abuse.
Today in developing nations, instead of relying on the family unit, adult children and the elderly often prefer to rely on their own resources or those of the state. The expansion of state support is so expensive, however, that it generates public resistance, especially directed at single mothers. Although premarital pregnancy was also common in earlier times, it was more often followed by marriage or abandonment of the child to a foundling home. As fewer pregnant women marry, fathers have become marginalized.
In conclusion, the larger family structure of earlier times has given way to even smaller and more fragmented families in developing societies of the Third World. This does not mean the end of the nuclear family, however, since people continue to form relationships, and children continue to be raised primarily by their own parents. The basic family unit has always been extremely important, and although many changes in the family’s role and importance have occurred as modernization spreads across the world, the traditional family structure appears to be very durable.
Allan, Graham, and Crow, Graham. Families, Households, and Societies.
New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000.
Free Press, 1992.
University Press, 1993.
Rosen, Bernard. The Industrial Connection: Achievement and the Family in Developing Societies. New York: Walter De Guyter, 1982.
Wolfe, Christopher. The Family, Civil Society, and the State. New York:
Rowman and Littlefield, 1998.