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Caribbean Family Organization: A Comparative Analysis1

Keith F. Otterbein
Published 1965 · History

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CARIBBEAN family organization is characterized by a domestic system in which women play a dominant role. This type of family organization is not just confined to the Caribbean, but is found throughout southern United States and Latin America, a view which has been expressed by R. T. Smith (1956: 240-47), Richard Adams (1960:30-33), and William Goode (1961:912). However, it must be pointed out that these family systems are not found universally throughout the New World but seem to be confined to lower class, non-tribal populations. Caribbean family systems have a large number of features in common; M. G. Smith (1962a: 244) lists at least 23, the most important for an understanding of the functioning of these systems being (1) a mating system characterized by marriage and consensual unions, and (2) households headed by persons of either sex. Each of these attributes, which are characterized by two dimensions, can differ quantitatively from community to community. For example, in some communities the percentage of consensual unions is high, in other communities it is low; or, to select the other attribute, the percentage of female household heads is high in some communities, low in others. The problem of this paper is to explain the variability which occurs among Caribbean family systems. If this is to be accomplished, it is not sufficient merely to describe the attributes and dimensions of such systems; rather, it is also necessary to locate and identify the conditions and factors within the sociocultural system which account for the variability. In other words, I will not only analyze family systems in terms of the most significant dependent variables but will also seek to discover the independent variables to which these variables are functionally related. The numerous attempts to explain family systems of this type can be grouped into two major categories: (1) historical approaches which trace the present day patterns of Negro family life to origins in West Africa (Herskovits and Herskovits 1947), Western Europe (Arensberg 1957; Greenfield 1959), or eighteenth-century slave plantations (Frazier 1939; King 1945); (2) functional explanations which seek to find the determinants of family structure in the functioning of the social system emphasize either the lack of economic opportunity for men (Clarke 1957; R. T. Smith 1956), the incidence of male absenteeism (Kunstadter 1963; Solien 1959), or the type of mating system (M. G. Smith 1962a). Since the historical approaches only seek to explain the existence of Caribbean family systems as a general type, they will not be discussed. On the other hand, the functional explanations can be used to account for the variability if they are reformulated.
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