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A matrifocal family structure is one where mothers head families and fathers play a less important role in the home and in bringing up children.
The concept of the matrifocal family was introduced to the study of Caribbean societies by Raymond Smith in 1956. He linked the emergence of matrifocal families with how households are formed in the region: "The household group tends to be matri-focal in the sense that a woman in the status of 'mother' is usually the de facto leader of the group, and conversely the husband-father, although de jure head of the household group (if present), is usually marginal to the complex of internal relationships of the group. By 'marginal' we mean that he associates relatively infrequently with the other members of the group, and is on the fringe of the effective ties which bind the group together". Smith emphasises that a matrifocal family is not simply woman-centred, but rather mother-centred; women in their role as mothers become key to organising the family group; men tend to be marginal to this organisation and to the household (though they may have a more central role in other networks). Where matrifocal families are common, marriage is less common. In later work, Smith tends to emphasise the household less, and to see matrifocality more in terms of how the family network forms with mothers as key nodes in the network. Throughout, Smith argues that matrifocal kinship should be seen as a subsystem in a larger stratified society and its cultural values. He increasingly emphasises how the Afro-Caribbean matrifocal family is best understood within of a class-race hierarchy where marriage is connected to perceived status and prestige.
"A family or domestic group is matrifocal when it is centred on a woman and her children. In this case the father(s) of these children are intermittently present in the life of the group and occupy a secondary place. The children's mother is not necessarily the wife of one of the children's fathers." In general, according to Laura Hobson Herlihy citing P. Mohammed, women have "high status" if they are "the main wage earners", they "control ... the household economy", and males tend to be absent. Men's absences are often of long durations. One of R. T. Smith's contemporary critics, M. G. Smith, notes that while households may appear matrifocal taken by themselves, the linkages between households may be patrifocal. That is, a man in his role as father may be providing (particularly economic) support to a mother in one or more households whether he lives in that household or not. Both for men and for women having children with more than one partner is a common feature of this kind of system.
Alternative terms for 'matrifocal' or 'matrifocality' include matricentric, matripotestal, and women-centered kinship networks.