The core focus of Sociology is the social behavior of societies and the manner in which different cultures design, organize and create interactive networks and institutions (Moore et al., 2013; Giddens, 2001). Thus, various sociologists hold different schools of thought regarding the broad concept of family and family life. This is especially in line with the contemporary approaches and changes taking place around the same issue. Haralambos et al. (2004) define a family as a basic functional unit that comprises a group of people who are directly linked to one another by blood, and in which the older members assume responsibility and care for the children. Although the Functionalism theory considers family a universal institution found in every society, it also emphasizes that the structure and membership of the unit differ across societies in the world. This is due to the influence of value systems as held by different communities and individuals. Haralambos et al. (2004) define matrifocality as a cultural setting in which the elder female members of the family (mothers) are recognized as the heads of families or households. Matrifocality, therefore, goes against most feministic societies that insist on masculine dominance, and at times utterly fail to either recognize or attach any importance to the women. As a result, the phenomenon has been cited as the source of numerous problems. This essay is aimed at exploring the argument that matrifocality underpins the social ills in the Caribbean society. This will be discussed in relation to the pertinent theoretical perspectives. Likewise, the traditional and emerging role of the family in the modern-day Caribbean will be considered.
Sociologists argue that matrifocal family set-ups have significantly supported infidelity and divorce in the Caribbean Society. The fact that matrifocality gives women authority and power over men in marital unions subsequently allows women to only get married when they wish. It also allows them to terminate any marriages that they are not comfortable sustaining. Conversely, men have no powers to determine the course of the marriages. As a result, they have always found themselves on the receiving end of the various matrimonial acrimonies. Barrow & Reddock (2001) argue that matrifocality is based on the institution of the plantation and the legacy of slavery which forms the central focus for the Caribbean social life. Plantations did not attach any social significance to slave marriages. This is because the spouses could be separated at the wish of the master and sold off to different places. As a result, since the historical times, a large percentage of women who headed households were never married but engaged in the male-female union. Such unions, therefore, recognized male residents who had no power to serve as the heads of the household (Barrow & Reddock, 2001). Hence, the male gender has consistently lost its social importance in the Caribbean, often giving women total control over the family resources and even the children. Attempts to carry over the ancient practices into the contemporary society have thus led to increased cases of divorce. In this case, women in the Caribbean do not see the need to live with male partners who cannot fulfill their economic roles. Such women, therefore, end up as single parents. Likewise, they embrace matrifocality which recognizes their roles as heads of household and autonomy in the family structure.
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Matrifocality has also been cited as a major hindrance to cultural integration and cohesion in the Caribbean (Mustapha, 2013). Cultural integration can only occur in cases where there are free interactions of members from different cultures. The interactions involve not only the emulation of positive aspects of other cultures but also include modification of retrogressive cultural practices to match the dominant trends in the contemporary society. Mustapha (2013), while explaining the nature of the Caribbean society, refers to Melville Herskovits who argues that the society is founded on creolization, acculturation, and inter-acculturation. In this case, Melville Herskovits postulates that due to interaction, lesser cultural groups in the Caribbean have emulated certain patterns from other cultural groups leading to modification of their initial cultural standing. As a result, a symbiotic exchange of cultural traits has taken place. However, due to the need to recognize various cultures within the Caribbean as existing in common institutions but practicing different cultures, a plural Caribbean society has emerged. To emphasize this, Mustapha (2013) cites that the plural models acknowledge that the various cultural groups can meet and interact in the marketplace but can never combine. Failure to combine therefore implies that each culture must have certain unique practices so as to stand out from the rest distinctively. Based on this, matrifocality has been a dominant trait among the Native Caribbean cultures. Other cultures were opposed to the practice due to the perceived social effects and therefore kept their distance from the perpetrators. As a result, overall intercultural cohesion and integration in the Caribbean have been jeopardized.
According to Barrow & Reddock (2001), matrifocality has also bred unstable life and low rates of marriage in the Caribbean society. This is especially during the initial stages of adult life. Levels of illegitimacy in the society have also risen with increased cases of matrifocality. The above effect has been found to dominantly affect black families in the Caribbean (Barrow & Reddock, 2001). Accordingly, black men agree that the maternal family structure significantly has weakened extended relations while strengthening the relationship between the mother and children. In such situations, men exist as isolated members of the family whose bonds with the children are significantly weakened. In extreme cases, men are considered strangers in their homes. The limited economic contribution of men towards family sustenance, therefore, does not emanate from their social status. Rather, it revolves around the uncertainty that characterizes their precarious position in such relationships. Men fear to show full commitment when it is apparent that the female spouse determines their tenure in the marriage. Barrow & Reddock (2001) further explains that dominant seclusion and alienation of men in most marriages scares the young men of marrying age. As a result, this group ends up with negative perceptions about marriage life. Hence, most male members of the society in early stages of adult life in the Caribbean opt to stay out of wedlock. The levels of illegitimacy also tend to increase because women find it a societal norm to engage in multiple relationships. The close bonds between children and their mothers as exhibited in matrifocality seclude men from upkeep duties as well as legal parenthood. Women are therefore free to have children with multiple spouses fuelling the illegitimacy.
Matrifocality is the opposite of feminism in which men are portrayed as patronizing chauvinistic characters who have total power and authority over women (Moore et al., 2013). However, the recognition of women as heads of families by some cultures in the Caribbean cannot be explained as an approach to women empowerment but rather an ancient practice that emerged in the plantations during slavery. Men were considered as the prime targets for hard labor and as a result; the masters could easily find a ready market for male slaves than they did for female slaves. Moore et al. (2013) continue to explain that whenever needs arose, black men could be taken away from their families and sold to other places, often never to reunite with their families again. Women, therefore, started leading independent lifestyles, fending for the children and acting as the sole source of leadership in the families. As a result, matrifocality found root within most black families in the Caribbean. In conclusion, the abuse of the principal tenets of matrifocality has led to the current societal crisis. Therefore, in the Caribbean society, matrifocality underpins the social ills.
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