Residence Rules


In most societies, newly married couples do not establish their own residence but instead become part of an existing household or compound occupied by relatives.  Which relatives are favored is culturally prescribed.  However, there are a few common patterns around the world including patrilocal click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced, matrilocal click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced, avunculocal click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced, ambilocal click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced, and neolocal click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced residence.  In order to understand the rationale for each of them, it is essential to know that the most important determining factor is the specific type of kinship system.  Of secondary importance usually are economic concerns and personal factors.

Patrilocal residence occurs when a newly married couple establishes their home near or in the groom's father's house.  This makes sense in a society that follows patrilineal descent (that is, when descent is measured only from males to their offspring, as in the case of the red people in the diagram below).  This is because it allows the groom to remain near his male relatives.  Women do not remain in their natal household after marriage with this residence pattern.  About 69% of the world's societies follow patrilocal residence, making it the most common.

diagram of patrilineal descent

Matrilocal residence occurs when a newly married couple establishes their home near or in the bride's mother's house.  This keeps women near their female relatives.  Not surprisingly, this residence pattern is associated with matrilineal descent (that is, when descent is measured only from females to their offspring, as in the case of the green people below).  Men leave their natal households when they marry.  About 13% of the world's societies have matrilocal residence.

Avunculocal residence occurs when a newly married couple establishes their home near or in the groom's maternal uncle's house.  This is associated with matrilineal descent.  It occurs when men obtain statuses, jobs, or prerogatives from their nearest elder matrilineal male relative.  Having a woman's son live near her brother allows the older man to more easily teach his nephew what he needs to know in order to assume his matrilineally inherited role.  About 4% of the world's societies have avunculocal residence.

Ambilocal residence occurs when a newly married couple has the choice of living with or near the groom's or the bride's family.  The couple may also live for a while with one set of parents and then move to live with the other.  About 9% of the world's societies have ambilocal residence. 

Neolocal residence occurs when a newly married couple establishes their home independent of both sets of relatives.  While only about 5% of the world's societies follow this pattern, it is popular and common in urban North America today largely because it suits the cultural emphasis on independence.  However, economic hardship at times makes neolocal residence a difficult goal to achieve, especially for young newlyweds.  Elsewhere, neolocal residence is found in societies in which kinship is minimized or economic considerations require moving residence periodically.   Employment in large corporations or the military often calls for frequent relocations, making it nearly impossible for extended families to remain together.

There are several other rare residence patterns found scattered around the world.  These include virilocal click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced, uxorilocal click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced, and natolocal click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced residence.  For those who wish to understand them as well, the glossary of this tutorial provides brief explanations.

Regardless of the culturally preferred post-marital residence rules, at times there are unique personal circumstances which result in a deviation.  In many societies, it is possible also to create a fictive kinship status to allow what would otherwise be unacceptable marriage and residence patterns.


Resident Family Size

Residence rules have a major effect on the form of family that lives together.  Neolocality click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced leads to independent households consisting of single nuclear families--that is, a man and a woman with their children (shown in the diagram below).  This is a relatively small, two generation family.

nuclear family diagram

All other common residence rules potentially result in the formation of larger family groups. These larger groups are most often in one of three general forms: an extended family, a joint family, or a polygamous family.  Extended families consists of two or more nuclear families linked together by ties of descent (as shown below).  They consist of living relatives from three or more generations.

extended family diagram with the nuclear families circled

  photo of an extended family in Samoa

Extended family in Samoa

Members of an extended family household usually share farming, animal herding, and domestic household tasks.  Such families can be efficient collective  work units.  However, each generation, the number of family members tends to get larger, which inevitably puts a severe strain on resources.  This results in personal conflicts which cause the extended family and its household to divide into two or more independent families.  This dynamic segmentation process usually repeats every few generations.

Joint families consist of two or more relatives of the same generation living together with their respective spouses and children.  Polygamous families potentially consist of all spouses and their children.  This is difficult to diagram two-dimensionally, particularly when there are three or more wives in the case of polygynous families.

joint, polygynous, and polyandrous family diagrams

Residence rules and the size of family residential groups often change as the economy changes.  In other words, family household type correlates with subsistence base.  The following graph summarizes this relationship.

graph of the frequency of joint, extended, and polygynous families relative to subsistence base--they are most frequent among small-scale farmers and pastoralists

Both modern large-scale societies and hunting and gathering societies in marginal environments have a high degree of geographic mobility that is mandated by their economies.  In the former case, jobs often require periodic relocation to other parts of the country or the world.  Among foragers in harsh environments such as deserts and arctic regions, there is usually a seasonal need to disperse the community when food sources become scarce.  Both situations make it difficult for much more than nuclear families to stay together year round.  In contrast, big families are economically advantageous among small-scale farmers and pastoralists because larger, permanent labor groups are needed to farm or tend herds of animals.

Despite cultural preferences and the type of subsistence base, there may not be a father in a home due to divorce, death, or his abandonment of the family.  As a result, a matricentric click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced, or matrifocal click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced, family household may exist.  Such a household consists of a woman, her children, and sometimes her grandchildren as well.  Matricentric family households have become common in North America during the late 20th and early 21st centuries.  Approximately 70% of African American children are now being raised in such families.

matricentric family diagram

There are a smaller but growing number of family households in North America that do not have a mother in residence.  These could be referred to as patricentric or patrifocal family households.

 

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This page was last updated on Friday, October 19, 2007.
Copyright 1997-2007 by Dennis O'Neil. All rights reserved.
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