The Journal of African History

Research Article

Which Family?: Problems in the Reconstruction of the History of the Family as an Economic and Cultural Unit

Megan Vaughana1

a1 University of Malawi

This paper explores some of the major methodological problems associated with the study of the history of the family in Africa. It sets out to explore the problem of the unit of analysis, concluding that the historian must be careful to distinguish between idealized family forms and the reality of family structures. Using both historical and contemporary examples from southern Malawi the paper explores this problem further by analysing the role of the matrilineage vis-à-vis the household over time.

Both oral and written sources specifically concerned with the history of the family tend to emphasize the formal structure of kinship relations and it is difficult to know how these relate to the facts of social and economic organization. Even using present-day evidence it is difficult to integrate cultural perceptions of kinship and family relations with realities – in particular with the economic realities, which may change much faster than cultural norms. In the final section of the paper it is suggested that the nearest we can get to a knowledge of the history of the family, avoiding the problems of ideology and the drawbacks of structural and evolutionary models, is to approach the subject ‘sideways’. By studying other institutions and relationships which impinge on family structures, we may get closer to defining the boundaries of these structures. This approach is illustrated using the example of chinjira - a non-kin-based relationship between women which exists in parts of southern Malawi. A study of chinjira indirectly demonstrates both the strength and the limits of kinship relations.