Family and Common Law

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SOCIOLGY ESSAY

Discuss the major determinants of three family forms found in the Caribbean. (25marks)

The various family forms present in the Caribbean can be attributed to a long and specifically Caribbean history dating back to the slavery and indentureship periods and beyond to the cultural heritages of Africa, Europe, India and elsewhere. Three of these family forms are the family based on common law unions, the matrifocal family and the extended family. Some theorists such as Melville Herskovits (1958) attribute the prevalence of certain types of Caribbean family forms to African society and some of the social institutions and social dynamics of those societies.

A common law union is similar to the unit of the nuclear family i.e. comprising of husband, wife and children living in the same household. However, they do not have the formal legal sanction as found in the nuclear family. Spouses are committed to each other but due to social and economic factors, the relationship may have not been formalized legally. The reference by Herskovits to a study done by S.C. Johnson in 1945 in Macon County, Georgia in the United States is of cultural relevance to the Caribbean region regarding the emergence and continued existence of common law unions. According to Johnson, children of common law relationships are not illegitimate, from the point of view of the community or of their stability, for many of these unions are as stable as legally sanctioned unions. They hold together for twenty or thirty years, in some cases, and lack only the sense of guilt. This description of common law union has significance to the work of Edith Clarke (1957), M.G. Smith (1965) and R.T. Smith (1990) [1988]. Herskovits concluded from Johnson’s research that the common law relationship is merely a phrase for the recognition of the fact that matings, not legally sanctioned may achieve enough stability to receive equal recognition with regularly performed marriages. In...
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