MELFORD E. SPIRO, Is the Family Universal? (University of Connecticut)

American Anthropologist [56, 1954, 839-846

TH E universality of the family has always been accepted as a sound hy- pothesis in anthropology; recently, Murdock has been able to confirm
this hypothesis on the basis of his important cross-cultural study of kinship.
Moreover, Murdock reports that the “nuclear” family is also universal, and
that typically it has four functions: sexual, economic, reproductive, and educational.
What is more important is his finding that no society “has succeeded in
finding an adequate substitute for the nuclear family, to which it might transfer
these functions” (1949: 11). In the light of this evidence there would be
little reason to question his prediction that “it is highly doubtful whether any
society ever will succeed in such an attempt utopian proposals for the abolition
of the family to the contrary notwithstanding” (p. 11).
The functions served by the nuclear family are, of course, universal prerequisites
for the survival of any society; and it is on this basis that Murdock
accounts for its universality.
Without provision for the first and third [sexual and reproductive], society would
become extinct; for the second [economic], life itself would cease; for the fourth [educational],
culture would come to an end. The immense social utility of the nuclear family
and the basic reason for its universality thus begins to emerge in strong relief [p. lo].
Although sexual, economic, reproductive, and educational activities are the
functional prerequisites of any society it comes as somewhat of a surprise,
nevertheless, that all four functions are served by the same social group. One
would normally assume, on purely a priori grounds, that within the tremendous
variability to be found among human cultures, there would be some cultures
in which these four functions were distributed among more than one
group. Logically, at least, it is entirely possible for these functions to be divided
among various social groups within a society; and it is, indeed, difficult
to believe that somewhere man’s inventive ingenuity should not have actualized
this logical possibility. As a matter of fact this possibility has been actualized
in certain utopian communities-and it has succeeded within the narrow
confines of these communities. The latter, however, have always constituted
subgroups within a larger society, and the basic question remains as to
whether such attempts could succeed when applied to the larger society.
Rather than speculate about the answer to this question, however, this
paper presents a case study of a community which, like the utopian communities,
constitutes a subgroup within a larger society and which, like some
utopian communities, has also evolved a social structure which does not include
the family. It is hoped t‘hat an examination of this community-the
Israeli Kibbutz-can shed some light on this question.


A Kibbutz (plural, Kibbutzim) is an agricultural collective in Israel, whose
main features include communal living, collective ownership of all property
(and, hence, the absence of “free enterprise” and the “profit motive”), and the
communal rearing of children. Kibbutz culture is informed by its explicit, guiding
principle of: “from each according to his ability, to each according to his
needs.” The “family,” as that term is defined in Social Struclure, does not
exist in the Kibbutz, in either its nuclear, polygamous> or extended forms. It
should be emphasized, however, that the kibbutzim are organized into three
separate national federations, and though the basic structure of Kibbutz society
is similar in all three, there are important differences among them. Hence, the
term kibbutz, as used in this paper, refers exclusively to those Kibbutzim that
are members of the federation studied by the author.’
As Murdock defines it (p. l), the “family”:
is a social group characterized by common residence, economic cooperation, and reproduction.
It includes adults of both sexes, at least two of whom maintain a socially approved
sexual relationship, and one or more children, own or adopted, of the sexually
cohabiting adults.
The social group in the kibbuiz that includes adults of both sexes and their
children, although characterized by reproduction, is not characterized by common
residence or by economic co operation. Before examining this entire social
group, however, we shall first analyze the relationship between the two adults
in the group who maintain a “socially approved sexual relationship,” in order
to determine whether their relationship constitutes a “marriage.”
Murdock’s findings reveal that marriage entails an interaction of persons
of opposite sex such that a relatively permanent sexual relationship is maintained
and an economic division of labor is practised. Where either of these
behavior patterns is absent, there is no marriage. As Murdock puts it (p. 8):
Sexual unions without economic cooperation are common, and there are relationships
between men and women involving a division of labor without sexual gratification
. . . but marriage exists only when the economic and the sexual are united in one
relationship, and this combination occurs only in marriage.
In examining the relationship of the couple in the Kibbutz who share a common
marriage, and whose sexual union is socially sanctioned, it is discovered
that only one of these two criteria-the sexual-applies. Their relationship
does not entail economic co-operation. If this be so-and the facts will be
examined in a moment-there is no marriage in the kibbutz, if by “marriage” is
meant a relationship between adults of opposite sex, characterized by sexual
and economic activities. Hence, the generalization that, “marriage, thus defined,
exists in every known society’’ (p. 8), has found an exception.
A kibbutz couple lives in a single room, which serves as a combined bedroom-
living room. Their meals are eaten in a communal dining room, and their
children are reared in a communal children’s dormitory. Both the man and the
woman work in the kibbutz, and either one may work in one of its agricultural
branches or in one of the “service” branches. The latter include clerical work,
education, work in the kitchen, laundry, etc. In actual fact, however, men preponderate
in the agricultural branches, and women, in the service branches of
the economy. There are no men, for example, in that part of the educational
system which extends from infancy to the junior-high level. Nor do women
work in those agricultural branches that require the use of heavy machinery,
such as trucks, tractors, or combines. It should be noted, however that some
women play major roles in agricultural branches, such as the vegetable garden
and the fruit orchards; and some men are indispensable in service branches
such as the high school. Nevertheless, it is accurate to state that a division of
labor based on sex is characteristic of the kibbulz society as a whole. This
division of labor, however, does not characterize the relationship that exists
between couples. Each mate works in some branch of the kibbutz economy and
each, as a member (chaver) of the kibbutz receives his equzl share of the goods
and services that the kibbutz distributes. Neither, however, engages in economic
activities that are exclusively directed to the satisfaction of the needs
of his mate. Women cook, sew, launder, etc., for the entire kibbutz, and not for
their mates exclusively. Men produce goods, but the economic returns from
their labor go to the Kibbutz, not to their mates and themselves, although they,
like all members of the kibbulz, share in these economic returns. Hence, though
there is economic co-operation between the sexes within the community as a
whole, this co-operation does not take place between mates because the social
structure of this society precludes the necessity for such co operation.
What then is the nature of the relationship of the kibbulz couple? What
are the motives for their union? What functions, other than sex, does it serve?
What distinguishes such a union from an ordinary love affair?
In attempting to answer these questions it should first be noted that premarital
sexual relations are not taboo. It is expected, however, that youth of
high-school age refrain from sexual activity; sexual intercourse between highschool
students is strongly discouraged. After graduation from high school,
however, and their election to membership in the kibbulz, there are no sanctions
against sexual relations among these young people. While still single, kibbutz
members live in small private rooms, and their sexual activities may take
place in the room of either the male or the female, or in any other convenient
location. Lovers do not ask the kibbutz for permission to move into a (larger)
common room, nor, if they did, would this permission be granted if it were
assumed that their relationship was merely that of lovers. When a couple asks
for permission to share a room, they do so-and the kibbutz assumes that they
do so-not because they are lovers, but because they are in love. The request
for a room, then, is the sign that they wish to become a “couple” (zug), the
term the Kibbutz has substituted for the traditional “marriage.” This union
does not require the sanction of a marriage ceremony, or of any other event.
When a couple requests a room, and the kibbufz grants the request, their union
is ips0 f a d o sanctioned by society. It should be noted, however, that all kibbutz
“couples” eventually “get married” in accordance with the marriage laws of
the state-usually just before, or soon after, their first child is born-because
children born out of wedlock have no legal rights, according to state law.
But becoming a “couple” affects neither the status nor the responsibilities
of either the male or the female in the kibbutz. Both continue to work in whichever
branch of the economy they had worked in before their union. The legal
and social status of both the male and the female remain the same. The female
retains her maiden name. She not only is viewed as a member of the kibbutz in
her own right, but her official registration card in the kibbutz files remains
separate from that of her “friend” (&aver)-the term used to designate
But if sexual satisfaction may be optained outside of this union, and if the
union does not entail economic co operation, what motivates people to become
“couples”? It seems that the motivation is the desire to satisfy certain needs
for intimacy. using that term in both its physical and psychological meanings.
In the first place, from the sexual point of view, the average cltanrer is not content
to engage in a constant series of casual affairs. After a certain period of
sexual experimentation, he desires to establish a relatively permanent relationship
with one person. But in addition to the physical intimacy of sex, the union
also provides a psychological intimacy that may be expressed by notions such
as “comradeship,” “security,” ‘Ldependency,” “succorance,” etc. And it is this
psychological intimacy, primarily, that distinguishes “couples” from lovers.
The criterion of the “couple” relationship, then, that which distinguishes it
from a relationship between adults of the same sex who enjoy psychological
intimacy, or from that of adults of opposite sex who enjoy physical intimacy,
is love. A “couple” comes into being when these two kinds of intimacy are
united in one relationship.
Since the Kibbulz “couple” does not constitute a marriage because it does
not satisfy the economic criterion of “marriage,” it follows that the “couple”
and their children do not constitute a family, economic co-operation being
part of the definition of the “family.” Furthermore, as has already been indicated,
this group of adults and children does not satisfy the criterion of “common
residence.” For though the children visit their parents in the latter’s
room every day, their residence is in one of the “children’s houses” (bet
yeladim), where they sleep, eat, and spend most of their time.
More important, however, in determining whether or not the family exists
in the kibbutz is the fact that the “physical care” and the “social rearing” of
the children are not the responsibilities of their own parents. But these responsibilities,
according to Murdock’s findings, are the most important functions
that the adults in the “family” have with respect to the children.
Before entering into a discussion of the kibbutz system of “collective education”
(chinuch meslzutuf), it should be emphasized that the kibbutz is a childcentered
society, par excellence. The importance of children, characteristic of
traditional Jewish culture, hzs been retained as one of the primary values in
this avowedly antitraditional society. “The Parents Crown” is the title given
to the chapter on children in an ethnography of the Eastern European Jewish
village. The authors of this ethnography write (Zborowski and Herzog 1952:
308) :
Aside from the scriptural and social reasons, children are welcomed for the joy they
bring beyond the gratification due to the parents-the pleasure of having a child in the
house. A baby is a toy, the treasure, and the pride of the house.
This description, except for the scriptural reference, applies without qualification
to the kibbutz.
But the Kibbutz hzs still another reason for cherishing its children. The
kibbutz views itself as an attempt to revolutionize the structure of human society
and its basic social relations. Its faith in its ability to achieve this end can
be vindicated only if it can raise a generation that will choose to live in this
communal society, and will, thus, carry on the work that was initiated by the
founders of this society-their parents.
For both these reasons the child is king. Children are lavished with attention
and with care to the point where many adults admit that the children are
“spoiled.” Adult housing may be poor, but the children live in good houses;
adult food may be meager and monotonous, but the children enjoy a variety of
excellent food; there may be a shortage of clothes for adults, but the children’s
clothing is both good and plentiful.
Despite this emphasis on children, however, it is not their own parents who
provide directly for their physical care. Indeed, the latter have no responsibility
in this regard. The kibbutz as a whole assumes this responsibility for all
its children. The latter sleep and eat in special “children’s houses”; they obtain
their clothes from a communal store; when ill, they are taken care of by their
“nurses.” This does not mean that parents are not concerned about the physical
welfare of their own children. On the contrary, this is one of their primary
concerns. But it does mean that the active responsibility for their care has been
delegated to a community institution. Nor does it mean that parents do not
work for the physical care of their children, for this is one of their strongest
drives. But the fruits of their labor are not given directly to their children;
they are given instead to the community which, in turn, provides for all the
children. A bachelor or a “couple” without children contribute as much to the
children’s physical care as a “couple” with children of their own.
The family’s responsibility for the socialization of children, Murdock reports,
is “no less important than the physical care of the children.”
The burden of education and socialization everywhere falls primarily upon the
nuclear family. . . . Perhaps more than any other single factor collective responsibility
for education and socialization welds the various relationships of the family firmly together
[p. 101.
But the education and socialization of kibbutz children are the function of
their “nurses” and teachers, and not of their parents. The infant is placed in
the “infants’ house” upon the mother’s return from the hospital, where it
remains in the care of nurses Both parents see the infant there; the mother
when she feeds it, the father upon return from work. The infant is not taken
to its parents’ room until its sixth month, after which it stays with them for an
hour. As the child grows older, the amount of time he spends with his parents
increases, and he may go to their room whenever he chooses during the day,
though he must return to his “children’s house” before lights-out. Since the
children are in school most of the day, however, and since both parents work
during the day, the children-even during their school vacations-are with
their parents for a (approximately) two-hour period in the evening-from the
time that the parents return from work until they go to eat their evening meal.
The children may also be with their parents all day Saturday-the day of
rest-if they desire.
As the child grows older he adsances through a succession of “children’s
houses” with children of his own age, where he is supervised by a “nurse.”
The “nurse” institutes most of the disciplines, teaches the child his basic social
skills, and is responsible for the “socialization of the instincts.” The child also
learns from his parents, to be sure, and they too are agents in the socialization
process. But the bulk of his socialization is both entrusted, and deliberately
delegated, to the “nurses” and teachers. There is little doubt but that a kibbutz
child, bereft of the contributions of his parents to his socialization, would
know his culture; deprived of the contributions of his “nurses” and teachers,
however, he would remain an unsocialized individual.
As they enter the juvenile period, pre-adolescence, and adolescence, the
children are gradually inducted into the economic life of the kibbutz. They
work from an hour (grade-school students) to three hours (high school seniors)
a day in one of the economic branches under the supervision of adults. Thus,
their economic skills, like most of their early social skills, are taught them by
adults other than their parents. This generalization applies to the learning of
values, as well. In the early ages, the Kibbutz values are inculcated by “nurses,”
and later by teachers. When the children enter junior high, this function,
which the kibbutz views as paramount in importance, is delegated to the
“homeroom teacher,” known as the “educator” (meclzanech) , and to a “leader”
(madrich) of the inter-kibbulz youth movement. The parents, of course, are
also influential in the teaching of values, but the formal division of labor in the
kibburz has delegated this responsibility to other authorities.
Although the parents do not play an outstanding role in the socialization
of their children, or in providing for their physical needs, it would be erroneous
to conclude that they are unimportant figures in their children’s lives. Parents
are of crucial importance in the psychological development of the child. They
serve as the objects of his most important identifications, and they provide him
with a certain security and love that he obtains from no one else. If anything,
the attachment of the young children to their parents is greater than it is in
our own society. But this is irrelevant to the main consideration of this paper.
Its purpose is to call attention to the fact that those functions of parents that
constitute the conditio sine qua non for the existence of the “family”-the
physical care and socialization of children-are not the functions of the kibbutz
parents. It can only be concluded that in the absence of the economic and
educational functions of the typical family, as well as of its characteristic of
common residence, that the family does not exist in the kibbulz.


It is apparent from this brief description of the kibbutz that most of the
functions characteristic of the typical nuclear family have become the functions
of the entire kibbutz society. This is so much the case that the kibbutz as a
whole can almost satisfy the criteria by which Murdock defines the “family.”
This observation is not meant to imply that the kibbutz is a nuclear family. Its
structure and that of the nuclear family are dissimilar. This observation does
suggest, however, that the kibbutz can function without the family because it
functions as if it, itself, were a family; and it can so function because its members
perceive each other as kin, in the psychological implications of that term.
The latter statement requires some explanation.
The members of the kibbulz do not view each other merely as fellow citizens,
or as co-residents in a village, or as co-operators of an agricultural economy.
Rather do they view each other as chaverim, or comrades, who comprise
a group in which each is intimately related to the other, and in which the
welfare of the one is bound up with the welfare of the other. This is a society
in which the principle, “from each according to his ability, to each according
to his needs,” can be practised not because its members are more altruistic
than the members of other societies, but because each member views his fellow
as a kinsman, psychologically speaking. And just as a father in the family does
not complain because he works much harder than his children, and yet he may
receive no more, or even less, of the family income than they, so the kibbutz
member whose economic productivity is high does not complain because he
receives no more, and sometimes less, than a member whose productivity is
low. This “principle” is taken for granted as the normal way of doing things.
Since they are all chaverim, “it’s all in the family,’’ psychologically speaking.
In short, the Kibbzdz constitutes a gemeinschuft. Its patterns of interaction
are interpersonal patterns; its ties are kin ties, without the biological tie of
kinship. In this one respect it is the “folk society,” in almost its pure form.
The following quotation from Redfield (1947) could have been written with
the kibbutz in mind, so accurately does it describe the social-psychological basis
of kibbutz culture.
The members of the folk society have a strong sense of belonging together. The
group . . . see their own resemblances and feel correspondingly united. Communicating
intimately with each other, each has a strong claim on the sympathies of the others
[p. 2971. . . . the personal and intimate life of the child in the family is extended, in the
folk society, into the social world of the adults. . . . It isnot merely that relations in
such a society are personal; it is also that they are familial. . . . the result is a group of
people among whom prevail the personal and categorized relationships that characterize
families as we know them, and in which the patterns of kinship tend to be extended
outward from the group of genealogically connected individuals into the whole society.
The kin are the type persons for all experience [p. 3011.
Hence it is that the bachelor and the childless “couple” do not feel that an
injustice is being done them when they contribute to the support of the children
of others. The children in the kibbutz are viewed as the children of the
kibbutz. Parents (who are much more attached to their own children than they
are to the children of others) and bachelors, alike, refer to all the kibbutz children
as “our children.”
The social perception of one’s fellows as kin, psychologically speaking, is
reflected in another important aspect of kibbutz behavior. It is a striking and
significant fact that those individuals who were born and raised in the kibbutz
tend to practise group exogamy, although there are no rules that either compel
or encourage them to do so. Indeed, in the kibbutz in which our field work was
carried out, all such individuals married outside their own kibbutz. When they
are asked for an explanation of this behavior, these individuals reply that they
cannot marry those persons with whom they have been raised and whom they,
consequently, view as siblings. This suggests, as Murdock has pointed out, that
“the kibbutz to its members is viewed psychologically as a family to the extent
that it generates the same sort of unconscious incest-avoidance tendencies”
(private communication).
What is suggested by this discussion is the following proposition: although
the kibbutz constitutes an exception to the generalization concerning the universality
of the family, structurally viewed, it serves to confirm this generalization,
functionally and psychologically viewed. In the absence of a specific social
group-the family-to whom society delegates the functions of socialization,
reproduction, etc., it has become necessary for the entire society to become a
large extended family. But only in a society whose members perceive each
other psychologically as kin can it function as a family. And there would seem
to be a population limit beyond which point individuals are no longer perceived
as kin. That point is probably reached when the interaction of its members
is no longer face-to-face; in short, when it ceases to be a primary group.
It would seem probable, therefore, that only in a “familial” society, such as
the kibbutz, is it possible to dispense with the family.


The field work, on which statements concerning the kibbzltz are based, was conducted in the
year 1951-1952, and was made possible by a postdoctoral fellowship awarded by the Social Science
Research Council.
2 Other terms, “young man” (bachzlr) and “young woman” (baclzura), are also used in place
of “husband” and “wife.” If more than one person in the kibbutz has the same proper name, and
there is some question as to who is being referred to when the name is mentioned in conversation,
the person is identified by adding, “the bachur of so-and-so,” or “the bachura of so-and-so.”


1949 Social structure. New York, Macmillan.
1947 The folk society. The American Journal of Sociology 52 : 292-308.
1952 Life is with people. New York, International Universities Press.


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