Commentary on Families and Kinship

In this page, I would begin with a summary of the readings on kinship and families following which I will develop a commentary on the readings and apply it in understanding contemporary Singapore’s population crisis marked by low birth rates and low marriage rates.


In the Lisu villages of Northern Thailand, the productive labour of family members were important resources to households when land was abundant and the planting of opium crops was allowed. Uxorilocal residences were favoured and families competed to have the newlywed couple to live with them and contribute their labour to accumulation of household wealth. Subsequently, with the economic downturn and ban on opium crops, the planting of other cash crops as a new form of livelihood resulted in a shift in importance from productive labour to capital investment. Patrilineal relationships became more important because of land scarcity and women sought to marry into the males’ patrilineage and use their land. This was in contrast with the past, at the height of the opium economy, when patrilineal relationships were less important and couples could easily set up new households on their own with the abundance of land. Therefore, Lisu family structures gave more primacy to patrilineage and changed from uxorilocal or neolocal residence to patrilocal residence. These changes in social structure highlight how the Lisu people adapt their marriage and family strategies so as to continue achieving economic goals.

In Haryana society, the film ‘Dadi’s Family’ underscores the importance of the family members staying together as a single unit with Dadi and Dada, the household managers, managing everyone’s income and taking care of the needs of all the members. In relation to the reading on Kinship and Gender by Stone, I suppose that Dadi’s family could be considered a corporate descent group as the family members ‘collectively share rights (usually rights to some property or resource), privileges, and liabilities’. Dadi also emphasized the need for plenty of work and the family members to do the work that will keep bringing in wealth. There is a strong theme of family survival in the face of obstacles as long as the family does not split up. Hence, the family is an essential support system for the Haryana people, both economically and socially.


Reflecting upon the marriages and families in the Lisu and Haryana societies, I construe that economic considerations are important factors in marriage and the formation of families in less developed societies. However, in complex and post-modern societies, there are other motivations for marriage and lesser incentive for marriage as women gain economic independence and.

With the liberating effects of education, there is less need for women to get married so as to rely on their husbands for economic support. In the film, Dadi praised education and recognized its benefits for women. Furthermore, the complexity of Singapore and other modern societies implies that more jobs exist as sources of income for both men and women as compared to primitive societies being largely limited to farming. Hence, economic considerations take a backseat in contrast with primitive societies like the Haryana and Lisu where economic factors are strongly tied in to marriage. There are also other motivations for getting married and forming a family such as love and the intrinsic rewards of having children. As such, marrying out of love as opposed to instrumental purposes could be one reason why there are lesser marriages and consequently, lower birth rates, because of the difficulty in finding the right partner.

There is lesser incentive to get married for Singaporean women because education has opened up more opportunities in life. Women are no longer limited to the private sphere of maintaining the household. They are able to pursue careers with the education they receive and engage in what Smith-Hefner calls ‘self-actualization’. I see similarities between self-actualization through a career and the idea of how women were empowered in Haryana society. Dadi highlights how her transformation from daughter-in-law to mother-in-law empowered her. She once had to ‘piled on the yes-s’ but later on became the household manager. The plight of Haryana women bears similarities to other patrilineal, primitive societies who gain power by giving birth to sons. In the context of modern societies, I infer that the area for self-actualization is increasing in scope from the private sphere to include the public sphere. Women now have to deal with work-life balance, a greater problem for them as they are thought of as the primary caregivers for children.

Many Singaporean women still have to live up to their families’ expectations of giving birth and for the Chinese, the favoritism for male puts pressure on women to have sons. Lee Kuan Yew’s remark to a female student that marriage and motherhood are more satisfying than a doctorate degree implies that Singaporean women are expected to give birth and education is less important for them. Hence, these expectations underscore how Singaporean women are similar to Dadi in the pressures they face to give birth but at the same time, they struggle to develop their career.

On a side note, in the wake of our population crisis, child birth has extended to civic duty as the government campaigns for the population to have more children. This highlights how the reproduction of social and economic structures is related to family and kinship because societies and economies require people to sustain them. In a tongue-in-cheek Mentos’ promotional video called ‘Mentos National Night,’ Singaporeans are encouraged to have children on National Day in what they call ‘national duty’.

In short, self-actualization through career achievement and empowerment through child birth are competing goals that vie for a woman’s time and energy. Hence, some women choose to sacrifice one for the other. This could account for the declining marriage rates as women increasingly choose to pursue their career. Furthermore, if women do get married, most of them with higher education are not content with staying at home. The rising cost of living also requires women to share the financial burden with their husbands. Hence, the difficulty in juggling between work and family makes motherhood a secondary goal for women. Perhaps, an improvement in state policies to include paternity leave and more flexible working arrangements for women would counter the social expectations that mothers should be the sole caregiver and also allow women to continue developing their career. These policies aid in helping women cope with the expansion of their gender roles beyond the private sphere. Hence, the declining birth rate could be curbed, as women are more encouraged to give birth with the assistance of these policies that aid them in achieving work-life balance.

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