Family Structures and Globalization in Africa

Barcelona, Spain | March 6-8, 2008

How is globalization affecting family structure in Africa?

This experts meeting addressed questions such as how globalization is affecting family structure in Africa, and, conversely, how the African family structure is influencing the style and extent to which globalization will occur on the African continent.


Academic Leader & Moderator

Ana Marta González - University of Navarra


Erdmute Alber – University of Bayreuth
Family Change in Africa: An Overview of the Literature

Leslie Bank – Fort Hare Institute of Social and Economic Research
Matrifocality, Patriarchy and Globalization: Changing Family Forms in a South African City

Abena Busia – Rutgers University
Towards a Different Kind of Freedom: Notes on Historicizing Globalization and Women in Africa

Paloma Durán – Complutense University
An Approach to the Concept of Family in the African Union

Francis Dodoo – Pennsylvania State University and University of Ghana
Re-thinking Gender and Power in African Families: Conceptual Basis and Preliminary Evidence

Victor Seidler – Goldsmiths University of London
African Masculinities, Relationships and Sexualities

Daniel Jordan Smith – Brown University
Stretched and Strained but not Broken: Kinship in Contemporary Nigeria

Susanna Wing – Haverford College
Globalization and Marriage: Family Law Reform in West Africa


Ann M. Brach - National Academy of Sciences
Rosalinda Corbi - "Harambee" Program
Laurie DeRose - Maryland Population Research Center
Antoinette Kankindi Kagoyire - Strathmore University
Luvuyo Ndimeni - United Nations
Florence Jacqueline Achieng' Oloo - Strathmore University
Javier Santomá - IESE Business School
W. Bradford Wilcox - University of Virginia

Paper Abstracts

Ana Marta González - University of Navarra
Opening Remarks to Family Structures and Globalization in Africa Seminar

In proposing the topic of “Family structures and globalization in Africa”, our main purpose has been to advance the research on a variety of factors which are influencing social change in African societies.

The focus on “family structures” seems natural, for, as many of you have pointed out, family –if you choose the language of sociologists- or kinship –if you choose the language of anthropologists- has been and remains pivotal of the entire African social structure, beyond the diversity we can find throughout the Continent.

The reference to “globalization”, by contrast, could just be a way to label our ignorance about the particular causes, which should be taken into account as we approach the subject of social change in Africa.

Indeed, while it is clear that economic processes of a global import, media-culture promotion of certain sort of values, family policies designed by international institutions, etc, are influencing people’s life-styles and family law in African countries, it is less clear what relative weight we should ascribe to each of these factors, to characterize both the real life and the cultural ideals which inspire African families.

Particularly in the case of the family and kinship, as many of you have noted, traditional ideas about these institutions have proved very resistant to alien influences.  One thing, indeed, is recognizing the influence of structural changes in the real life of African families; quite another is recognizing the extent to which modern life-styles, as promoted by the media, have really modified the ideas about the family and kinship entertained by most people in African societies.

One of the topics that has usually attracted the interest of Western researchers is the high fertility rate of African families, and, especially, the fact that this fertility rate remains high in spite of the processes of modernization which are taking place. The assumption, of course, is that a high fertility rate has a role to play in traditional societies, but is hardly compatible with the logic proper to a modern social setting, which of itself favors a society based on individuals and nuclear families, rather than on large families or bonds of kinship.

This assumption seems backed by the experience of the transition from traditional to modern societies in European societies. Indeed, the modernization process, as conceptualized by social theorists of the 19th and 20th Centuries, is inextricably linked to the process of individualization, and also to the institution of marriage understood as a contract between an individual man and an individual woman. While the genesis of a modern individual out of a more traditional setting, in which he or she was basically a member of a social group, can culturally be traced back to many different sources, from a structural point of view, it was fuelled by the division of labor and the subsequent processes of industrialization and urbanization.  This, in turn, had obvious consequences at the level of individual self-conscience.

Indeed: the fact that modern individuals have to divide their lives between family and work, between relatives and colleagues, means that they cannot think of themselves as belonging merely to one social group;  insofar they lead their lives in a variety of social contexts, they are somehow induced to elaborate a personal synthesis of the inputs they receive in each of those social contexts, a synthesis that enhances their self-conscience as individual beings, and not merely as members of a social group, which permeates all the dimensions of their lives. As a result, if they keep their ancient loyalties and ways of life, it will increasingly be more because of personal decisions than because of necessity. Yet, what I would like to highlight in this context is that, whether people freely choose to keep ancient ways of life, or choose to break with them, in a certain sense they are equally modern, for in both cases their reason to do so is no longer tradition but a personal decision.

This is not to say that the history the modern individual has been simply a history of achievements and liberation. Very often, the price to pay for the de-institutionalization of traditional settings has been an increasing sense of solitude and fragility. This is why, besides a progressive modernity there has always been a traditional, revisionist, modernity. Modernity is Janus-faced: some sort of tension is always meant to be present either at the political or at the personal level -  very often at both levels.

It seems to me that this reflection applies to the topic which we are supposed to study here. To the extent that a process of modernization is under way in African societies, tensions between traditional and modern institutions are necessarily to take place. And one of the main loci of these tensions is family and kinship.

As Daniel Smith notes in his paper, “kinship is at once Africans’ biggest problem and their most important resource”. It is a problem if we consider things from the perspective, say, of economic prosperity and adaptation to the logic of modern organizations –to the extent the latter seem not compatible with the logic of patronage. It is a resource if we consider things from the perspective of the support every individual requires in times of hardship –which are very common.

Yet, who dares to predict the way in which African societies will resolve that tension? While the European experience has served to discover certain general laws of social change, the particulars of social change in a given society cannot simply be derived from that sort of general reflections. African societies provide us with rich examples of local reworking of global influences, which cannot be predetermined in advance, and justify Robertson’s preference for the term “glocalization” instead of “globalization”[1].

Again, one of the topics which can illustrate this specific reworking of global influences is Africans’ attitude towards fertility rates. In spite of international policies designed to lower fertility rates in African societies, with the idea that this would help economic prosperity, fertility rates have remain surprisingly high. In their gendered approach to family studies, Dodoo and Frost have tried to explain this fact by pointing to the way in which the division of power between the spouses works within the cultural contract of marriage.

This approach clearly serves the purpose of highlighting relevant inequalities in the marriage contract. However, could these inequalities be adequately confronted if we abstract the larger cultural context?  As Erdmute Alber and Astrid Bochow have noted, in the cultural contract of marriage more elements have to be taken into account: not merely the relationships between the spouses, but also the reference to larger communities of origin, and also the intergenerational ties originated in marriage.

While a gendered approach to family involves a commitment to the advancement of women’s rights, the question about the proper way of advancing women’s rights in Africa remains open. Are structural changes in the economy or reformation of family law, or the cultural impact of the media sufficient conditions to promote  respect  for women within marriage and throughout society as a whole? 

That structural changes in the economy, all by itself, are far from promoting respect for women or solidity of family life is exemplified by Leslie Bank’s paper on the transformation of family forms in a South African city.

Yet, what should we say about reformation of family law, very often nurtured by international organizations? In their papers, Paloma Durán and Susanna D. Wing analyze Family Law Reform in African societies and reflect on the paradoxes involved in those processes: to the extent that these reforms are implemented under the influence of United Nations, traditional groups in the countries are given a powerful argument  to reject them, as a new form of colonialism.

Indeed: should gender inequalities become the direct object of international policies? Could this not be regarded as a form of social engineering, which treats African societies, once again, as the object of Western manipulation? In raising the latter question we are pointing at an ethical problem, namely, the legitimacy of alien interference in the development of another society. Could this not be regarded as another form of imperialism –a prolongation of colonialism-?

In a previous STI experts meeting, devoted to the topic of gender identity in a globalized society, Carol C. Gould pointed at just this problem: isn’t there a contradiction in promoting multiculturalism within Western societies and, at the same time, imposing Western standards in foreign societies? How can we combine the conviction that human rights ought to be promoted with the respect for cultural diversity?

In her paper at the present experts meeting, Abena Busia points at the ideological unity of this apparent contradiction. She notes, namely, how theorizing about multiculturalism in the early 80’s and theorizing about globalization in the late 90’s are but different sides of the same problem, which she describes as a shift “from theorizing about the ‘barbarians at the gate’, in the case of multicultural education, to having theories about strategies for being ‘at the gate of the barbarians’, in the case of globalization”. In both cases, the theorizer, or the theory, is a Western type or construct, and the object, a non-Western type or approach to reality.

Vic Seidler, in his particularly perceptive way of approaching things, has also pointed at this form of epistemological imperialism: “the West has long assumed that it has everything to teach and little to learn because it alone could take reason, science and modernity for granted”. For the West, Africa has been for a long time an object of anthropological researches, very often at the service of imperialist power. 

Does the same critique of imperialism apply to the influence of religion in the configuration of African life? Of course, speaking generally of religion is too vague.  Yet in the context of a discussion of imperialism, the reference to religion can be narrowed to universal religions which seem particularly linked to foreign powers –Islam and Christianity.

Now, even from this perspective, the ambivalent role of religion in personal and political life seems to preclude this sort of approach –which, nevertheless, seems implicit in some of the papers. Thus, while religion has very often been used as a way to sanction political power, it has often had exactly the opposite result. Likewise, it is not easy to evaluate the impact of religion as such –not merely as a set of moral norms- on individual decisions. Very often religion constitutes a reason to resist the impact of cultural models and images portrayed by the media, whose influence upon individual decisions is likewise difficult to determine.  But, at other times, religion simply does not seem to have any impact at all confronted to those other influences.

More generally, it is difficult to assess the relative importance of cultural and structural factors in the motives which lead an agent to take a particular decision. Motivation to act in a certain way can vary for a number of reasons. While we work to generate a social structure in which ordinary personal decisions are not a matter of choosing between life and death -also social life or social death- attempts to go beyond this can often represent a threat to individual freedom.  At this point, I think, the discussion turns philosophical; the problem, indeed is whether there is a way to distinguish between respectful knowledge and imperialist knowledge, between respectful help and paternalistic help.


[1] See Robertson, R., “Glocalization: Time-Space and Homogeneity-Heterogeneity”, in Featherstone, M., Lasch, S., and Robertson, R. (eds), Global Modernities, Sage Publications, London, pp. 25-44. See also