Chapter 8: Culture, Institutions, and Leadership
The Institution of the Family
The family is the most important social institution. To sociologists, it is the basic unit of social structure. Article 16 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights states that “the family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society, and is entitled to protection by society and state.” It is in the family that the young are acculturated and imbued with the values and norms of society. One learns what is right and wrong and differentiates the good from the bad through the family. Thus no matter now noble and moral the values of a society are, all that would be naught if those very same values are not transmitted to the young because of the breakdown of the family.
President Reagan in his State of the Union Address in 1985 following his landslide reelection declared, “For an America of wisdom that honors the family, knowing that as the family goes, so goes our civilization….” The anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski observed that the biological role of the human male would be similar to that of other male species, that is, to impregnate and disappear after having fulfilled his duty to propagate his specie. “And yet,” Malinowski wrote, “in all human societies the father is regarded by tradition as indispensable. The woman is to be married before she is allowed legitimately to conceive… An unmarried mother is under a ban, a fatherless child is a bastard. This is not by no means a European or Christian prejudice; it is the attitude found amongst most barbarous and savage people as well.” Malinowski’s observation is one of the few universalities of human social behavior.
Related to the institution of family is that of marriage. Marriage is the genesis of the family; it is an institution universal to all cultures. The centrality of marriage can be attested by the fact all cultures have elaborate ceremonies to sanctify this matrimonial union between man and woman. It also signifies that all societies place a premium on the importance of the family. While marriage is universally recognized as a heterosexual union, there are notable exceptions. In America, with the greater acceptance of homosexuality, same sex marriage is increasingly recognized by many states, and with it such rights as the ability to adopt children and of survivor benefits. Among the Dahomey of West Africa, one woman could “marry” another, with the first woman being the “father” of the children (by other men) of the second woman. A comparable phenomenon is seen in wolfs where when the male leader of the pack is killed, and in the absence of another adult male, the most senior female assumes the role of a male, or “father” of the pack.
Sociologists may have a variety of normative descriptions of what a family is as viewed by different cultures. Such variations notwithstanding, the central element remains with the father and the mother, together with all their children. Western cultures may emphasize this nuclear family; Eastern cultures may expand that to include the extended families (comprising of members of one or more generations).
Regardless, the primacy of parents—father and mother—remains. The oft quoted African saying to the effect that it takes a village to raise a child does not in any way absolve parents from their primary responsibility of raising their own children.
Much can be learned about a society by studying the state of the family. Many of the social problems encountered today – delinquency, child and spousal abuses, school dropouts, and incest – can all be correlated with the breakdown of the family. The deterioration of American society, in particular minority groups, can ultimately be traced to the disintegration of the American family. The statistics are alarming. In 1960, 7 percent of White and 17 percent of Black babies were born out of wedlock, but by 2000 the figures skyrocketed to 27 and 77 percent respectively. In 1960 about 45 percent of American families were the traditional nuclear family, but by 2000 the figure dropped to only 23 percent. There has been an alarming increase in the number of single parent families.
In 1965 Daniel Patrick Moynihan, while serving in President Johnson’s administration, issued a report highlighting the “tangle of pathology” in poor urban Blacks that was in part traceable to the rapid breakdown of the Black family. This prescient observation, widely criticized at the time for being racist, predicted that this trend, unchecked, would portend a more general disintegration of society. The wisdom of that insight is now obvious, and its truth universal. It applies not only to Blacks and other minorities but also to Whites. Although there are no rigorous sociological studies in Malaysia comparable to the American ones cited by Moynihan, I am convinced that many of the social problems can be traced to the breakdown of the Malaysian, in particular Malay, family.
Such studies are complicated by the lack of uniformity in the definition of the family. Although legally in Malaysia a husband with multiple wives would be considered as an intact family, in dynamics and reality it is a broken family. The children of the “senior” or abandoned wives are in all respects living in a fatherless home. Those children rarely see their father; they lack the all-important father figure not only to tell them right from wrong but more importantly, to give them the much-needed words of encouragement and a pat on the back when the inevitable mistakes are made. Or when they simply need some warm tender hugs! And when they grow up and get married, they will continue the same pattern set by their absentee fathers. They will also in turn abandon their own children. And the pattern would continue, inflicting damage on subsequent generations.
Although I have not seen any empirical studies, I predict that the sons of men with multiple wives will also more likely to have multiple wives of their own. I also hypothesize that juvenile delinquents in Malaysia are more likely to be the products of broken homes and or families with multiple wives.
The only reason Malaysia’s problems are not much worse than those in America is because Malaysia still has a strong extended family system to take up the slack. Thus abandoned children still have their uncles and aunts to fall back on. It is in urban areas where the bonds of the extended family are not as strong or nonexistent that we see the most sinister effects of the breakdown of the family. No surprise then that incest, lepak (loitering), bohsia (delinquency), drug abuse, and other indicators of social disintegration are primarily urban phenomena.
In America, if a child is born into an intact family, that is the best predictor whether he or she will succeed in school and end up in college. The reverse is equally true, that is, a child from a broken family is more likely to end up in the criminal justice system.
The popular media often cite researches done by Malaysian academics on the racial differences in the academic performances of pupils. The impression left from many such studies (and certainly the interpretation of the media) is that race is a major causative factor. Yet when I examine the original publications and scrutinize their statistics and methodology, I am always disappointed in their basic design and conclusions.
Malaysian social scientists are trapped by the race bugaboo. I have yet to see published studies comparable to the Moynihan Report that factor in the status of the family, income, and location (urban or rural), that is, variables other than race. It would not surprise me that such a study would confirm Moynihan’s observation that a broken family is a major predictor of a host of social pathologies, instead of, as frequently noted, race.
Such studies are not difficult to undertake, but their designs and interpretations would require the researchers to be well versed with modern statistical tools like regression analysis. For the most part, Malaysian social scientists, especially those locally trained, are mathematically challenged.
Next: The Blight of Broken Families