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«SUMMARY. This paper provides a brief overview of anthropological approaches and studies of father involvement with the hopes of providing insights ...»

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Culture, History, and Sex:

Anthropological Contributions

to Concep tualizing Father Invo lvern ent

Barry S. Hewlett

SUMMARY. This paper provides a brief overview of anthropological

approaches and studies of father involvement with the hopes of providing insights into how father involvement is conceptualized in the United

States. The papcr reviews fbur topics: (1) how our culture shapes how we

feel about father-child relations; (2) factors cross-cultural studies have identified as being associated with high levels of father involvement;

(3) the difl'erent roles of fathers during the past 120,000 years of human history; and (4) how biology and male reproductive interest influence father involvement. [Article copies available for a fee from The

Haworth Document Delivery Service: I -800-342-9678. E-ntail address:

getinfu(alhaworthpressinc.com Website: http:llwww.haworthpressinc.coml KEYWORDS. Culture. Afiica. tather-child. evolution A striking absence of anthropological literature is evident among the extensive bibliographics on fathering developed by the National Center on Fathers and Familios as wcll as the Family and Child Well-Being Research Network. Excellent studies of fatherhood from the perspective of cross-cultural psychology are listed in these bibliographies, but anthropological studies of fatherhclod are infrequently listed among these sources. Some may feel Barry S. Hewlett is affiliated with Washington State University, Department of Anthropology, Vancouver, WA 98686 (e-mail : hewlett@vancouver.wsu.edu).

Flaworth co-indexing entry rotel: "Culture, History, and Sex: Anthropological Contributions to Conceptrlalizing Falller Involvement." llewlott, Barry S. C-o-published simultaneorsly it ll4arriage & Family p"1,;e'a, lThe Haworth Press, Inc.) Vol. 29, No. 2/3, 2000, pp. -59-73; and: FATHERHOOD: Research, lnterventioils and Policies (ed: H. Elizabeth Peters and Randal D. Day) l'he Haworth Press, Inc.,2000, pp. -59-73. Single or multiple copies of this article are available fbr a f-ee from The I laworth Documenl f)eiivery Service |-800-342-9678, 9:00 a.m. - -5:00 p.nr. (ES'I'). E-mail address: gerinfb@haworthpressinc.com].


O 2000 by The Haworth Fress, Inc. All rights 59


that good reasons exist for the exclusion of anthropological literature-what do anthropologists have to contribute to understanding fathers' involvement in the United States anyway? Perhaps it was Margaret Mead's statement that "Fathers are a biological necessity and a social accident" that has turned fatherhood researchers away from anthropology. Then again, this may result from the impressions that anthropologists often limit themselves to studies in "Bongo Bongo land" with research designs that are so qualitative and descriptive as to be neither reliable or relevant to policy decisions in the U.S.

There is, of course, a grain of truth to these images, but this paper aims to dispel some of these misconceptions. Consequently, this article provides a brief overview of anthropological approaches and studies of father involvement, with the hope being to provide insights into how father involvement is conceptualized within the U.S. This is an important endeavor, because the way father involvement is conceptualized often influences how research is conducted and policy is developed.


The unifying concept in anthropology is culture, or a construct minirnally defined as shared knowledge and practices that are transmitted non-biologically from generation to generation. A distinctive feature of culture is that it is by nature ethnocentric. Once one acquires cultural beliet,s and practices and utif izes them for some time, there is a tendency tofeel that these beliefs and practices are natural and universal. Routinization (how to eat, brush teeth, go to toilet, take care of infants) and the nature of regular interactions with others (called internal working models by Bowlby, 1969) pattern the emotional basis of culture. Individuals are usually unaware of the emotional basis of culture unless they see or experience something different (e.g., being asked to eat termites or caterpillars, seeing 8-month-olds using machetes or 5-yearolds smoking cigarettes).

A few examples of father involvement in other cultures are useful ways of demonstrating the emotional basis of our own culture. Among the patrilineal Fulani, divorce is relatively common, and the father always receives custody of the children after divorce; it is assumed that the "best interests of the child" are being served by being with the father's family. If a woman has a child by a man outside of marriage, the child is expected to stay with the woman's husband's family, not the mother or the biological father. Among the East African Kipsigis, fathers do not hold infants during the first year of life.

if How would most U.S. fathers feel they were not able to hold their infants for a year? How would U.S. mothers feel if their children always went to the father atler divorce? The point here is that, by looking outside of our Hlstory of Fatherhood Research and Perspectives on Father Involvement 61 T'he own culture, we come to better understand how our own culture afTects how we feel what is right or wrong. We begin to evaluate our cultural assumptions about the roles of fathers and why paternal involvement is highly desirable.

For instance, due to the assumption that father involvement is highly desirable, all of the papers in this collection and the national institutes that fbster research on fathers (e.g., the National Center on Fathers and Families), are organized around the idea that father involvement should be increased. In addition, millions of dollars are spent every year in the U.S. to conduct research and develop policies and programs to increase tather involvement.

This reliance on strong mclral authority reminds me of dairy commercials that say "milk is good for you"-which assumes that milk is universally good fbr all. The reality, of course, is that milk is not good for most lactose intolerant peoples of Mediterranean, Atiican, and Asian descent where it can cause upset stomachs and diarrhea. This example, in turn, illustrates a type of nutritional ethnocentrism.

Another example is the current U.S. childbirth practice in which fathers are expected to have an active role-called "natural" childbirth-giving the impression that fathers around the world are involved in childbirth. In fact, cross-cultural studies have demonstrated that fathers seldom have an active role in childbirth, and in no culture do fathers direct the birthing process (Hewlett & Hannon, 19S9). Father involvement and participation in childbirth appear to be especially important in the context of the middle-class American family which by cross-cultural standards is extremely atomistic.

Other characteristics of middle-class American families that affect the context of father involvement are (1) low infant mortality rates, (2) the absence of regular wart'are, (3) the fact that parents' time with children is limited due to work schedulcs, (4) that parents usually have no background in child-rearing until the first shild is born, and (5) that children do not stay with parents when they get married.

Riesman's (1992) study of the Fulani points out another aspect of childrearing that we tend to think of as universal and natural. He asked Fulani men about the important things tathers contribute to their children. "The father's first obligation" said the men, "is to seek out a good mother for the child."

Given Riesman's Euro-American background he thought this meant a mother that was a good caregiver-attentive, loving, and supportive. What the Fulani men actually meant was a mother from a prestigious family with lots of kin.

Fulani believe that parental care has very little impact on the child until he or she reaches the age of reason (7-8 years old). The child's charactcr is determined by God; a father has a responsibility to correct a child who is doing something wrong, but God determines whether or not the child listens. Fulani fathers provide very tittle direct care to their children, yet, according to Riesman. their children are more vibrant and self-assured than most U'S.


children. Riesman points out that in the West, children are made, not born, as suggested by the title of Virginia Satir's book, People-Making (I972). Consequently, parents and teachers are regularly trying to shape young children's lives (e.g., make children eat something, make a child share with another, make a child go to bed). This does not happen among the Fulani and most Afiican cultures with which I am familiar. This cultural view, according to Riesman (1992) and my ethnographic experience, takes away children's autonomous development.

Along these same lines, Western parents and researchers are interested in increasing father involvement, in part, because we believe this torm of caregiving has significant social-emotional outcomes for the young later in lif-e.

This strong "future orientation" serves as a regular motivating force tor the current conception of paternal behaviors with children, but fiom a cross-cultural standpoint, it is an uncommon arrangement. This people-making concept in Western cultures, however, has led researchers to focus almost exclusively on the role of fathers during childhood, whereas very little is known about the significance or dynamics of paternal roles in adulthood.

One anthropologist (Townsend, 1996) used a lif'e course perspective to examine fathers' roles among the Tswana of Botswana, where the government of Botswana has adopted the American idea of "deadbeat dads." The government has adopted this stance because national demographic surveys indicate an increasing number of "illegitimate" births and f-emale-headed households. Townsend finds that when men migrate to cities for work, the first child in a relationship is often born in the mother's family home. Male involvement during this period comes primarily from the child's maternal uncle rather than fiom the father. A man slowly pays the bride price to his wife's family and eventually, possibly years later, the family moves to live with the husband's family. This practice, with its roots in matrilocality, is not viewed as a problem by the local people. Government officials, however,

have come to view this as a national problem because it shows up as " illegitimate" births on the national census. Townsend states:

I describe, "deadbeat b4others" may be as In the extended families important a social problem as ''deadbeat dads."... It may not be a contribution to the welfare of children to eliminate "deadbeat dads" at the expense of creating men who fail in their responsibilities as brothers, uncles, grandfathers, and social beings. (p. 128) Americans, of course, are not the only ethnocentric people. When I describe the U.S. infant care practice of placing infants in cribs located within their own rooms, the Aka, with whom I have lived for several years, tend to view this as child neglect. A central aspect of good parenting for the Aka, tirerefore, is to hold the infant constantly.

Fatherlnod Research and Ferspectives on Father Involvement 63 The History of Culture is by nature ethnocentric and it patterns emotional reality. National policy decisions regarding father involvement have to be made carefully and with sensitivity to the enormous cultural and ethnic diversity within the U.S.

Although increased tather involvement appears to be important in white middle-class families, in groups like the Aka, f'athers can and do contribute to their children in several otherways that are poorly understood. That is, many cultures exist in which fathers provide very little or no direct care, but also where the children are mentally and physically healthy. Studies of Atiican Americans by Furstenburg and his colleagues (this volume and Furstenburg & I{arris, 1993) are instructive in this regard. They find important difTerences between male and fbmale children, as well as between poor African American families and middle class white families when examining the relationship between paternal involvement and child well-being.


Since the fbcus of this collection of articles is to increase tather involvement, I will briefly describe a few anthropological studies that have examined this topic. Anthropology is often characterized as being a holistic discipline, because researchers try to consider an array of factors that influence cultural beliets and practices. My own study of Aka tathers (Hewlett, 1991) suggests the need to understand a cornplex wcb of factors in order to understand the extraordinarily high levels of paternal care (e.g., fathers are either holding or witlrin an arm's distance of their infants for more than 50o/o of a 24-hour periocl). Factors which contribute to high father involvement include high fbrtility, no warfare, a non-violent ideology, flexible gender roles, male-f-emale cooperative nct hunting, and valuing both male and tbmale children.

Extensive husband-wif'e cooperation on net hunts and many other economic activities seem to be especially influential, but only within the context of these other fbatures.

Although the Aka study refers to fatherhood in a society that is quite difl-erent from the United States, this research does have implications for our understanding of fatherhocld roles in the contemporary U.S. society. For example, Aka children are very attached to their fathers, despite the fact that Aka fathcrs do not engage in vigorous rough and tumble play. This absence of behavior, in turn, contrasts with the U.S. context in which vigorous play has been identified as a key factor in understanding father-child attachment.

Instead of rough and tumble play, however, it appears that Aka infants becclme attachecl to their fathers through regular communication and being held fiequently. Consequently, data tiom the Aka study point to the importance of the amount of time spent with infants and contributes to the U.S. debate aboUt


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