Patterns of Marital Residence

There are three gender-neutral rules of residence. They are neolocal residence, where couples live apart from the kin of either spouse, bilocal (ambilocal ) residence, where couples can live with either set of parents, and duolocal residence, where both the husband and wife remain in their own homes. The last residence pattern mentioned, duolocal residence, is exceedingly rare and usually occurs where the marriage bond is very weak (see the article on the Mosuo in this encyclopedia). Because duolocal residence is so rare, we shall not deal with it any further here. Most societies known to anthropology do not have gender-neutral patterns. Bilocal residence only occurs in about 7% of the world's societies, and neolocal in about 5% (see Figure 1).

While bilocal residence looks like a couple may choose with whom they want to reside, the choice is probably based more on who is still alive that you could cr

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Patrilocal Matrilocal Bilocal Avunculocal Neolocal

Type of residence

Patrilocal Matrilocal Bilocal Avunculocal Neolocal

Type of residence

Figure 1. The percentage of societies with each type of residence. Calculated from Cross tabulations of Murdock's world ethnographic sample, by A. D. Coult and R. Habenstein, 1965, Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press.

live and work with. Service (1962, p. 137) suggested that depopulation of indigenous populations may have been responsible for much of the observed bilocal residence in the anthropological record. In the last 400 years, contact with Europeans in many parts of the world resulted in severe population losses among the local people who lacked resistance to European diseases. Even diseases that were not killers to Europeans (e.g., colds, measles) caused widespread mortality in newly contacted populations, particularly in regions furthest from Europe (e.g., the New World and the islands of the far Pacific). With severe population losses, a population with a unilocal residence rule (patrilocal or matrilocal) would not be able to maintain it. Assuming that couples need to live and work with kin, they would be forced to be pragmatic and live with whichever group of relatives was still alive. Thus a couple in a patrilocal (matrilocal) society might not have enough husband's (wife's) relatives to live with, and the likely consequence would be a pattern of bilocal residence— some couples living with the husband's relatives and some couples living with the wife's relatives. We designed a test (C. R. Ember & Ember, 1972) of Service's interpretation, using data from a worldwide sample of societies, and it turned out to support Service's theory: societies with bilocal residence and appreciably frequent departures from unilocal residence (multilocal residence) were significantly likely to have been depopulated in their recent history. Some other factors also seem to predict bilocality and multilocality among hunter-gatherers (unpredictable rainfall in an arid environment and very small communities; C. R. Ember, 1975). But generally, depopulation appears to be the most important predictor of bilocal residence (C. R. Ember & Ember, 1972). Thus, residence patterns that depart from gender-based patterns are probably recent phenomena, due mostly to the depopulation that often accompanied contact with expanding Europeans.

The presence of a commercial or a money economy, which is also a recent phenomenon in some regions, is probably what mainly makes neolocal residence possible. Couples can buy the goods and services they need without having to depend much on kin. Cross-culturally, money and commercial exchange do predict neolocal residence (M. Ember, 1967a). Although neolocal residence is not very common in the anthropological record in terms of percentages of societies (see Figure 1), it has increased in frequency as commercialization has become more and more important in the world.

Let us now turn to the gender-based patterns of residence.

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