Family is an important institution that plays a central role in the lives of most Indians. Demonstrating collectivist attitudes, Indian culture places an emphasis on loyalty and interdependence. The interests of the family usually supersede those of the individual, and decisions affecting one’s personal life – such as marriage and career paths – are generally made in consultation with one’s family. Indian families have a collective face, and as a result, the act of an individual may impact the perception of the entire family by others.
The concept of family extends beyond the typical nuclear unit to encompass the wider family circle. People may be encouraged to have a relationship with their aunts and uncles that is just as strong as a parental relationship. Three or four generations often live together as connections with one’s extended family are deeply valued. A hallmark of extended families in India is deference for the elderly and the observing of a clear hierarchy among family members. Many Indians live in smaller nuclear families and maintain strong ties to their extended family. Often, most family members are within geographical proximity or share in occupational groups.
However, with urbanisation and migration, younger generations do not strictly conform to these perceptions of family. Understandings of family are shifting towards expansive networks that are not necessarily bound to geographic proximity or occupation. The links an Indian person maintains with their extended family overseas are often much closer than those of most people in Western societies.
Women and the Household
The inequality between the status of men and women is significantly pronounced in India. There are varying customs that call for the seclusion and silencing of women in certain situations. However, the degree to which women accept the patriarchal model is undergoing change. A brother and sister in India are now likely to receive equal schooling and treatment in the educational system. In the higher classes of society, educated women are becoming more empowered, but they are still bound by many constraining societal expectations.
Within the household hierarchy, everyone’s role and position is adhered to and respected in order to maintain harmony. Elders are deferred to and considered a source of wisdom. The father (or eldest son, if the father is not alive) is usually the patriarch while his wife may supervise any of the daughters-in-law that have moved into the household.
These large multigenerational families can also be essential to providing economic security to an individual. They often provide a source of work in a family agricultural business or lead to opportunities in cities where kinship ties and third-party introductions are crucial for employment.
Marriage and Dating
Although expectations and practices of marital arrangements vary throughout the different regions and religions, arranged marriages are common throughout India. Marriages are typically arranged through a matchmaker, the couple’s parents or some other trusted third party. Unlike in the past where individuals would not be informed about their future partner, it is now more common for consent by the couple to be sought before the wedding.
Although much of life in modern India is no longer influenced by caste, many arranged marriages are still endogamous (limited to members of the local community or clan). This is in part because arranging marriages is a family activity that is carried out through pre-existing networks of kinship and caste. The institutions of arranged marriage and caste endogamy enable parents to influence the futures of their children as well as sustain the social structure and the caste system. Marriages that are not arranged – known as ‘love marriages’ – are often interpreted as impulsive acts.