Out of all the family types in sociology, compound families are perhaps the most difficult to uncover research on. This is due the fact that there does not seem to be any papers that specifically use the term ‘compound family’ or ‘compound families’ in their title. Rather, the term is buried within the written contents on papers on polygamous, polygynous, polyandrous, or plural families.
Definitions of Compound Family
As always it is important to begin with a quick look at some of the definitions from academia to aid in illuminating the concept. Perhaps the most straight-to-the-point is:
The polygynous compound family consists of a husband, each of his wives and such children as they have between them. The polyandrous compound family consists of a wife, each of her husbands and all their children.(Turner, 1969: 8)
Form the start we can already see the basis in polygamous relationships. This is again reflected in the following:
The Compound family among the koro comprises a man, his wives and children. They make up a compound family because it is based on a polygamous marriage, which is a complex legal marriage with a common man linking all the wives and the children.(Abraham Gojeh, 2004: 55)
There are more definitions in our dictionary of sociology. The compound family then, is derived from its polygamous origins. The multiple spouses with children can thus be considered the compound family.
Types of Compound Family
With an emphasis on the pluralistic nature of compound families, it is perhaps no surprise that the two main forms of compound family are the polygynous compound family and the polyandrous compound family (the term polygamous essentially means either of the following).
Polyandrous Compound Family
In the polyandrous compound family, a woman shares the home with two or more husbands.
Polygynous Compound Family
Opposite to the previous, the polygynous compound family consists of man and his multiple wives.
In either case, multiple spouses do not necessarily live together. Sometimes spouses live in the same household and sometimes they live in their own household (Slonim-Nevo & Al-Krenawi, 2006: 313).
Particularly in the US, Mormonism has a significant number of practitioners of polygamous relationships. Stacey & Meadow (2009: 186) note the illegality of polygamy in the US and that it has driven the practice underground in what they describe as “fundamentalist Mormon outlaw communities” such as those of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The fundamentalist Mormons are separate from the standard Mormons in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Quek (2016) argues that these groups amount to human trafficking organisations.
Baker (2023: 399) argues that there is no doubt that Islam allows polygamous practice. A man is restricted to having a maximum of four wives which he must treat similarly and fairly and without preference. The man does not need to have consent of any wife before taking another but existing wives must be informed of the decision to do so. However, Khasawneh et al. (2011: 563) note that the first wife can divorce the man if he takes a second wife but only on the condition that there exists a marriage agreement granting her the right to a unilateral divorce.
Locating Compound Families
Utah is relatively synonymous with the compound family due to there being a significant Mormon population. Stacey & Meadow (2009: 186) note the presence of many Mormon communities coalescing around the borders or Utah and Arizona. The fundamentalist Mormons who practice polygamy are a splinter group from the standard Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who, in the 19th century came into conflict with the US federal government over their polygamous practices. The government introduced the abandonment of polygamy as a necessary condition for Utah statehood. This led to a split in the church with mainstream Mormons seeking assimilation with American society and fundamentalists seeking to maintaining polygamous practices (White & White, 2005).
Malay Elite Society
Zeitzen’s (2018) book gives significant insight into polygamous practices in Malay elite society. They argue that polygamy has traditionally been the pursuit of the upper-classes rather than lower-classes due to the costs involved in maintaining more than one marriage. Interestingly, Max Weber (1978: 374) makes a similar observation:
Polygamy is too costly for all middle-income groups in an economy in which male work predominates
Polygamy then, like in most places, is still a relatively niche practice. Most Malays are Muslim, yet polygamy in Malay society predates the introduction of Islam and thus has a much longer history.
Inversely, in Nigeria, polygamous families tend to be from poorer backgrounds (Behrman, 2019: 916). Polygamy is prevalent amongst the Igbo ethnic group. Arthi & Fenske (2018) outline the historical and modern polygamous relationship practices and find that polygamous practices are rooted in many things including long birth intervals and post-partum sex taboos, as indicator of social status, and as family support, care, or work functions.
These types of family are also found in Mali, Mozambique, and India.
Compound Family Problems
In the US for example, polygamy is illegal. Although in places like Utah the practice is often overlooked, there can still be prosecutions but these are usually as a consequence of some other illegal activity such as tax fraud. In 2020, the State of Utah unanimously passed a bill to effectively decriminalise polygamy.
The illegality of such a lifestyle or its lack of legal recognition comes with its own consequences. Problems can arise around inheritance, custody of children, divorce, taxes, or social security. Compound polygamous families have also been associated with lower academic achievement, increases in anti-social behaviour, and a variety of mental health issues (Alhuzail, 2020: 98). In polygynous families where the man is expected to fulfil traditional breadwinner roles, maintaining a compound family can be very expensive. As such, poverty, debt, and other typical financial struggles can be present.
Al-Krenawi & Graham (2006) found that women in polygamous families:
…showed significantly higher psychological distress, and higher levels of somatisation, phobia and other psychological problems. They also had significantly more problems in family functioning, marital relationships and life satisfaction.
Globally, polygamous families can have a higher rate of interpersonal violence (IPV). Jansen & Agadjanian (2020) explore this issue within the context of Mozambique, Heath et al. (2020) in Mali, and Rahaman et al. (2022) in India.
Compound Families in the Media
Media portrayals of the compound family are relatively available although they tend to be sensationalised through American style reality TV series.
Big Love was an American drama series which ran for five seasons from 2006 – 2011. It starred Bill Paxton as a polygamous patriarch of a Utah-based, fundamentalist Mormon family. Following the fictional events of Paxton as a homeware store owner and his three wives, the drama traces the politics and complexities of life in a polygamous family.
My Five Wives
My Five Wives is an American reality series following a large polygamous family in Utah. With five wives and more than 20 children, the programme follows the complexities of living in such a family.
Seeking Sister Wife
This is another American reality series set in, you’ve guessed it, Utah. The series follows families looking to add an extra wife to the family.
A South African reality series following a businessman and his four wives. See here.
Back to Utah, this docuseries follows three sisters as they try to escape a life of polygamy.
Running for nearly 15 years, this continuing reality series follows a polygamous family over the long term.
Confusion of Terms
One of the main concerns around the term ‘compound family’ is the opportunity for an ambiguity to slip past. When searching for research in this area, the term ‘compound families’ can sometimes mean ‘families who live in compounds’. To make matters worse, polygamous families in Utah for example sometimes live in compounds. In such a case, you then have a compound family (polygamous family) living in a compound which also makes them a compound family (family who live in a compound). You ultimately have a compound-compound family. As such, it is important to just give an extra moment to double check the context in which the term is being used.
Are compound families ever morally acceptable?
What role does consent play in a polygamous relationship?
Are there any LGBT compound families?
How might children be affected by the compound family?
Abraham Gojeh, L. (2004). The Koro Chiefdom of Kaduna State. Tereship Publishers Enterprise.
Alhuzail, N. A. (2020). Being a girl in a polygamous family Implications and challenges. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, 37(1), 97–107. Springer.
Al-Krenawi, A. & Graham, J. R. (2006). A comparison of family functioning, life and marital satisfaction, and mental health of women in polygamous and monogamous marriages. International journal of social psychiatry, 52(1), 5–17. Sage Publications London, Thousand Oaks and New Delhi.
Arthi, V., & Fenske, J. (2018). Polygamy and child mortality: Historical and modern evidence from Nigeria’s Igbo. Review of Economics of the Household, 16, 97-141.
Baker, M. (2023). Polygyny in Islam: a call for retrospection. British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, 50(2), 397–409. Taylor & Francis.
Behrman, J. A. (2019). Polygynous unions and intimate partner violence in Nigeria: An examination of the role of selection. Journal of marriage and family, 81(4), 905–919. Wiley Online Library.
Heath, R., Hidrobo, M. & Roy, S. (2020). Cash transfers, polygamy, and intimate partner violence: Experimental evidence from Mali. Journal of Development Economics, 143, 102410. Elsevier.
Jansen, N. & Agadjanian, V. (2020). Polygyny and intimate partner violence in Mozambique. Journal of family issues, 41(3), 338–358. SAGE Publications Sage CA: Los Angeles, CA.
Khasawneh, O. M., Hijazi, A. H. Y. & Salman, N. H. (2011). Polygamy and its impact on the upbringing of children: A Jordanian perspective. Journal of Comparative Family Studies, 42(4), 563–577. University of Toronto Press.
Quek, K. (2016). Fundamentalist Mormon polygamy and the traffic in women. Women’s Studies International Forum (Vol. 58, pp. 25–33).
Rahaman, M., Roy, A., Kapasia, N. & Chouhan, P. (2022). Spousal violence in India: does risk of spousal violence higher among polygynous unions? Cogent Social Sciences, 8(1), 2103945. Taylor & Francis.
Slonim-Nevo, V. & Al-Krenawi, A. (2006). Success and failure among polygamous families: The experience of wives, husbands, and children. Family process, 45(3), 311–330. Wiley Online Library.
Stacey, J. & Meadow, T. (2009). New slants on the slippery slope: The politics of polygamy and gay family rights in South Africa and the United States. Politics & Society, 37(2), 167–202. Sage Publications Sage CA: Los Angeles, CA.
Turner, C. (1969). Family and Kinship in Modern Britain. New York: London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Weber, M. (1978). Economy and society: an outline of interpretive sociology. Berkeley: University of California Press.
White, O. K. & White, D. (2005). Polygamy and Mormon identity. The Journal of American Culture, 28(2), 165–177.
Zeitzen, M. K. (2018). Elite Malay Polygamy. Berghahn Books.