The Jamaican anthropologist, M. G. Smith, deals here with the domestic organization of sample populations in five West Indian Negroid lower class communities. Camparison of his data leads Smith to the conclusion that the family systems of the five groups each belong to one of three variants of a basic structural type: Latante and Rural Jamaica have a mating organization, in which extra-residential mating, consensual cohabitation, and marriage each have their successive place in the individual life cycle; Grenville and Kingston also know these three mating forms, but here they lack a specific order in the individual’s life; Carriacou disapproves of consensual unions and integrates extra-residential mating and marriage in one system. The differences between these variants cannot be adequately explained by demographic and ecological factors; in Smith’s opinion, they are to be attributed to differences in the way in which, during slavery and the post-emancipation period, marriage could be integrated in the already existing mating organization.
M. G. Smith convincingly criticizes R. T. Smith, who, in his The Negro Family in British Guiana (London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1956), considers the household with an elementary family as the developing unit from which the variety of alternative domestic groups is derived. He also succeeds in making clear that the significance of the ‘grandmother family’ has been overstated, that marriage and consensual union have to be clearly distinguished, and that the individual household is not the appropriate unit for the study of family relations.
Theoretically, Smith’s conclusion that there is a serial order in the three mating alternatives in Latante and Rural Jamaica should not be based on an “einmalig” survey: one would need life histories. Also, the repeated statement that all the populations have a formal commitment to monogamy, probable as this may be, cannot, so facilely, be derived from purely statistical-demographical data. Where the author, comparing the history of marriage in the West Indies and Europe, states that the Europeans, since Tacitus and before, have had unions of the life-long, exclusive type “and knew no other” (263), his vision of the history of mating organization of the different European social strata proves to be too simplified. The ease with which the West Indian white ruling group came to a fusion of marriage and extra-residential mating, very similar to that which Smith describes for the Carriacou Negroid lower class, is at least partially explainable as the continuation and/or imitation of a European feudal pattern of life, just as, maybe, Smith’s Carriacou population knew itself backed in its mating organization by the example of its social elite.
The singular in the title of Smith’s work suggests a general Caribbean character, both social and geographic, that actually is not present. How fertile would a comparison be with the Spanish Caribbean, where the Carriacou pattern is, or was, practically universal. In spite of these critical remarks—and mainly because of the care with which the terminology was coined—and the hypotheses tested on the basis of extensive quantitative material, I consider the book under review the most important one that in recent years has been written on British West Indian family structures.