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Yugoslavia: The Family
Country Study > Chapter 2 > The Society and Its Environment > Social Groups > The Family

THE FAMILY


Despite the massive changes of the socialist era, society in Yugoslavia remained oriented around family and kin. Rights and duties were defined by family relationships much more rigorously than in contemporary Western societies. For example, the 1962 Basic Law on Relations between Parents and Children defined the material support legally due one's parents, children, siblings, grandparents, and other relatives. The law obliged citizens to support needy or incapacitated relatives and specified the order in which aid and assistance should come from both lineal and collateral relatives.

The zadruga, a kin-based corporate group holding property in common, was the traditional basis of rural social organization throughout the Balkans. From the feudal era onward, customary and formal law enshrined the rights and obligations of zadruga members. Throughout rural Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, Herzegovina, Macedonia, Kosovo, and much of Bosnia, the zadruga persisted as a formally constituted kin group until well after World War II. Its most common form was a group of patrilineally related males, along with their spouses and children. Members of a zadruga generally owned and farmed land in common.

The zadruga survived because membership in a corporate group conferred clear advantages on the individual peasant family. For the Balkan peasantry, the zadruga made it possible to endure wars and foreign rule, exploitation of new lands, conversion from pastoralism to agriculture, and seasonal off-farm employment. Precise configuration of the kin group varied during the past five centuries, in response to regional changes in political, economic, and geographic conditions. The zadruga maintained cultural integrity during centuries of foreign domination, and it protected the peasant against the predations of state and bandit. Religious practices centered on the individual zadruga and not on the parish church. Even among Muslim Slavs, each zadruga had a patron saint; the saint's day celebration, the slava, remained the high point of the calendar for many families late in the twentieth century.

Large multifamily households enjoyed significant advantages, especially in rural areas, well into the twentieth century. A substantial adult labor force permitted family members to specialize and engage in a variety of subsidiary operations to supplement agricultural income. The burden of agricultural labor could be spread at peak seasons, men were freed to engage in politics, and women had time for handicrafts. An extended family's wealth almost always exceeded that of two to three nuclear households of comparable size. The zadruga also provided a refuge for the orphaned, the widowed, the infirm, and the elderly.

The composition of the extended family changed with the increasing life expectancy realized in the twentieth century. The number of generations in a given household rose from two to three or even four, while the number of collateral relatives -- brothers, cousins, second cousins -- decreased. Patriarchal authority, often overbearing within the traditional zadruga, grew more so as the life expectancy of the parents increased. The wars of the twentieth century and migration away from rural areas after World War II caused a decline in joint ownership of property by extended families.

Under communist rule, the extended family became a cooperative rather than a formally corporate kin group; but family loyalty and a general feeling of responsibility toward kin persisted. Individuals relied on relatives for mutual aid and support in a wide variety of social and economic contexts. Family solidarity eased the shock of urbanization and industrialization throughout the 1960s and 1970s; relatives provided urban housing for students from the countryside and employment advice and assistance for the recent rural migrant. Migrants to the city maintained ties with their kin in the country, periodically helping with agricultural or construction tasks. Among the country's technical and managerial elite, kinship strengthened the relationship between commune and enterprise and reinforced local and familial loyalties.

Nominal kinship in the form of godparenthood, or kumstvo, cut across the familial focus of South Slavic social relations. Kumstvo and marriage were the two institutions by which the zadruga formed ties with other kin groups. Traditionally, the godparent-godchild relationship formed a permanent link, inherited patrilineally, between two zadruge. Although kumstvo observance was less elaborate among Muslim Slavs, they did observe rituals such as the cutting of a child's umbilical cord and the first hair cutting. The relationship implied few specific obligations between the zadruge besides a general expectation of friendship and assistance.

With urbanization, the number of large and extended families declined. From the 1948 through the 1981 census, average family size dropped from 4.37 to 3.67 members. The decline was steepest in the developed regions. In Kosovo, approximately three-quarters of all households had five or more members in the early 1970s, and over a quarter had ten or more members. As late as 1953, about one-third of all Yugoslav households were classified as extended families. The percentage of extended families dropped precipitously by the early 1970s. Smaller domestic groups appeared to be more advantageous in an urban setting; in both developed and less-developed regions, only about one-fourth of all urban households were extended families.

Data as of December 1990




Last Updated: December 1990


Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for Yugoslavia was first published in 1990. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on Factba.se.

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