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(2017-8) How can an anthropological study of kinship within the context of conflict reveal how different families cope with crisis situations?

By Orla Burden, Jasmine Forbes-Lumby, Alasdair Kerr, Tertia Rollason, Cordelia Sears, Charlotte Burton

In order to address this question, we must consider the notion of ‘family’ and how it differs cross-culturally in the face of conflict. Family structures are not universal. When faced with conflict, some families display resilience through a strong and unified approach, ‘while some families are shattered by crisis or persistent stresses’ (Walsh, 1996:1). We shall substantiate this idea through the Ajdukovics’ (1998) case study’. This is a study on the impact of the Yugoslav wars within Croatian families over a six-year period. Families that have a strong nuclear structure are often perceived as being able to show resilience as a single unit against conflict. However, crisis situations exacerbate pressures on the family, which can subsequently cause breaks within these structures, generating different responses. We show how these pressures can break families apart, disconnect people from wider kinship systems, and, in particular, the varying psychological impact these ruptures can have on them.

Through their account, the Ajdukovics exemplify the effects of conflict on the familial relations between parent and child. They demonstrate how as a consequence of being directly exposed to the conditions of war, the children were subject to ‘traumatization, multiple losses, abrupt changes in family structure and patterns, living with highly distressed adults, prolonged displacement, and dissolving communities’ (Ajdukovic and Ajdukovic, 1998: 186). This quote highlights that children are not only faced with the physical suffering of conflict, but are often confronted with the psychological impact that it has on their parents, who ‘frequently display anxiety, depression, anger and aggression’ (Ibid: 187). In addition to this, many parents suffer unemployment due to displacement, which in turn can worsen these psychological effects, making them feel ‘degraded and demoralized’ (Ibid). Thus, the mental well-being of a parent due to these ‘cumulative negative effects’ may directly correlate with that of their children and create ‘disturbing consequences’ upon their own well-being (Ibid). An example of this can be shown by the data recorded within this study which focused on the mother-child relation and how she managed her relationship with her child, while simultaneously adjusting to displacement. The result of this direct research showed that the ‘number of adjustment difficulties in children correlated with the mother’s post-traumatic stress reactions’ (Ajdukovic and Ajdukovic, 1998: 191), and that and that ‘subsequently the stress levels of children were related to the ‘decrease of gentleness of the mother’ (ibid).

As well as disrupting immediate family life, crisis can significantly disrupt the wider kinship community, which can make reintegration into former communities difficult. When families become unstable and also no longer have the support of the wider community to which they may be accustomed, it undoubtedly becomes increasingly difficult to respond to crises and return to normal life without this support network in place. The Ajdukovics’ study develops this idea that re-integration is not a unilinear path, but one marked by the traumas of displacement and of the civil war that preceded it. ‘Our first experiences with children who got the chance to go back to their villages after three, four or even six years of displacement, were that they were now going through another very stressful and painful period of reintegration’ (Ajdukovic & Ajdukovic, 1998:187). This outlines the difficulties faced by children whilst adapting to their new educational environments by challenging the assumption that re-integration is a smooth and instantaneous happening. This notion of a loss of community has the potential to create tension between parent and child, due to the distress of having to leave behind previous kinship relations. Alienation within the family post conflict is something which counters the mainstream representations of a unit based on solid enduring bonds, united in the face of crisis.

Similar to the Ajdukovics’ case, an understanding of what kinship means to families cross-culturally is essential when addressing displacement. For some, contrary to the nuclear family model, family encompasses a wider range of kinship relations. This can be seen in McMichael and Ahmed’s study of displaced Somali women in Melbourne, one woman stating that ‘the people used to treat each other like brothers and sisters even if they weren’t related’ (McMichael and Ahmed, 2003: 136). As a result of losing their wider community relations, some women, such as Fadamo, find it hard to deal with certain situations, such as pregnancy, where extended former kin members ‘who have experience will come and help you mind the child’ (Ibid: 136). This example highlights the importance of community to certain cultures when faced with challenging circumstances and ‘brings into relief the impact of family separation’ (Ibid: 137) and the way that it inhibits one’s ‘capacity for emotional well-being’ (Ibid). This example, therefore, reiterates that victims of conflict value kinship relations differently when regarding the significance these relations have on their mental stability. In view of this, ‘it is important to try to capture the specificities’ (McMichael and Ahmed, 2003: 145) particular to each culture that displaced persons deem valuable in maintaining their well-being.

Overall, the Ajdukovics’ study is particularly important and of relevance to an anthropological understanding into the difficulties faced by the family through displacement. By considering that families ‘come from vastly different cultural backgrounds that provide different personal and collective frameworks for interpreting events like separation and trauma’ (Rousseau, Mekki-Berada and Moreau, 2001: 41), we are better able to understand their struggles, and how they may come to face and overcome the impacts of crisis situations. Furthermore, McMichael and Ahmed’s (2003) work in Somalia illustrates how alternative ideas and arrangements of kinship may arise outside of bio-genetic ties, as a result of particular contextual circumstances.  Taking all of this into consideration could help those involved in humanitarian and aid work to establish more effective ways of supporting those who have been affected by such situations, rather than supplying a general solution that is unlikely to be applicable to all cases.


Ajdukovic, M and Ajdukovic, D. (1998) ‘The impact of displacement on the psychological well-being of refugee children’. International Review of Pyschiatry. Vol 10 (3) pp. 186-195.

McMichael, C. and Ahmed, M. (2003) ‘Family Separation: Somali Women in Melbourne’. In Critical perspectives on refugee policy in Australia: proceedings of the Refugee Rights Symposium hosted by the Institute for Citizenship and Globalization, Faculty of Arts, Deakin University, December 5, 2002, edited by Michael Leach and Fethi Mansouri, pp. 131-150. Melbourne: Deakin University.

Rousseau, C. Mekki-Berrada. A, and Moreau, S. (2001) ‘Trauma and Extended Separation from Family among Latin American and African Refugees in Montreal’. Psychiatry: Interpersonal and Biological Processes. Vol 64 (1) pp. 40-59.

Walsh, F. (1996) ‘The Concept of Family Resilience: Crisis and Challenge’. Family Process Institute. Vol 35 (3) pp. 261-281. Referred to as pp. 1-14.