Ethnic family values in Australia


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Content type
Research report

December 1985

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This book looks at the major cultural groups in Australia (Italian, Yugoslav, Greek, Turkish, Lebanese, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, Vietnamese and Aboriginal), with respect to their traditional values, and their attitudes towards such issues as marriage, divorce, sex, sex-roles, family planning, family structure, family size, and inter-generational conflict. The introduction by Des Storer explains the aims of publication, the methodology used and common themes explored. He summarises changing patterns of immigration, demographic data, the social context in which people born overseas have established themselves in Australia, and social implications and social issues.  

Table of contents

  • Foreword
  • Contributors
  • 1. Introduction
    • Aims of Publication
    • Methodology
    • Common Themes
    • Conclusion
    • References
  • 2. Italian Families
    • Historical Background
    • The Italian Economic and Social System
    • Social Stratification and Family Patterns
    • Questioning Some Myths of the Italian Family
    • Demography of the Italian Family
    • Intra-family Relations
    • Recent Developments in Italian Laws Related to the Family
    • Italians in Australia
    • Conclusion
    • References
  • 3. Yugoslav Families
    • Historical Background
    • Traditional Family Relationships and Values
    • Contemporary Changes to Traditional Attitudes in Yugoslavia
    • The Family and Family Law
    • The Family in Australia
    • References
  • 4. Greek Families
    • Historical Background and Socio-economic Context
    • Family Law in Greece
    • Traditional Family Values, Structures and Sex Roles
    • Impact of Emigration on Greek Families
    • Conclusion
    • References
  • 5. Turkish Families
    • Background
    • Family Law in Turkey
    • Traditional Marriage Patterns and Customs
    • Contemporary Changes to Traditional Values in Turkey
    • The Impact of Migration on Turkish Families
    • References
  • 6. Lebanese Families
    • Historical Background
    • Traditional Religions and Customs
    • Migration to Australia
    • Family and Kinship Organization
    • Conclusion
    • References
  • 7. Pakistani Families
    • Historical Background
    • Islam
    • Male Honour and Female Protection
    • Marriage
    • Family and Kin Relationships
    • Divorce
    • Inheritance
    • The Muslim Family Laws Ordinance 1961 (MFLO)
    • Pakistani Australians
    • Australian Observations
    • Conclusion
    • References
    • Appendix A The Shias
    • Appendix B The Four Schools of Law
    • Appendix C Socio-legal Enactments
    • Appendix D All-Pakistani Women's Association (APWA) 
  • 8. Sri Lankan Families
    • Ethnic Groups
    • Communal Tensions
    • The Sri Lankan Legal System
    • Sinhalese/Buddhist Religious Beliefs and Values
    • Traditional Sinhalese Values and Attitudes
    • Traditional Sinhalese Attitudes to Divorce, Property and Inheritance
    • Contemporary Changes in Sinhalese Society
    • Sri Lankan Tamils: Hindus
    • Conclusion References
    • Appendix A Socio-Iegal Enactments in Family Law
    • Appendix B Special Family Laws Affecting Sri Lankan Tamils
  • 9. Vietnamese Families
    • Historical Overview of Vietnamese Society
    • Traditional Vietnamese Family Values and Organization
    • Refugees and Resettlement
    • Socio-Iegal System
    • References
  • 10. Aboriginal Families
    • History and Public Policy
    • The Old and the New Law
    • Demography and Life-style
    • Traditionally Oriented Aborigines
    • Rural Aborigines
    • Urban
    • Conclusion
    • References
  • Index


I write this Foreword with some relief, given the history of the project on which the book is based.

When the Australian Institute of Family Studies was established in February 1980, one of the most obvious issues we had to tackle was the multiplicity of family types, family processes and family life experiences that exist in Australian society. Not only did we have to convince our public and political 'audience' that 'the family' is not always, or even typically a unit in which the wife stays at home as mother, the husband goes out to work as provider and the children can depend upon both parents performing these tasks adequately in an idyllic suburban home; but we also had to identify the vast range of ethnic and class differences which give 'the family' such different meanings for whole groups and for the individuals within them.

Our first assumption was that perhaps we could leave the tricky question of 'ethnic' families to the equally new Australian Institute of Multicultural Affairs, or at least work jointly with them. However, it soon became obvious that this was not possible and that we must build in to all our studies consideration of ethnic differences. At everyone of the first round of 'Family Impact Seminars' run in the major cities (IFS, 1980/81) we were asked to do studies on the nature of family life in different groups. A gap clearly existed in Australian research on the family characteristics and values ofthe many non-English speaking groups that make up Australian society. The earlier work of Jean Martin and George Zubrzycki which looked at migrant family experience had not been pursued with later arriving ethnic communities and despite the shift towards 'multicultural- ism' during the Whitlam era in the 1970s, surprisingly little new work had been done which could answer the pressing problems of Family Court judges, lawyers or counsellors about how people from non-Anglo backgrounds could be 'handled' more sensitively.

Social workers, police, youth workers, doctors, nurses, teachers and other services all face clients of whom one-quarter were born overseas (approximately 55 per cent of them non-English) and a further 20 per cent of whom have at least one parent born overseas. Though language is a problem it is not the major one. To their credit, many professionals recognize that beyond language barriers lies a vast ignorance and insensitivity to different value systems deeply entrenched and dearly held. There are other professionals ofcourse who are unaware oftheir ignorance or who feel that 'migrants' must in any case give up their old value systems and learn to accept the'Australian way'. The assimilation thrust, as comically portrayed in They're a Weird Mob, still holds widespread sway.

So the Institute decided that action needed to be taken quickly in order to provide professionals, especially those in the Family Court system (since home and hearth are the focus of the most deeply entrenched values), with some clear guidelines about ethnic family value differences. We could not wait for our own research projects to begin to provide new information, so it was suggested that we produce pamphlets on different ethnic groups, for easy access and wide distribution. However, such an approach could not be pursued - brief characterizations easily become stereotypes and we did not wish to be party to glib descriptions of the Italian 'big Mother' or the paternal authoritarianism of the Greek or German male. We knew that regional variations, class distinctions, reasons for migration and family reunion or isolation would all cut across any such generalizations including those about 'southern' versus 'northern' Europeans or 'Asians' as a summary group.

Yet descriptions were needed and some typification would inevitably occur. The task was to do this in a way which warned against over-generalization but provided insight into how family and sex-role values tended to influence ethnic responses to Australia's dominant cultural values. The solution was to commission people who were experts on particular societies to pull together the then available literature and research findings so that both the generalizations and the complexity could be indicated. The Institute's staff at that time was small so external proposals were sought in 1981. Des Storer co-ordinated this work and a common framework was developed for each of the five contractors who would cover some fourteen ethnic groups. They were asked to review the literature in both Australia and the country of origin in order to show

  • the place of family life within each particular historical context,
  • the nature of sex roles within ethnic family structures and the values most central to parents, children and kin,
  • how families from each group had adapted within the Australian context, and
  • what changes, if any, had taken place in recent years in the country of origin (particularly in family law matters).

We did not expect every group to be equally well covered and our selection was based on quality of proposal rather than on total coverage of all ethnic groups. Nonetheless, we did not receive a proposal for a study of Italians and, therefore, we had to commission both the Italian and Aborigine chapters, which led to delays while locating suitable authors. Further delays ensued by our decision to publish through a commercial publisher rather than 'in-house' and by the slow 'perfectionism' of some writers - most of the chapters were completed in 1982. All chapters have been updated to take into account major changes in legislation affecting families in the countries of origin (for example, the Family Law Act in Greece has been modelled on the Australian Act), but only the Italian chapter is completely up-to-date regarding the current literature. For this we apologize and ask that the authors not be criticized for something quite beyond their control.

The notorious difficulties of welding a collection of papers into a coherent whole must also be mentioned. Our authors inevitably produced more than could be published and, in the interests of keeping the book within economic bounds and in attempting to establish some consistency of style, we have reduced some chapters considerably. The bibliographies too (especially of Yugoslavs and Aborigines) have been reduced so that only those sources which are referred to in the text are included. The original copy ofeach paper is held in the Institute's public-access Family Information Centre.

The Institute's research has, in some ways, overtaken production of this volume. Our study of 'Family Support Networks', based in Geelong, Darwin, Jabiru, and Ashfield, Sydney, has revealed many of the problems faced by migrant families, in particular the differences between early post-War arrivals and more recent settlers and their lack of either knowledge or usage of community-based services. Our 'Australian Family Formation Study' included many migrants in the national sample of2500 and a report by Siew-Ean Khoo based on this study is now available. However, the papers in this book provide the most up-to-date review of what is known about ethnic family values and indicate many areas in need offurther research. We do not as an Institute have the resources to do much of this research and hope that this book will stimulate new activity in the area of 'ethnic research' in Australia. One of the ironies that should be kept in mind in future work is that while migration once contributed to the 'youthing' [sic] of Australia, its flow-on is to become a large part of the 'ageing' of Australia. Some interesting research has already begun on this topic, but second- and third-generation problems are likely to increase for Australian families with a migration background.

Finally, a word or two about multiculturalism. Despite some cynicism about our political shift from a policy of 'assimilation', to 'integration', to 'multiculturalism', the term 'multiculturalism' is an expression of fact. The efforts of Al Grassby, in the 1970s, to insist that Australian society was enriched by ethnic groups and that equality and diversity could go hand in hand marked a clear break with the past. Only in 1958 had the 'White Australia' dictation test been dropped, and the dominant theme of post-war migration policies had been the 'population or perish' line of Arthur Calwell's 1945 recognition that 'we Australians are like koalas. We both belong to dying races and both are well on the way to becoming museum pieces, along with the extinct moa and the great auk' (Wilton and Bosworth, 1984: p. 1). The same theme re-emerged after 1975 with an increased migrant intake, and the 'Blainey debate' of 1984 illustrates how far we still have to go in allaying the fear that cultural homogenization may not be possible if the 'wrong' balance is achieved.

Nationalism and consensus still serve to divert attention away from internal divisions and inequalities and it is not surprising that 'multiculturalism began to seem an attractive mechanism by which unity could be preserved, even if only through diversity. So we became all the more proud to be Australian because we were polyethnic ... The spectre ofassimilationism still stalks the land' (Wilton and Bosworth, 1984: p. 36). We are indeed still ambivalent about cultural and structural pluralism. Does 'multiculturalism' mean merely the former, accepting different languages, dress, life-styles, but not the structural grouping around common interests and 'territory' that go with the latter? Does it mean being tolerant of people acting in different ways, or believing in different things, yet not allowing them to carry such beliefs and traditions into actual behaviour? Does the law of the land limit the meaning of 'multicultural' or are there different rules for different groups? Aboriginal tribal law is a case in point, or a Moslem marriage or divorce, which does not conform to our own Family Law Act. If we are looking not for assimilation but merely for some updated version of integration, we will be less concerned with subjective change on the migrant's part and may merely hope they will be accepted into the wider community. Will we then continue to tolerate the disadvantages that may flow from parental ignorance of child development or from unequal incomes and resources? Will we encourage bi-lingualism and even teaching English as a second language, but not accept the American problem of teaching in only the ethnic language? How far do we wish to go, and how far can we go in maintaining a 'hyphenated identity' (Rist, 1979) if Australian nationalism takes on a more rampant form?

We must remember that a country's immigration policy is rarely motivated by altruism or by a desire to diversify the national culture. Economic motives usually dictate the 'uses' of migration (Edgar, 1980: p. 282). We must remember too that ethnic migrant groups are not passive-and come with varying hopes and interests. Multiculturalism, in light of the latter point, means that ethnic community life is a positive, active move to maintain cultural, and thus personal, identity and continuity (Martin, 1972). Ethnic groups in Australia no longer accept their 'treatment' passively. New self-assertions by ethnic organizations, new media outlets and greater realization that existing institutional structures must change or be changed make it likely that the 30 per cent ofour population which consists of post-war immigrants and their children will be heard and will have a more profound impact on Australian society than they have hitherto been allowed.

There is no question about whether Australia should be a multicultural society - it is already. The real question remains over the 'treatment' ofethnic groups, and it is my hope that this book will assist in extending that understanding which alone can undermine prejudice and place 'treatment' on more equal terms.

Our thanks go not only to each of the contributors but also to Dr Gil Bottomley of the Department of Anthropology, Macquarie University, Mr Frank Pavlin, Reader in Social Work at the University ofQueensland, Dr Lorna Lippman, Victorian Director of Community Relations and Mr Dugald McLellan, freelance editor.

Don Edgar
Institute of Family Studies January 1985


  • Edgar, D. E. (1980), 'The treatment of ethnicity', Introduction to Australian Society: A Sociological Perspective, Ch. 11, Prentice-Hall, Sydney, pp. 276-304.
  • Institute of Family Studies (1980/81), Family Impact Seminar, Submissions (series), Melbourne.
  • Martin, J. I. (1972), Community and Identity, ANU Press, Canberra.
  • O'Grady, J. P . (1957), They're a Weird Mob, Ure Smith, Sydney.
  • Rist, R. C. (1979), 'Migration and marginality: guestworkers in Germany and France', Daedalus, Spring.
  • Wilton, J. and Bosworth, R. (1984), Old Worlds and New Australia, Penguin Books, Ringwood, Victoria.