Country Listing

Mongolia Table of Contents


Family Structure

Mongolians, unlike the settled agriculturalists to the south, have never valued complex extended families, and in the 1980s most lived in nuclear families composed of a married couple, their children, and perhaps a widowed parent. The high birthrate, however, meant that large families were common; the 1979 census showed 16 percent of families with 7 to 8 members and 11.8 percent with 9 or more (see table 4, Appendix). Urban families were larger than rural families, perhaps because rural people tended to marry and to set up new households at younger ages. The average size of rural families also may have reflected the high rates of migration to the cities.

Among traditional herders, each married couple occupied its own tent, and sons usually received their share of the family herd at the time of their marriage. The usual pattern was for one son, often, but not necessarily, the youngest, to inherit the headship of the parental herd and tent, while other sons formed new families with equivalent shares of the family herd; daughters married out to other families. Adult sons and brothers often continued their close association as members of the same herding camp, but they could leave to join other herding camps whenever they wished. In the 1980s, herders were likely to continue to work closely with patrilineal kins, and many of the basic level suuri, a subdivision of the negdel (see Glossary) herding camps, consisted of fathers and sons or groups of adult brothers and their families. Herders no longer inherited livestock from parents, but they did inherit membership in the herding cooperative. If cooperative officials granted custody of collectively owned animals and permission to hold privately owned stock on a family basis, which was how private plots were allotted in Soviet collective farms in the 1980s, then it would be to the advantage of newly married sons to declare themselves new families.

Family background continued to be an important component of social status in Mongolia, and social stratification had a certain implicit hereditary element. The shortage of skilled labor and the great expansion of white-collar occupations in the 1970s and the 1980s meant that families belonging to the administrative and professional elite were able to pass their status on to their many children, who acquired educational qualifications and professional jobs. At the other end of the social scale, no one but the children of herders became herders. Some herders' children, perhaps as many as half, moved into skilled trades or administrative positions, while the rest remained with the flocks.

Modern family life differed from that before the 1950s because the children of most herders were away from their families for most of year. Between the ages of seven and fifteen, they stayed in boarding schools at the somon center. Most Mongolian women were in the paid work force, and many (in 1989 there were no complete figures) infants and young children were looked after on a daily or weekly basis in day-care centers or in all-day or boarding kindergartens. The efforts to bring women into the formal work force and to educate the dispersed herders resulted in separation of parents and children on a large scale. There was some historical precedent for this in the practice of sending young boys to monasteries as apprentice lamas, which had previously been the only way to obtain a formal education for them.

Data as of June 1989