There are a huge variety of familial relationships in the world. This is not new development. I have written about this issue a few times, especially about kinship systems and other types of relationships. For example, in many countries, there is a strong tradition of godparents. These people assume some of the responsibilities for the care and support of a child in some circumstances. So how do you show this relationship on a standard pedigree oriented family history program?
I returned to this topic, in part, as a result of a question asked by a person at the Mesa FamilySearch Library Conference I presented at this past week. The question was directed at the FamilySearch.org Family Tree program and the ability to enter data concerning an "alternative" marriage arrangement. Since the people in question were alive, I suggested using a desktop based program to record the information. But the question once again raises the issue of representing a huge number of other types of relationships in a way that documents how these relationships affect the family unit. It is analogous to having an electronic device that will receive only kind of electronic signal when there is a whole spectrum of signals out there.
Genealogy has traditionally focused on bloodlines. The "traditional" pedigree chart and family group records allow for one marriage per individual. The traditional way of handling multiple marriages was to create additional paper family group records for each family relationship. If both the husband and the wife had multiple marriages, you could end up with several family group records, all for the same two people. If one of my grandparents had a second spouse, for example, in the United States in our English-speaking culture, we would call the second spouse a "step-mother" or "step-grandmother" or some such designation. Culturally, we do not consider the stepparent's relationship to be equal to the biological parent's relationship, even if the stepparent provided all of the care for the children of the first wife. In polygamous families the relationships were even more complicated. The siblings may have been raised by different mothers, but the children considered themselves to be brothers and sisters. Sometimes, there was an acknowledgement that they were only "half siblings." But that designation usually came from the descendants, many of whom wished to ignore the relationships altogether due to the social stigma attached.
The graphic representations of these types of relationships tend to be minimized and somewhat obscured. For example, in the FamilySearch.org Family Tree program, you can select the "preferred" relationship and not view the alternative marriages etc.
In many cultures, you are not really related to your siblings spouses. In the United States, they are commonly designated as in-laws to emphasize that there is no "blood" relationship. However, the children of such relationships are "cousins" and are considered part of the family. What relationship do you have to your children's spouses' parents? You may or may not have any relationship with them and may not even know their names even though they are your grandchildren's grandparents. Some cultures extend these relationships much further than is commonly understood in European dominated culture in the United States. English does not even have words that indicate these relationships and, of course, the genealogy programs can show these people, but genealogists do not usually pursue research into "collateral" lines although there are exceptions.
The relationships shown in our genealogy programs highlight the collective view of one dominant cultural perspective. Perhaps is time to examine this bias and expand the viewpoint. From a research standpoint, our somewhat narrow view of the family structure limits our ability to focus on possible records. In fact, because we culturally reject some relationships, we are in essence ignoring a lot of our history.