Defining fatherhood in varying contexts and in drastically changing social landscapes

Written by Dr. Rineé Pretorius

Stephen Baskerville said: “Virtually every major social pathology has been linked to fatherlessness”.

Father. Fatherhood.

What are the first thoughts and feelings that come to mind when we hear ‘father’, or ‘fatherhood’?

For most of us, maybe we think of a biological father, and a protector or a provider. We might associate it with the captain of the family’s ship. The main man who is wise, knows what is going on, where the family is heading, and what to do when there is a storm brewing on the horizon. When we all instinctively look to him for guidance and direction, he calmly takes the wheel and directs his family to safer waters.

But is this a universal definition? And has this always been the way fatherhood has been defined and understood?

Much research has been done in recent years on the topic of fatherhood and also father-child relationships. We’re all probably also aware of the widespread debate around both the meaning and the importance of fatherhood in our social landscapes that are drastically changing (Lamb, 2010:ix).

For those of us who have been around for more than a few decades, it is also quite clear that patterns of parenting and child-rearing have changed in recent (in the last 50) years. As a result, the landscape and roles of relationships now include, not only biological fathers in ‘intact’ two parent families, but also stepfathers (married and unmarried), resident and non-resident biological fathers and adoptive fathers. One must also take into account that there is a focus on cultural variability in different countries (Lamb, 2010:ix), like for instance in Africa, and South Africa as a whole.

In order for us to come to a point where we are all on the same page in terms of what we mean, and what we don’t mean with the word ‘fatherhood’, let’s first take a look at how the meaning of this concept has been understood over centuries.

Let’s start with the western world, since most of the debates in the past were premised on the Western formulation of fatherhood in the context of the nuclear family. In much of the western world, the era after the 2nd world war could be viewed as politically conservative. The ‘traditional’ family, led by a breadwinning father and a home-making, child rearing mother, was advocated for. Today, there are thousands of professional articles written, which focus on the ways in which fathers affect their children’s development (Lamb, 2010:2).

What is it that fathers specifically do? Well, the roles that fathers play are informed by historical, cultural and familial ideologies and without a doubt shape the total amount of time fathers spend with their children, the activities they share with them and also possibly the quality of relationships between fathers and children (Lamb, 2010:2).

So, in earlier times, fathers were viewed as all powerful heads of their families who had a lot of power over them (their families). In most of the Western world, fathers were viewed primarily as moral teachers, and primarily responsible for ensuring that their children grew up with appropriate sense of values (acquired primarily from studying the Bible and other scriptural texts) (Lamb, 2010:2).

So, after that, during the time of industrialization in the 18th century, there was a shift in the definition of fatherhood from ‘moral leadership’ to breadwinning and economic support of the family.

Then, social scientists started portraying fathers as sex role mod els, with concern about the failures of many men to model masculine behavior to their sons. This was most probably as a result of the Great Depression in the 1930’s, which revealed many unfortunate men as poor providers.

During the 20th century fathers were encouraged to be involved and in late 1970’s a concern developed with the ‘new nurturant father’ who played an active role in children’s lives. Thus, the importance of involvement was increasingly underscored.

So, fathers play various important roles. They are companions, care providers, spouses, protectors, models, moral guides, teachers, and breadwinners. The importance of these different roles, however, vary across cultures and in different eras.

In order for us to evaluate a father’s impact on child development, we need to consider the fathers’ performance of the various roles, and how important the various roles are in the specific socio-ecological context.

This brings us to our context in South Africa.

Traditional African families and communities in our country share traditional African ways-of-being. In these traditional African contexts, a ‘parent’ is not necessarily a child’s biological mother/father. Because African children are likely to be raised in (Mkhize, 2006:187) a “family community” (i.e., a collective of immediate and extended relatives), in which social parent figures, (who can be any member of this community e.g., teachers, peers and/or neighbours) and father-figures (i.e., biological fathers, grandfathers, brothers and/or uncles) can take on a parent role to any of the community’s children (Theron & Van Rensburg, 2020:192).

In this context, studies typically describe both fathers and/or father-figures as making material/financial and/or educational/instructive contributions (Theron & Van Rensburg, 2020:196)

It is clear from the above description that the African contexts differ significantly in terms of the meaning of fatherhood and obviously fatherlessness as well. In the traditional African context, fatherhood has a lot to do with the experience of ‘being there’ (meaning quality of time and relationship between child and father rather than physical time together). And again, it is not only biological fathers who can ‘be there’ for their sons but also social fathers, other significant male role models and father figures who step in at different times in children’s lives when biological fathers are unavailable (Kopano et al., 2012:553).

Thus, in our South African context, people in different contexts will understand the meaning of fatherhood and therefore also fatherlessness differently. Yet, the importance of fatherhood remains and is crucial to a healthy society.

This is why we as Action Society are studying this phenomenon, since we understand all too well, and agree with Stephen Baskerville, who we also quoted at the beginning of this article: “Virtually every major social pathology has been linked to fatherlessness”. In few places in this world is this more evident than in our beloved South Africa.

Call to action: In our attempt to understand the phenomenon of fatherlessness and broken families in South Africa, we want to invite you to share your thoughts with us on what fatherhood means to you in your context. Your contribution will enrich our research and deepen our understanding in terms of this phenomenon.



Lamb, M.E.,   2010.   The role of the father in child development. 5th ed.,   John Wiley Inc. p656. (Date of access: 3 January 2022)


Mkhize, N.,  2006.   African traditions and the social, economic and moral dimensions of fatherhood. In L. Richter & R. Morrell (Eds.), Baba: Men and fatherhood in South Africa (pp. 183–198). Cape Town, RSA: HSRC Press.


Kopano, R., Shefer, T., & Clowes, L.,   2012.   Talking South African fathers: a critical examination of men’s constructions and experiences of fatherhood and fatherlessness.   In: South African Journal of Psychology, 42(2):553-563.


Theron, L., & van Rensburg, A.,  2020.  Parent-figures and adolescent resilience: an African perspective In: International Journal of School & Educational Psychology, 8(2):90-103.



Is there justice in SA?

At Action Society, we often see delays in the justice system. What do you think? Have you experienced this too?

Become a Society Superhero and help us to give a voice to the voiceless.

Action Society will protect and save all relevant personal information as described in the applicable legislation and shall only use such personal information for the purpose stated herein. With completing the above form you agree and confirm that Action Society may contact you in future. We thank you for your support.

Become an action hero by joining Action Society and help us give a voice to the voiceless.

Action Society will protect and save all relevant personal information as described in the applicable legislation and shall only use such personal information for the purpose stated herein. With completing the above form you agree and confirm that Action Society may contact you in future. We thank you for your support.