(Author’s Note: First off, I have always wanted to use the phrase Author’s Note to open a work. Secondly, this work was written over the span of two months. What this actually means is I wrote half of it in August, stopped, and wrote half last week. This may be slightly disjointed, or I may have started out intending to cover more than I did. I apologize for any inconsistencies as a result of that. This is also my most unsupported conjecture to date, so I’m kind of nervous about that. Without further ado, the actual post.)
Disclaimer: This is both known lore and conjecture.
As a result of their ostracism by the Aldmer upon the Transformation to Orsimer, the family is of utmost importance to all Orsimer, goblins and ogres and Orcs alike. However, given that goblins are known to live in large, rather self-contained clans, and little is known about ogres, there is not much to write on them, and so this will focus almost solely on the Orcs.
Orcs live primarily in five “native” locations: the four Strongholds of Skyrim (Mor Khazgur, Largashbur, Narzulbur, and Dushnik Yal) and Orsinium (also known as Nova Orsinium after the latest sack by Hammerfell/High Rock and relocation closer to Skyrim), but can also be found throughout major cities of Skyrim, High Rock, and Cyrodiil.
Orcs maintain highly close-knit families and social groups. Non-Orcs are also welcome, provided they earn their place. We see in Skyrim some evidence of family matters, such as the interactions between various Orcs in dialogue and behavior, and Gharol’s Request in Dushnik Yal.
The Stronghold family structure is comprised of the Chieftain and his wives, typically two or three. The wives take on roles of specialists in one of the areas the Stronghold requires for sustenance: alchemy, hunting, forging, or shamanism. In Dushnik Yal we see the current chief’s mother retaining her roles of alchemist and shaman, and two of his wives filling the forge-wife and hunts-wife roles. His third wife appears to be solely a marriage of prize or love and not for duty, showing that Orcs are not slaves to duty.
Dushnik Yal is the best source in Skyrim of Orcish family life, as Mor Khazgur has a much simpler and smaller family tree, Narzulbur is more fragmented, and Largashbur seems populated by non-relatives, perhaps due to Malacath’s curse.
Begin conjecture-on-lore and pure conjecture
(Nova) Orsinium is another matter entirely. Whereas the Strongholds appear to be a large family or small clan (assuming again that Skyrim in lore is larger than Skyrim in game, and that the games show a representative sample), Orsinium would be a village-to-town sized community with outlying lands and population, and so the self-contained family model is not applicable.
Social structure in Orsinium is a collection of large clans, each of which is a group of large families linked by ancestral siblings, and in each large family are smaller familial groups of mother-father-children. Uncles or aunts without families of their own may also live with a core group. Grandparents are a rarity, as Orcs typically do not live long enough for their children to bear children. (Orcs become adults young, around fourteen, by necessity, but childbearing is reserved until the early to middle twenties.)
The polyamory of Stronghold Chieftains appears to be an arrangement only they use, as non-Chieftain Orc couples appear to be solely monogamous. Homosexuality is not discussed openly as yet and so little can be said about it, but there appears to be a divide between sex and coupling. It is entirely likely that there are sexless marriages and extramarital sex, without creating social stigma. Orcs are a very physical and emotional people, as seen in their passions for the fight and the hunt, as well as their attitudes towards their metal (Gharol of Dushnik Yal), and so sexual activity is likely treated similarly. This is not to say that Orcs are promiscuous or voracious; although they welcome brawls, any who walk around seeking to fight each person they see would be seen as crass and low, and it stands to reason that sex receives the same attitudes.
Orcs have a strong sense of community and typically value the community over the individual. Children are raised by the community as a whole; this is especially true in Orsinium, where the larger number of children necessitates group learning from instructors rather than a more one-on-one or one-on-few dialogue such as may be maintained in the Strongholds. This may also be related to the custom of children inheriting their parent’s name, though which tradition emerged first is unknown. As the young mature, they separate into their various professions, and have the choice of leaving the tribe to explore the world, or stay home and work. Wandering Orcs are strongly encouraged to send portions of their proceeds to their home tribe, and Orcs in the Stronghold or Orsinium tithe accordingly.
The rapid development of Orsimeri youth means that they are considered adults in their mid-teens. Orcs marry and work early in life, as they are typically dead by forty, and reaching sixty is near legend. By the time females are fourteen to sixteen, and males fifteen to eighteen, they have chosen a profession and, in all likelihood, a mate. As with the stated exception of the Stronghold Cheiftains, Orcs form bonded pairs and mate for life. Orc couples largely do not follow the human tradition of the family, where the male is primarily away from home in his work and the female is either a homemaker or a domestic worker, but rather allow each to continue their chosen profession. Having childraising delegated to the community as a whole rather than the individual family unit allows for greater professional freedom of the parents, and the tribe’s elders are often far more qualified to raise the young than are the parents. While Orcs reach physical maturity quickly, by Tamrielic standards their minds take far longer to reach what men and mer consider full adulthood.
The decrease in importance of the biological parents to the raising of the child does not weaken the family bond, however. Orc young still spend as much time as possible with their parents, assuming that is possible, and the inheritance of parental names reinforces the bond. Furthermore, the clan structure of the Orc tribes ensures that each Orc knows his own place in the social web, and given the elevated levels of violence in Orcish custom, knowing that there are two adults who will always be allies is of great import.
In summary, Orcish culture has developed a strong familial tradition, both of the nuclear parents-children unit and of the clan and tribe groups. Although the millennia-old reason for this, constant threat of destruction, is lessened since the events of the late Third and early Fourth eras, the social structure of the Orcs shows no signs of changing. The clans and tribe take it upon themselves to raise children communally, typically by the elders as well as the parents, while the parents work for the betterment of the tribe. Because of the rapid turnover of Orcish life, youth to adult in fifteen years, adult to elder in twenty, it is essential that each generation is raised quickly and thoroughly, and the communal structure far outstrips the individual family in this regard. Furthermore, the Orcish family bond is a near-unbreakable force, and it has been frequently documented that to foolishly attack one Orc is to invite the fury of his whole family.