The basic socioeconomic unit is the virilocal extended family, each of which occupies a single walled compound. Although this type of unit is the ideal, neolocality is actually more common. In the case of traditional aristocracy and royalty, the households included slaves, concubines, and numerous retainers and adopted children in addition to the nuclear family. At this social level, the household is not strictly a kin group, although the relations are patterned on kin relations, and kin terms are used.
Social relations in Kanuri society are generally patterned upon those of the idealized family, the most common being the father-son/superior-subordinate relation. A man's prestige is based on the size of his household and the number of his patron-client relationships. His followers provide farm and household labor, support, and defense; in return, he provides food, clothing, bride-price, and possibly a bride, to each of them. Given that a man's status increases or diminishes with that of his household, regardless of his position within it, there is a premium on loyalty to the master.
For men, marriage usually occurs first at about age 20, and for women, at about age 14. The preferred marriage for a man is to a young virgin, 10 to 14 years of age. But this is a very expensive form of marriage, and most men cannot afford it as a first marriage, when they are themselves usually in their late teens to mid-twenties. The more common first marriage is to a divorcée, for whom the bride-wealth payments are much lower. The rate of divorce is extremely high, approaching 80 percent of all marriages. In case of divorce, children stay with the father. Marriage between cousins sometimes occurs, a form that also results in a reduced bride-price.
In accordance with Islamic law, polygyny is permitted. Concubinage is also practiced, although far less commonly than polygyny. Ideally, married Kanuri women are secluded. This practice is rare in rural areas, where the economic role of women is vital, but it is rather common in large cities, such as Maiduguri.
Although agnatic relations take precedence for legal matters and inheritance, kin relations are recognized through both lines. Kin terms make no distinctions for agnates above the parental generation or for cousins, who are all classed as brothers and sisters. Agnates generally live together in their own wards within a city, town, or village. Although there are no corporate lineages as such, in the eyes of the law these groups of neighboring agnates are treated as corporate units, in the sense that they are responsible for the actions of their members. People without agnates upon whom they can depend are social outcasts.