Originally, generally formed of one extended family or a clan of related families, the zadruga held its property, herds and money in common, with usually the oldest (patriarch) member ruling and making decisions for the family, though at times he would delegate this right at an old age to one of his sons.
Because the zadruga was based on a patrilocal system, when a girl married, she left her parents' zadruga and joined that of her husband. Within the zadruga, all of the family members worked to ensure that the needs of every other member were met.
The zadruga eventually went into decline beginning in the late 19th century, as the largest started to become unmanageable and broke into smaller zadrugas or formed villages. However, the zadruga system continues to color life in the Balkans; the typically intense concern for family found among South Slavs even today is partly due to centuries of living in the zadruga system. Many modern-day villages in the Balkans have their roots in a zadruga, a large number of them carrying the name of the one that founded them.
Villages and neighbourhoods that originated from zadrugas can often be recognized by the patronymic suffixes, such as -ivci, -evci, -ovci, -inci, -ci, -ane, -ene, etc., on their names.
This type of traditional, village style cooperation is similar to a late 19th-century Russian system called obshchina.
It has been debated whether the zadruga was actually as common historically as once assumed. Recent works have pointed out that the word zadruga itself originated only in 1818 and the scarcity of evidence for historical zadrugas.