What is a family?
Questioning the basic concept of family is a relatively new phenomenon, though variations in
what we consider a "family" are not.
There are so many variations of "family" today that it is hard to define what, exactly, a family is.
● Generally, we think of a family as a domestic group of people, or a number of domestic groups
linked through descent from: (1) a common ancestor, (2) marriage, (3) adoption, or (4) some
other committed (romantic or otherwise) relationship. While many families have some form of
kinship, many others possess no such tie.
But society increasingly accepts a number of variations on family forms. Consider each of the
– an elderly man and his twelve cats
– a cohabiting gay, lesbian, or asexual couple with three foster children
– a mixed group of singles sharing a town home in a large city
– a close knit fraternity or sorority
– a small group of soldiers fighting in a foreign country
– a collection of orphans or runaways sharing a residence
● The structure of families traditionally hinges on relations between parents and children, between
spouses, between members of long term relationships (romantic, economic or otherwise) or all of
the above. T
● There is substantial variation in family forms around the world, varying from culture to culture.
The most common form of romantic relationship tied to family structure in the Western World is
monogamy, which is the practice of having only one spouse or committed romantic partner at a
Another prevalent form is polygamy, which broadly refers to any form of marriage in which a
person has more than one spouse.
● Historically, polygamy has been practiced as polygyny (one man having more than one wife), as
polyandry (one woman having more than one husband), or, less commonly, as "polygamy" (having
many wives and many husbands at one time).
● Another practice is polyamory, which refers to the acceptance, desire, and experience of more
than one intimate relationship at a time with the consent of all involved
Changes Over Time
● Family structures of some kind are found in every society.
Pairing off into formal or informal relationships (often referred to as marriages) originated in hunter-gatherer
groups to forge networks of cooperation beyond the immediate family.
Intermarriage between groups, tribes, or clans was often political or strategic and resulted in reciprocal
obligations between the two groups represented by the marital partners.
With the advent of sedentary societies, marriage became one of the central institutions for forging economic
and political relationships and was no longer viewed, at least among the aristocracy, as a relationship that
should be based on love, companionship, or sexual attraction.
● Among the aristocratic elite, marriage became a means of developing alliances or amassing wealth. For the
non-elites, marriage was a pragmatic way of supporting oneself: it was easier to survive if resources (i.e., food,
labor power, childcare responsibilities, etc.) were pooled between several people.
Modern forms of family structure and marriage in the West have their roots in Christian philosophy and practice.
● The nuclear family emerged during the late medieval period and was formalized during the Council of Trent, in
which marriage was defined as, "The conjugal union of man and woman, contracted between two qualified
persons, which obliges them to live together throughout life."
While a variety of family structures continue to exist around the world today, including polygamous and
polygynous families in many societies, the predominant form is built upon monogamous sexual and emotional
The Function of Families
● The primary function of the procreative families (e.g., families built around the pursuit of parenthood)
is to reproduce society, biologically through procreation, socially through socialization, or in both
● The primary functions of non-procreative families (e.g., families that are built around pursuits and
desires that do not involve parenthood) is to facilitate social, economic, emotional, and interpersonal
support networks, combine resources for the pursuit of financial gain and / or stability, formalize long
term commitments to one another and to larger familial and social networks, claim some of the
rights, benefits and privileges granted to procreative families in many countries, and / or adhere to
religious / spiritual beliefs about emotional-sexual commitment, trajectory, and purpose.
The Family Life Cycle
● Death and Widowing
Families and Inequality
While heterosexual marriage does increase the socioeconomic status of women, men reap
many benefits from this type of living arrangement.
Many women manage a household's finances, butmen generally retain control of the money.
As a result, when heterosexual couples divorce, women are much less affluent and a large
percentage of divorced, single women fall below poverty lines.
● Men also obtain greater mental health benefits from heterosexual marriage than do women
and report greater marital satisfaction than do women.
The greater marital satisfaction heterosexual men report is likely the result of the benefits they
receive from marriage - companionship and household labor - while not having to sacrifice
occupational success or career advancement.
● Heterosexual married women, on the other hand, do often have to sacrifice occupational
success or career advancement, leading to many highly skilled women leaving the workforce.
Heterosexual married women also have higher rates of mental illness than do single,
widowed, and divorced women.
The benefits of heterosexual marriage tend to favor men over women.
New Developments in Families
One recent trend illustrating the changing nature of families is the rise in prevalence of
single-parent or one-parent households.
While somewhat more common prior to the 20th century due to the more frequent deaths of
spouses, in the late 19th and early 20th century, the nuclear family (husband, wife, and kids)
became the societal norm in most Western nations.
In the 1950s, most people believed that single-parent households were "immoral," but by
1978, only 25% of Americans held that belief.
Legal reforms in the 1960s and 1970s expanded the rights of nonmarital children and unwed
mothers, breaking down the distinction between "legitimate" and "illegitimate".
By 1997, 40% of births to unmarried American women were intentional, and, despite a still
prominent gender gap in pay, women are able to survive as single mothers.
However, despite their ability to support their children, single parents often struggle financially
to make ends meet.
Cohabitation is an intimate relationship which includes a common living place and which
exists without the benefit of legal, cultural, or religious sanction.
Several common reasons that lead couples and groups to decide to live together include:
– wanting to test compatibility or establish financial security before marrying
– a desire to live as married when same-sex marriages and / or polyamory are not legal
– living with someone before marriage as a way to avoid divorce
– a way for polygamists to avoid anti-polygamy laws
– a way to avoid the higher income taxes paid by some 2-income married couples (in the United States)
– seeing little difference between the commitment to live together and the commitment of marriage
● While homosexuality has existed for thousands of years among both
humans and other animals, formal marriages between gay / lesbian
partners is a relatively recent phenomenon.
● As of the summer of 2014, 19 states and the District of Columbia
allow same-sex couples to legally marry, but - especially following
the dismissal of half of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) by the
Supreme Court in 2013 - many states are shifting their legal
opinions on this matter at present and cases continually work
through the legal system.