Thursday, June 30, 2011


Family is the basic unit of social organization in all human societies. Since prehistoric times, families have served as the primary institution responsible for raising children, providing people with food and shelter, and satisfying people's need for love and support.

The term family generally refers to a group of people related to one another by birth, marriage, or adoption. In contemporary society, people often apply the word family to any group that feels a sense of kinship (family connection).

Varieties of families

Family types vary in different countries and among different cultures. In Western, industrialized societies, the nuclear family ranks as the most common family type. It consists of a father, a mother, and their children. But nuclear families exist alongside many other types of family units. In the single-parent family, for example, a mother or a father heads the family alone. A blended family is formed when a divorced or widowed parent remarries. As divorce rates have risen, the number of single-parent and blended families has increased.

An increasingly common family form in Western societies is the consensual union, in which couples live together but remain unmarried. When a homosexual couple decides to live together as a family, they form a same-sex union. Although such unions have become more common, most countries do not recognize them as legal families. People often call a married couple whose children have grown up and left home an empty-nest family.

In many parts of the world, parents and children live together with other family members under the same roof. These complex families usually contain several generations of family members, including grandparents, parents, and children. They may also include brothers or sisters and their families, uncles, aunts, and cousins. Even when relatives do not live together, they still consider themselves members of the same extended family. In Latin American and Hispanic American cultures, the extended family, or la familia, includes grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins.

Some cultures follow a traditional practice called polygamy, in which a person can have more than one spouse (husband or wife). The two chief forms of polygamy are polygyny and polyandry. In polygyny, a man marries more than one woman. In polyandry, a woman has more than one husband.

Since the early 1800's, various utopian communities have attempted to create substitutes for the nuclear family. Utopian communities are groups of people who want to create an ideal society in which everyone will be happy. The Oneida community, which flourished in rural New York state from the 1840's to the late 1870's, considered all its adult citizens married to one another. Oneida children were raised by the community as a whole. Among the aims of such utopian communities was to modify the rigid family roles of husband and wife and so that women could participate more equally in society.

Family relationships

Family members can be related to one another by blood-that is, by birth; by affinity-that is, through marriage; or through adoption. Most nuclear families consist of a father, a mother, and their biological children (children born to them). When a couple adopts a child, the child becomes a member of their family. Brothers and sisters who share the same parents are siblings. Half brothers and half sisters share either the same biological mother or biological father. When divorced or widowed parents remarry, the parent's new spouse becomes the children's stepfather or stepmother. Children from the couple's previous marriages become stepbrothers and stepsisters to one another.

When people marry, they gain a new set of relatives called in-laws. The mother of a person's spouse is called a mother-in-law, the brother is called a brother-in-law, and so on throughout the rest of the family.

The parents of a person's mother or father are that person's grandparents. Great-grandparents are the parents of a person's grandparents. An aunt is the sister of a person's mother or father. An uncle is the brother of a parent. An uncle's wife is also called aunt, and an aunt's husband is also called uncle. A first cousin is the child of a person's aunt or uncle. The child of a first cousin is a person's first cousin once removed-that is, removed by one generation. Children of first cousins are second cousins to each other.

Some people consider certain friends as part of their family because they feel special affection for them. Though these friends are not true family members, such friends are called fictive kin, and family members might call them "aunts" or "uncles." Relatives or close friends of a parent may become godparents to that parent's children. Godparents, as sponsors to a Christian baptism, often play more vital roles in the lives of families than other fictive kin. In Latin American and Hispanic American families, godparents, or compadres, provide advice, emotional support, and assistance in times of need.

Importance of the family

Family functions. Families perform many necessary functions, both for individual family members and for society as a whole. In virtually all cultures, the family serves as the basic institution for bearing children, caring for them during their early years, and preparing them to function effectively in society. Families around the world must also provide food and clothing to their members. In addition, families meet important psychological needs, such as the need for love, support, and companionship.

The family's duties have changed over time. In the past, families not only cared for the young but also grew their own food, made their own clothing, and provided services for themselves that modern families generally do not provide. Parents taught reading, writing, and craft skills to their children. Families also cared for sick and elderly relatives and often provided financial support for members in need. Since the 1800's, many of these traditional responsibilities have shifted to such institutions as schools, hospitals, insurance companies, and nursing homes.

Roles within the family have also changed. Traditionally, the father was expected to take up an occupation to support his wife and children. The mother, in turn, ran the home and cared for the children. Today, however, both parents commonly work outside the home, and fathers often perform household duties formerly expected of women.

Home life. The home is the center of family activities. These activities include raising children, eating meals, playing games, watching television, keeping house, and entertaining friends. In the home, children learn basic social skills, such as how to talk and get along with others. They also learn health and safety habits there.

A family's home life is influenced by which members live in the home and by the roles each member plays. Home life can also be affected by relatives who live outside the family's home. Traditions, laws, and social conditions help determine who lives in a home and the place each family member holds.

Traditions, which are customs or beliefs that people have followed for a long time, strongly influence family life. For example, some Americans have little contact with relatives outside the nuclear family. But many Chinese families feel strong ties to such relatives and see them often. Aunts, uncles, and cousins traditionally play important roles in the lives of these people.

Laws affect family behavior in various ways. Some set forth the legal rights and responsibilities people have as husbands, wives, parents, and children. In many Western nations, laws forbid abuse of children by parents, and of one spouse by the other. Laws also deal with marriage, divorce, and adoption.

Social conditions can also influence family life. For example, in cultures that discourage women from working outside the home, mothers become full-time homemakers, while men act as the sole wage earners.

Development of the family

Ancient families. Most ancient societies had no term exactly the same as our modern word for family. This was because ancient families varied widely in their size and structure depending on social class. The wealthiest households contained dozens of kinsfolk, servants, and slaves. At the same time, slaves and poor free people had no opportunity to establish independent homes.

Ancient families had strict arrangements of higher- and lower-ranking persons. In Ancient Roman society, which flourished around 2,000 years ago, the male head of the family, or paterfamilias, had absolute authority. Under Roman law, he could sell his children, abandon them, or even put them to death. Male heads of families arranged marriages in most ancient societies. Fathers often contracted daughters to marry at young ages. In Ancient Greek culture, which reached its height during the mid-400's B.C., the average marriage age of women ranged between 12 and 15, while many men married at about age 30.

The ancient world permitted a variety of family practices that most people would condemn today. In ancient Greece and Rome, for example, parents could leave handicapped or sickly infants outdoors to die, a practice called exposure. In ancient Egypt, which arose about 5,000 years ago, men could marry their sisters. Most cultures today consider such marriages incest and prohibit them by law.

Ancient cultures also permitted easy divorce and often practiced polygyny and concubinage (the practice of a husband living with a woman who was not his legal wife). Polygyny and concubinage enabled a powerful or wealthy family to have children when the man's first wife failed to produce an heir, a child who could inherit the family's wealth.

Development of the Western family. Christianity played a critical role in the emergence of new family patterns. At the beginning of the Christian era, as early as the A.D. 300's, family patterns in Western Europe began to diverge from those in the non-Western world. Western European families placed an emphasis on the bond between husband and wife, as opposed to broader kinship relationships.

The Christian Church encouraged young people to remain celibate (unmarried) and to enter religious orders. During the early Christian era, a growing number of women in Western Europe never married or bore children. The Church also condemned the exposure of infants and opposed concubinage, polygyny, arranged marriages, marriages with close kin, and divorce. The Church insisted that marriages could not be dissolved by divorce, helping make the nuclear family more important than in the past.

During the Middle Ages in Europe, which lasted from about the A.D. 400's through the 1400's, the wealthiest households could contain 40 or more people. These inhabitants included such nonrelatives as pages (boys from wealthy families in training to become knights) and servants. But the average medieval household was much smaller, containing about four or five members. Most families lived in cramped houses that lacked privacy. Relatives often shared beds and used the same rooms for working, entertaining, cooking, eating, storage, and sleeping.

Medieval households were productive units. Wives cooked, preserved food, made textiles and clothing, tended gardens, and brewed beer. In addition to farming, many husbands engaged in such crafts as carpentry, ironworking, and barrel-making.

Family life in medieval Europe was unstable. Famine, plagues, and other calamities caused a radical decline in population. Because most parents worked much of the day, young children received little supervision. Economic pressures forced many parents to send their children away from home at young ages, often before the age of 8. Numerous children became servants in private homes, apprentices in business, or workers for the Church. Because of the high death rate, many people remarried. A large number of marriages involved partners who had been married before. Consequently, numerous medieval families contained stepparents and stepchildren.

During the 1500's, Protestant reformers often criticized the Roman Catholic Church for permitting certain family practices. These practices included allowing young people to marry without parental consent, forbidding clergy to marry, and prohibiting divorce and remarriage when marriages broke down. Many Protestant societies, including those in Puritan New England, required parental consent to make a marriage valid and instituted laws against wife beating and adultery. Protestant countries recognized a right to divorce with remarriage in cases of abandonment, adultery, and extreme physical cruelty.

Early Western families in America. During America's colonial period, which lasted from the 1500's to 1775, the family served many functions. It educated children, cared for the elderly and sick, taught job skills to the young, and functioned as the economic center of production. Every person was strongly urged to live in a family. In some parts of New England, the government taxed bachelors, and other sanctions were imposed on those who did not marry. Married couples who lived apart from each other had to show good reason.

American families in the 1600's were led by the father. He had to give his legal consent before his children could marry. His control over inheritance kept his grown sons and daughters dependent upon him for years, while they waited for his permission to marry and to establish a separate household.

Early Americans did not consider love a requirement for marriage, and couples assumed that love would follow marriage. Relations between spouses tended to be formal. Husbands and wives treated each other with correct, serious manners rather than the relaxed, friendly way families interact today.

African American families under slavery faced unique problems in early America. Many states refused to recognize slave marriages as legal. Moreover, about a third of all slave marriages were broken by sale, and about half of all slave children were sold from their parents. Even when sale did not break the marriage, slave spouses often resided on separate plantations. On large plantations, a slave father might have a different owner than his wife had, and he could visit his wife and family only with his master's permission.

Despite all these obstacles, enslaved African Americans forged strong family and kinship ties. Most slaves married and lived with the same spouse until death. To sustain a sense of family identity, slaves named their children after parents, grandparents, and other kin. Enslaved African Americans also passed down family names to their children, usually the name of an ancestor's owner rather than that of the current owner. Ties to an immediate family stretched outward to an involved network of extended kin. Whenever children were sold to neighboring plantations, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins took on the functions of parents. Strangers cared for and protected children who had lost their blood relatives.

Changes. During the mid-1700's, family life in colonial America and parts of Europe underwent far-reaching changes. Children were given more freedom in selecting their own spouse. This freedom led people to view marriage increasingly as an emotional bond involving love and affection. Spouses displayed affection for each other more openly. In addition, parents became more interested in their children's development. Instead of viewing children as miniature adults, parents regarded children as people with special needs and began to buy them children's books, games, and toys.

During the early 1800's, many middle-class families became able to rely on a single wage-earner, where the husband worked outside the home and the wife served as a full-time homemaker and mother. Many of these families could now afford to keep their children home into their late teens, instead of sending them out as servants and apprentices. By the mid-1800's, such family events as the vacation and the birthday party had appeared.

For many working-class families, however, low wages and a lack of year-round employment meant that all family members had to work. All members of a working-class family had to help earn a living. Wives did piecework in the home, took in laundry, or rented rooms to boarders. Many working-class families depended on the labor of children.

By the end of the 1800's, many people in Western societies had become worried about what was happening to the family. The divorce rate was rising. Infant and child death rates were high, with as many as a third of children dying by the age of 15. Meanwhile, more and more Western women never married, and the birth rate had fallen sharply during the 1800's. Instead of bearing seven or more children, as women had in 1800, a typical middle-class woman in the United States bore only three.

At the beginning of the 1900's, groups of people fought to improve the well-being of families and children. To reduce children's death rate, these reformers lobbied for an end to child labor. They also fought for special pensions (government payments) to enable widows to raise their children at home, instead of sending them to orphanages.

As more people grew concerned about strengthening families, a new family ideal became popular by the 1920's. This ideal, called the companionate family, held that husbands and wives should be "friends and lovers" and that parents and children should be "pals."

During the Great Depression of the 1930's, unemployment, lower wages, and the demands of needy relatives tore at the fabric of family life. Many people had to share living quarters with relatives, delay marriage, and put off having children. The divorce rate fell because fewer people could afford one, but many fathers deserted their families. Families sought to cope by planting gardens, canning food, and making clothing. Children worked in part-time jobs, and wives worked outside the home or took in sewing or laundry. Many families housed lodgers, and some set up a small grocery store in a front parlor.

World War II (1939-1945) also subjected families to severe strain. During the war, families faced a severe shortage of housing, a lack of schools and child-care facilities, and prolonged separation from loved ones. When fathers went to war, mothers ran their homes and cared for their children alone, and women went to work in war industries. The stresses of wartime contributed to an increase in the divorce rate. Many young people became unsupervised "latchkey children," returning from school each day to an empty home, and rates of juvenile delinquency rose.

The late 1940's and 1950's witnessed a sharp reaction to the stresses of the Great Depression and World War II. The divorce rate slowed, and couples married earlier than their parents had. Women bore more children at younger ages and closer together than in the past. The result was a "baby boom."

Since the mid-1900's, families in all Western countries have undergone far-reaching changes. From the 1960's to the 1980's, birth rates dropped and divorce rates rose considerably. In addition, mothers entered the labor force in record numbers, and a growing proportion of children were born to unmarried mothers. The pace of familial change slowed during the late 1900's and early 2000's, but family life remains considerably altered from what it was before the 1960's.

Non-Western families. Traditionally, non-Western societies have attached less importance to the nuclear family than to the larger family network. People in this network, which is often called the lineage, clan, or tribe, trace their descent to a common ancestor. In many parts of the world, kinship ties determine whom one can and cannot marry and where one lives after marriage. Different kinds of societies have produced different extended family traditions. The three major kinds of societies are known as patrilineal, matrilineal, and bilateral kinship.

In patrilineal societies, including many in India, China, and various African countries, a husband and wife commonly reside with the husband's father and his kin after marriage. In matrilineal cultures, such as the Navajo and the Pueblo of the American Southwest, a husband joins his wife's mother's household. Within matrilineal societies, a mother's older brother often has responsibility for disciplining children and offering advice about marriage. In cultures with a bilateral kinship system, such as that of the Inuit (Eskimos), a couple might join either the husband's father's family or the wife's mother's family, or form an independent household.

Forms of marriage have also differed across cultures. Some societies, including many African cultures, allow men to take more than one wife. In such societies, only the wealthiest males can afford polygyny. Many societies, such as those of China and India, also practiced arranged marriages and child marriage (marriage at or before puberty). In addition, numerous non-Western cultures permitted divorce and remarriage long before Western countries legalized such practices. A number of predominantly Catholic countries did not permit divorce and remarriage until the late 1900's.

Since the mid-1900's, families around the world have become more similar. Birth rates are dropping, divorce rates are rising, increasing numbers of homes are headed by women, and more births are taking place outside of marriage. As societies allow more personal choice, child marriage, arranged marriages, polygyny, and concubinage have become less common.

Challenges and opportunities

Public concern about the family remains high for many reasons. High rates of teen-age pregnancy and births to unmarried mothers force many young women to leave school or abandon career plans. Children from such families often grow up in poverty and are more likely to turn to crime. Drug and alcohol use and domestic violence also plague many families and lead to developmental disorders in children.

With both mothers and fathers in many families working, parents struggle to find enough time to spend with their children. Working parents who can afford to may send their children to day care, but such parents often feel guilty that they do not spend enough time with their children. Those who cannot afford to or do not choose to use day care often have to leave their jobs or take cuts in pay. The resulting loss of income makes it harder for them to keep up their standard of living. For poorer parents, such a cut in earnings can be devastating.

Although not a new problem, divorce remains an important challenge for families to overcome. Most men and women who seek a divorce do so because they cannot solve certain problems in their marriage. Such problems may include differences in goals or financial difficulty. If such problems remain unsolved, the marriage often breaks down. Divorce can affect every member of the family deeply. Children, for example, may grow up in a fatherless or motherless home. If one or both of the parents remarry, the children may not develop loving relationships with their new stepparents.

Despite the challenges of today's society, however, the family is not a dying institution. In many respects, family life today is stronger than it was in the past. Most people marry and have children. While divorce rates are higher than in the past, most individuals who do divorce eventually remarry.

Because of declining death rates, more couples now grow into old age together, and more children have living grandparents. These relatives generally live much farther away from each other than they did in the past. However, e-mail and other communications technology may promote greater contact between separated family members.

Meanwhile, parents now make greater emotional and economic investment in their children. Lower birth rates mean that parents can devote more attention and greater financial resources to each child. Fathers especially have become more involved in child rearing.

More than ever before, families in trouble can receive help from a variety of outside sources, such as a family counselor, a social worker, or a psychologist. Such specialists often meet with the entire family to help its members work out problems together. Public welfare agencies and other groups provide economic aid to poor families and assistance to abused spouses or children.

In the future, families will continue to face many challenges, especially the need to balance the demands of work and family life. Working parents must not only care for their young children, but, because of increasing life spans, tend to aging parents as well.


1.     What are the three major kinds of extended families?
2.     What responsibilities do parents have toward their children?
3.     How was family life affected as Western nations became increasingly industrialized in the 1700's and 1800's?
4.     How are second cousins related to each other?
5.     What is a nuclear family?
6.     Who are in-laws?
7.     What are some functions the family fulfills in society?
8.     What are some reasons for the changes in traditional family patterns?
9.     What was a companionate family?
10.  How did Christianity affect the development of the Western family?

Contributor: Steven Mintz, Ph.D., Associate Professor of History, University of Houston.