Encyclopedia > Family

  Article Content


This article is about the domestic group. There is also an article titled family (biology)
The term family generally refers to a domestic group, or a number of domestic groups linked through descent (demonstrated or stipulated) from a common ancestor, marriage, or adoption.

In Western culture, family refers specifically to a group of people affiliated by blood or by legal ties such as marriage or adoption. Many anthropologists argue that the notion of "blood" must be understood metaphorically; some argue that there are many non-Western societies where family is understood through other concepts rather than "blood."

Table of contents

Family cross-culturally

According to sociology and anthropology, the primary function of the family is to reproduce society, both (or either) biologically and (or) socially. Thus, one's experience of one's family shifts over time. From the perspective of children, the family is a family of orientation: the family serves to locate children socially, and plays a major role in their enculturation and socialization. From the point of view of the parent(s), the family is a family of procreation the goal of which is to produce and enculturate and socialize children. However, producing children is not the only function of the family. In societies with a sexual division of labor, marriage, and the resulting relationship between a husband and wife, is necessary for the formation of an economically productive household. In modern societies marriage entails particular rights and privilege that encourage the formation of new families even when there is no intention of having children.

The structure of families traditionally hinges on relations between parents and children, between spouses, or both. Consequently, there are three major types of family: matrifocal, consanguinal, and conjugal. (Note: these are ideal families. In all societies there are acceptable deviations from the ideal or statistical norm, owing either to incidental circumstances, such as the death of a member of the family or infertility, or personal preferences).

A matrifocal family consists of a mother and her children. Generally, these children are her biological offspring, although adoption of children is a practice in nearly every society. This kind of family is common where women have the resources to rear their children by themselves, or where men are more mobile than women.

A consanguinal family consists of a mother and her children, and other people -- usually the family of the mother. This kind of family is common where mothers do not have the resources to rear their children on their own, and especially where property is inherited. When important property is owned by men, consanguinal families commonly consist of a husband and wife, their children, and other members of the husband's family.

A conjugal family consists of one or more mothers and their children, and/or one or more spouses (usually husbands). This kind of family is common where men desire to assert control over children, or where there is a sexual division of labor requiring the participation of both men and women, and where families are relatively mobile.

Family in the West The preceding types of families are found in a wide variety of settings, and their specific functions and meanings depend largely on their relationship to other social institutions. Sociologists are espcecially interested in the function and status of these forms in stratified, especially capitalist, societies.

Non-scholars, especially in the United States and Europe, also use the term "nuclear family" to refer to conjugal families. Sociologists distinguish between conjugal families that are relatively independent of the kindreds of the parents, and of other families in general, and nuclear families which maintain relatively close ties with their kindreds.

Non-scholars, especially in the United States and Europe, also use the term extended family. This term has two distinct meanings. First, it is used synonymously with consanguinal family. Second, in societies dominated by the conjugal family, it is used to refer to kindred (an egocentric network of relatives that extends beyond the domestic group) who do not belong to the conjugal family.

These types refer to ideal or normative structures found in particular societies. In any society there is some variation in the actual composition and conception of families. Much sociological, historical, and anthropological research is dedicated to understanding this variation, and changes over time in the family form. Thus, some speak of the bourgeois family, a family structure arising out of 16th and 17th century European households, in which the center of the family is a marriage between a man and woman, with strictly defined gender roles. The man typically is responsible for income and support, the woman for home and family matters. In contemporary Europe and the United States, people in both the academy, politics, and civil society have called attention to single-father-headed households, and families headed by same-sex couples, although academics point out that these forms exist in other societies.

Kinship terminology A kinship terminology is a specific system of familial relationships. The anthropologist Louis Henry Morgan argued that kinship terminologies reflect different sets of distinctions. For example, most kinship terminologies distinguish between genders (this is the difference between a brother and a sister) and between generation (this is the difference between a sister and a mother). Moreover, he argued, kinship terminologies distinguish between relatives by blood and marriage (although recently some anthropologists have argued that many societies define kinship in terms other than "blood").

But Morgan also observed that different languages (and thus, societies) organize these distinctions differently. He thus proposed to describe kin terms and terminologies as either descriptive or classificatory. "Descriptive" terms refer to only one type of relationship, while "clasificatory" terms refer to many types of relationships. Most kinship terminologies include both descriptive and classificatory terms. For example, in Western societies there is only one way to be related to one's brother (brother = parents' son); thus, in Western society, brother is a descriptive term. But there are many ways to be related to one's cousin (cousin = mother's brother's son, mother's sister's son, father's brother's son, father's sister's son, and so on); thus, in Western society, "cousin" is a classificatory term.

Morgan discovered that what may be a descriptive term in one society can be a classificatory term in another society. For example, in some societies there are many different people that one would call "mother" (the woman of whom one was born, as well as her sister and husband's sister, and also one's father's sister). Moreover, some societies do not lump together relatives that the West classifies together (in other words, in some languages there is no word for cousin because mother's sister's children and father's sister's children are referred to in different terms).

Armed with these different terms, Morgan identified six basic patterns of kinship terminologies:

  • Hawaiian: the most classificatory; only distinguishes between gender and generation.
  • Sudanese: the most descriptive; no two relatives are referred to by the same term.
  • Eskimo: has both classificatory and descriptive terms; in addition to gender and generation, also distinguishes between lineal relatives (who are related directly by a line of decent) and collateral relatives (who are related by blood, but not directly in the line of descent). Lineal relatives have highly descriptive terms, collateral relatives have highly classificatory terms.
  • Iroquois: has both classificatory and descriptive terms; in addition to gender and generation, also distinguishes between siblings of opposite sexes in the parental generation. Siblings of the same sex are considered blood relatives, but siblings of the opposite sex are considered relatives by marriage. Thus, one's mother's sister is also called mother, and one's father's brother is also called father. But one's mother's brother is called father-in-law, and one's father's sister is called mother-in-law.
  • Crow: like Iroqois, but furhter distinguishes between mother's side and father's side. Relatives on the mother's side of the family have more descriptive terms, and relatives on the father's side have more classificatory terms.
  • Omaha: like Iroqois, but further distinguishes between mother's side and father's side. Relatives on the mother's side of the family have more classificatory terms, and relatives on the father's side have more descriptive terms.

Societies in different parts of the world and using different languages may share the same basic terminology; in such cases it is very easy to translate the kinship terms of one language into another. But it is usually impossible to translate directly the kinship terms of a society that uses one system into the language of a society that uses a different system.

Western kinship terminology Most Western societies employ Eskimo Kinship terminology. This kinship terminology is common in societies based on conjugal (or nuclear) families, where nuclear families must be relatively mobile.

Members of the nuclear family use descriptive kinship terms:

  • Mother: the woman of whom one was born
  • Father: the husband of the mother
  • Son: the males born of the woman or wife
  • Daughter: the females born of the woman or wife
  • Brother: a male born of the same mother
  • Sister: a female born of the same mother
It is generally assumed that the mother's husband is also the genitor. In some families, a woman may have children with more than one man or a man may have children with more than one woman. Children who share one parent but not another are called "half-brothers" or "half-sisters." Children who do not share parents, but whose parents are married, are called "step-brothers" or "step-sisters." Children who are adopted into the family are generally called by the same terms as children born into the family.

Typically, societies with conjugal families also favor neolocal residence; thus upon marriage a person separates from the nuclear family of their childhood (family of orientation) and form a new nuclear family (family of procreation). This practice means that members of one's own nuclear family were once members of another nuclear family, or may one day become members of another nuclear family.

Members of the nuclear families of members of one's own nuclear family may be lineal or collateral. When they are lineal, they are referred to in terms that build on the terms used within the nuclear family:

  • Grandfather: a parents' father
  • Grandmother: a parents' mother
  • Grandson: a child's son
  • Granddaughter: a child's daughter

When they are collateral, they are referred to in more classificatory terms that do not build on the terms used within the nuclear family:

  • Uncle: father's brother, father's sister's husband, mother's brother, mother's brother's husband
  • Aunt: father's sister, father's brother's wife, mother's sister, mother's brother's wife
  • Nephew: sister's sons, brother's sone
  • Niece: sister's daughters, brother's daughters
When separated by additional generations (in other words, when one's collateral relatives belong to the same generation as one's grandparents or grandchildren), these terms are modified by the prefix "grand".

Most collateral relatives were never members of the nuclear family of the members of one's own nuclear family.

  • Cousin: the most classificatory term; the children of aunts or uncles. Cousin's may be further distinguished by degree of collaterality and generation. A cousin who is descended from one's grandparent is a "first cousin" (one degree of collaterality); a cousin descended from one's great-grandparent is one's "second cousin" (two degrees of collaterality) and so on. A cousin separated by a generation is "removed:" one's first cousin's children, are "first cousins once removed;" one's first cousin's grandchildren are "first cousin's twice removed;" one's second cousin's children are "second cousin's once removed," and so on.

Distant cousins of an older generation (in other words, one's parents' first cousins) are technically first cousins once removed, but are often classified with "aunts" and "uncles."

Similarly, a person may refer to close friends of one's parents as "aunt" or "uncle," or may refer to close friends as "brother" or "sister." This practice is called fictive kinship.

See David Schneider, American Kinship

See also:

References and external links: http://bitbucket.icaap.org/cgi-bin/glossary/SocialDict

Family is also the name of an award-winning television drama series that aired from 1976 to 1980. It starred Meredith Baxter[?], James Broderick[?], Gary Frank[?], Kristy McNichol[?], John Rubinstein[?] and Sada Thompson[?].

All Wikipedia text is available under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License

  Search Encyclopedia

Search over one million articles, find something about almost anything!
  Featured Article
Jamesport, New York

... or Latino of any race. There are 605 households out of which 26.1% have children under the age of 18 living with them, 60.7% are married couples living together, 8.8% ...

This page was created in 39.3 ms