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."
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:
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:
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:
When they are collateral, they are referred to in more classificatory terms that do not build on the terms used within the nuclear family:
Most collateral relatives were never members of the nuclear family of the members of one's own nuclear family.
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
References and external links: http://bitbucket.icaap.org/cgi-bin/glossary/SocialDict