Functionalist Sociologist George Peter Murdock used the following definition of the family as a starting point in his classic cross national study of families in more than 250 societies.
‘A social group characterised by common residence, economic cooperation and reproduction. It includes adults of both sexes, at least two of whom maintain a socially approved sexual relationship, and one or more children, own or adopted, of the sexually cohabiting adults’ (Murdock, 1949).
Today, many Sociologists criticise the above definition of the family as being too narrow because (both today and historically) too many groups of people who regard themselves as a family would not be included in the above definition, such as reconstituted or step-families and same sex families.
One way around the problem of defining a family is to distinguish carefully between different ‘family arrangements’ when we talk about them. Some of the most common family types in modern Britain include.
The Nuclear Family – two parents with biological children living in one household
The reconstituted family – two partners living in one household sharing parental duties for one or more children, but only one of them is the biological parent.
The single parent family – one adult with one or more children living in one household
The extended family – where relatives such as uncles/ aunts or grandparents reside permanently in the same household as those making up the nuclear family
Because of the diversity within family life in contemporary Britain, post-modern thinkers suggest that it is better to use a broader definition of ‘the family’, which includes a range of family types – one suggested definition of the family is ‘a group of people who are related by either blood or marriage/ similar form of committed relationship’
Because of the problems of defining the family it is often easier to analyse families in terms of households (NB – The module you’re all studying is called families and households, we just tend to abbreviate it to the ‘families’ module)
A household is much easier to define than a family – A household is simply a group of people who share a residence in common and share such things as meals, bills, facilities or chores, or one person living alone. Of course, families can spread themselves across many households!
Case Study – The Rainbow Family of Light
The Rainbow Family was created out of the Vortex gathering in Oregon from August 28 to September 3, 1970. Inspired in large part by the first Woodstock Festival.
Those who attend Rainbow Gatherings usually share an interest in intentional communities, ecology and new age spirituality. Attendees refer to one another as “brother”, “sister”, or the gender neutral term, “sibling.” Attendance is open to all interested parties and decisions are reached through group meetings leading to some form of group consensus.
The organization is a loose, international affiliation of individuals who have a stated goal of trying to achieve peace and love on earth. There are no official leaders or structure, no official spokespersons, and no formalized membership. Strictly speaking, the only goals are set by each individual, as no individual can claim to represent all Rainbows in word or deed.
Question – would you define this group of people a ‘family’?
Think carefully about this – if you do then it means that practically any group of friends with close emotional ties should be called a family, but is this really what me mean when we use the term ‘family’? Or should sociologists limit themselves to studying families in the more traditional sense of the word?