Sociologists do not agree on one standard definition of ‘the family’.
Functionalist sociologists traditionally used narrow definitions of the family, in which the family unit had to consist of a man and a woman in a committed sexual relationship living together with their children.
More contemporary Postmodern sociologists prefer much broader definitions of the family which extend the concept to include anyone an individual thinks of as being ‘part of the family’, such as friends or even pets.
There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ definition of the family, but you do need to know how sociologists define the family to really understand their perspective on the family, and to be able to evaluate the different perspectives.
The rest of this introductory post explores how the concept of ‘the family’ has been used by different sociologists, and aims to get you thinking about what the family is.
It has been written as an introduction the Families and Households module for A-level sociology, AQA focus.
The Functionalist definition of the family
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.
For example, The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘the family’ as ‘a group consisting of one or two parents and their children’. (1)
The above definition includes step-families, single parent families and doesn’t even mention sex or sexual orientation of the parents, so includes same-sex families too.
One way around the problem of defining a family is to distinguish carefully between different ‘family arrangements’ when we discuss them. It is also generally good practice to define your concepts tightly when writing and essay or before conducting research.
There is nothing wrong with limiting your research or analysis to just one specific type of family below, you just need to make sure you are clear about limiting your discussion. (It’s often necessary to focus more tightly just for the sake of time!)
Different types of family
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.
Postmodern definitions of the 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
Have a look at the case study below, do you think this group of people is a ‘family’?
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.
You might also like this video…
I think it shows one of the activities these people get up to during their gatherings, a good old sing song!
Question: is the family rainbow of light 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?
Defining the family… why it matters…
You can only really get your head around perspectives on the family if you understand how different perspectives define the family differently!
Ultimately, how you define the family will determine how you conclude any essay within the families and households module!