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Summary Article: Family
From Encyclopedia of Global Studies

The term family is used to refer to a wide range of relationships, varying historically and culturally. Despite this diversity, family is still generally understood as the primary social organization that forms the key building blocks of society. In this entry, the history of the development of family is outlined, and the many types of families found throughout the world are discussed. In conclusion, theories of how families are studied and conceptualized are introduced.

History of the Family

The nuclear family is defined as that of two cohabitating adults of both sexes and their children who all cooperate for economic and socialization purposes. Although the nuclear family is neither a complete nor an entirely accurate way to understand families, a brief review of the history of the nuclear family provides grounds for understanding more contemporary and globally diverse family structures.

The modern nuclear family may have its roots in ancient Hebrew society, where families were constructed according to marriages arranged between fathers. The Hebrew family was quite patriarchal; fathers and husbands made all of the important decisions and held all the wealth. Modern prohibitions against homosexuality and incest may be based in part on the practices of the Hebrews, who enacted severe penalties for those thought to have violated these conventions. Male domination of the household was also a particular feature of Greek families: Sons were the sole beneficiaries of inheritance, and whereas men were freely permitted to have sexual relations outside of marriage, women likely faced a punishment of death for the same act.

Although certain features of the nuclear family (such as patriarchy, marriage, and the maintenance of property through inheritance) can be traced to the Hebrews and the Greeks, other features (such as monogamy) can possibly be traced to the Romans. Although the Romans were very patriarchal, monogamy increased women's status slightly because women were more valued as the sole child bearers for one man. The expansion and eventual consolidation of the Roman Empire, which was accompanied by frequent warfare, had a major impact on the Roman family. This pattern continues today, as global events such as war and economic liberalization are causing such trends as transnational family arrangements and double-wage-earning families. The frequency with which Roman men went to war meant that women assumed more power and responsibility while the men were away. Women were able to earn some independent income and were able to secure divorces without much retribution, remarrying became more frequent, and sexual mores became more liberal.

Perhaps no other institution has had such a major influence on the makeup of the Western family as has Christianity. Although the church today may be seen as the ultimate arbiter of the nuclear family, at first, church leaders expressed ambivalence toward marriage. Eventually, however, the church became heavily involved in the development of family life. The church confined sex strictly to married couples and then only for the purpose of reproduction. Monogamy was rigorously enforced, adultery was met with severe penalties, and even divorce was grounds for excommunication. Although less severely enforced, these ideas remain salient for family arrangements today, particularly in regions where the Catholic Church has a large presence.

Families began to resemble the modern nuclear family during the Renaissance and subsequently during the colonial era. These periods saw the rise of commerce, which in turn created more settled urban areas and the middle class. Families became smaller, spouses were closer in age, and previous functions fulfilled by the family such as food production and education became the responsibility of extrafamilial institutions. Marriage is based less on control and transfer of resources, and more on love and partnership. Marital fidelity and sex confined to marriage retain their salience, however. In colonial America, the Puritans held chastity and chivalry in the highest regard, but wives were able to retain light employment outside of the home. These conventions, however, applied almost exclusively to White families, as Black families were often separated through slavery. Slaves often developed family-like relationships with each other as a support system, even though they were often not biologically related.

These developments eventually led to the Western model of the nuclear unit, wherein families serve not only an economic purpose but also socialize individuals into the values and traditions of the culture. Although this concept of the family retains the division of labor between the home and public life, the gender boundaries associated with these spheres became blurred in the early 20th century. Sexuality became less taboo, and gradually women demanded more legal rights and opportunities in business and education. The nuclear family remains an important ideal for much of Western society, but the extent to which this ideal is achieved can be questioned. For example, while the dominant family structure in Italy is characterized by sex within marriage, asymmetrical relationships between the genders, and the persistence of life-long marriages, Italian children are now living with their parents for a much longer period of time, even if they are employed and able to provide for themselves, sometimes well into their mid-30s. Therefore, even in situations where the nuclear family remains a prominent feature of society, small disruptions in this model can be observed. In the following sections, other types of family models are considered, as well as their origins and their cultural contexts.

Types of Families
Nuclear Family

Early scholars of the family understood family as involving a socially sanctioned sexual relationship between two adults of both sexes and their children, who reside together for the purposes of economic cooperation and reproduction. This came to be known as the “nuclear family.” This model is likely the most common throughout the world today; however, this may be the product of globalization rather than representative of universal family values and structures. Cultures with little to no history of a nuclear family, such as India, have in part adopted the Western model through colonialism, through missionaries bringing Christianity from the West, or through increased economic contact. Therefore, although other family structures are certainly present in different parts of the world, the nuclear model, or a modified version thereof, is found in most countries today.

Extended Family

Later scholars came to believe that the nuclear model reflected primarily Western family arrangements and sought to expand the definition to include models found in other parts of the world. “Extended” family refers to those relationships beyond the nuclear unit, which can include grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, often all living under the same roof. This pattern is found more often in African and Asian societies, although extended families were formerly common in the European aristocracy. Early scholars of the family believed that preindustrial families were extended families, but now it is believed that even agricultural families also resembled the nuclear family. Thus, the extended family may have its roots in non-Western agricultural societies, as well as hunter-gatherer tribes, who were quite egalitarian, raised children as a community, and had little concern for patrilineal bloodlines. The classic example of the modern extended family is found in China, where several generations of family collectively care for both the youngest and oldest members.

The term extended family can also refer to the children and spouses that result from polygamy (one husband with multiple wives), polyandry (one wife with many husbands), or gynaegamy (marriage contract between two females—not to be confused with same-sex couples). Although relatively rare, these customs can be found in parts of India, Nepal, Nigeria, and Kenya. In Kenya, for example, sororal polygamy is practiced, where sisters marry one man, in addition to standard polygamy. So important is childbearing to the traditional Kenyan people that sterile males permit their wife to engage in a sexual relationship with other male relatives, known as fraternal polyandry. Sterility is another reason for gynaegamy among the Kikuyu women in Kenya, who complete a marriage contract with a fertile woman so that she may raise children. No taboo is attached to this custom; rather it allows a woman to achieve a higher status within her community.

Blended Family

The term blended family has been used to describe a family unit that includes children from a previous relationship of either or both parents. In countries like the United States, where the divorce rate dramatically increased between the 1960s and 1980s, blended families have become common as divorced adults remarry, resulting in stepchildren, stepmothers, and stepfathers. However, this pattern is not exclusive to Western societies and cannot always be attributed to divorce. An emerging family form in Kenya is that of a complex multi-parent and multigenerational composition, where older widows or widowers remarry younger partners, resulting in a household consisting of children from various relationships.

Single-Parent Family

Another common type of family unit is called the “single-parent” family, where only one parent takes an active role in the children's upbringing. Reasons for single-parent households include but are not limited to abandonment by one of the parents, the identity of the father being unknown, single women becoming pregnant through sperm donation, or one of the parents being incarcerated. The majority of single parents are women. This is due to cultural views of women as better caretakers of children, and this is often reflected in legislation in which mothers are given preference in custody disputes. This is slowly changing as courts recognize joint custody or consider fathers for sole custody. Single-parenthood is more of a Western phenomenon, which is evidenced by the fact that many European countries make some sort of state assistance available to single parents. Single-parent families have also been the focal point for much political discussion in Europe, as some now regard them as a sign of moral decay, requiring new legislation to limit the amount of state aid or to encourage more traditional family arrangements.

Same-Sex Family

A same-sex family is regarded as a union between two people of the same sex, and when possible, their children. Today only a handful of countries, mostly in Europe and North America, legally recognize marriages between same-sex couples. Some countries have instituted civil partnerships, which is an arrangement reserved for homosexual couples but denotes many of the same rights as heterosexual marriages. In the absence of legal recognition, gay and lesbian couples will often live together and emulate heterosexual marriages if socially acceptable to do so. Same-sex couples who wish to raise children together may adopt, and the legal status for same-sex adoption is even more ambiguous than that of same-sex marriage. Some states do recognize the right of homosexual couples to adopt children, whereas others allow a partner to adopt the biological children of their same-sex partner from a previous relationship. Some homosexual couples, rather than adopting, will choose to become pregnant through sperm donation and/or a surrogate, and subsequently raise the child as if the couple were the true biological parents.

Transnational Family

Transnational families represent an arrangement that provides some of the basic functions of a family, such as welfare and socialization, but is one in which one or more members spend considerable time abroad. Although this model fails on one of the characteristics that is typical of families, that is, cohabitation, family life is nearly defined by transnationalism in some societies. For example, it is estimated that nearly 9 million children grow up in a family where one parent or more works overseas. For these families, achieving a middle-class lifestyle is possible only if someone seeks employment outside of the country. Mothers from the political South may leave their children in the care of extended families to find work in more economically advantaged countries as hotel maids, nurses, or child care workers. This situation implies a change in the family model not only in the poorer countries but also in the political North. As more families now rely on dual income in places like the United States and Canada, families now require the assistance of outside help, in the form of labor migrants, to raise children and maintain a home.

Achieving a more secure lifestyle is not the only cause of the emergence of transnational families. War separates families; some members may become refugees and settle in other countries, while other members stay behind and hope to weather postwar conditions. This situation has been well documented in the case of the Bosnian war, after which some refugees created stable lives in countries like the Netherlands and the United Kingdom and are having children in these host countries.

Nontraditional Families

The aforementioned family types easily cover the most common types of family structures. However, two examples illustrate models not easily subsumed under the previously discussed labels: the kibbutz in Israel and the Naxi in China. The kibbutz represents a communal lifestyle, in which children do not live with their biological parents; rather, they live with specialized caretakers. Couples do not depend on each other economically, and relationships begin and end easily. The Naxi ethnic minority in the Yunnan province is an example of a matriarchal family. Young adults remain living with their mothers and when a woman wishes to have children, a man is invited to spend the night with the woman in her mother's home, and in the morning he returns to his mother's house. This custom is known as a “walking marriage.” Children are raised by a multigenerational matriarchy and rarely come to know their fathers.

These various definitions of what constitutes “family” demonstrate that it can be understood as an analytical concept (e.g., for use in law), as a social construct, as well as an “ideal type” to guide behavior (e.g., as used in religious practices).

Theories of the Family

Theories of the family can be broadly classified into three types: functionalism and/or systems theory, individualist theories, and feminism.


Structural functionalism generally argues that societies strive for balance and resist change. Society is a system made up of unique units, and each unit contributes a specific purpose to the survival of the whole. The family is one of these units, and it serves some of the most important balancing functions of society, including reproduction and socialization. Some functionalists focus on the similar purposes families have served throughout history. Others focus on the changing nature of families. Systems theory relies on the same assumptions but looks at how units within a system respond to external pressures. Therefore, scholars using systems theories focus on the repeated communication and learning processes families use to maintain balance and to resolve conflict. Functionalism and systems theory can be criticized for focusing too much on the nuclear family, but they have been successful in developing therapeutic strategies in the field of clinical psychology.


Individualist theories either focus on the symbols a family embodies, such as values and identities and how each person within a family guides his or her behavior in accordance with these symbols (“symbolic interactionism”), or take a more economic perspective (“exchange” theory), in which individuals seek a “profit” from a relationship. If an individual is rewarded by his or her interaction with another (such as personal fulfillment or social acceptance), this interaction will likely repeat itself. These perspectives appear mostly in Western literature, where individualism and liberal economic theory have more salience than in other parts of the world, and therefore may not be as useful to understand the family from a global standpoint. However, exchange theory does lend itself well to understanding power by analyzing who has more resources in a given relationship. Previous theories of the family tacitly assumed that the family is a site void of power dynamics.


Feminism has been particularly active in theorizing the family. Although there are a number of different perspectives within feminist theory, they share both the attempt to understand women's unequal status in society at large and within the family and the commitment to changing these inequalities. Some feminists believe the source of inequality lies within legal barriers that keep women from entering public life. The removal of these barriers would then result in a more equal relationship between men and women in the family. Other feminists celebrate women's historical roles as nurturers and childbearers and demand that society put these unique contributions on equal footing with the traditional roles of men as breadwinners and disciplinarians. Finally, other feminists have found inspiration in Marxism, and they believe that women's subordination in the home reflects the subordination of the working class to the capitalist class. Capitalism, in short, depends on a division of labor along both gender and class lines.

By interrogating the traditional nuclear family model, feminists have forced theorists to reassess whether the nuclear family should be considered the ideal and have focused attention on other models, thus contributing to a more multicultural understanding of the family. Feminist perspectives also have the advantage of conceptualizing the family's place within larger economic and governmental structures. However, feminism has also been criticized for its overtly political nature, as well as its narrow focus on women.

See also:

Aging Societies, Demographic Change, Family Policies, Family Systems, Kinship, Feminism, Gender Identity, Intergenerational Relations, Labor, Modernization, Women's Movement, Women's Rights

Further Readings
  • Bryceson, D. F.Vuorela, U.(2002). The transnational family: New European frontiers and global networks. Oxford, UK: Berg.
  • Hennon, C. B.(2007). Families in a global context. New York: Routledge.
  • Ingoldsby, B. B.Smith, S. D.(1995). Families in multicultural perspective. New York: Guilford Press.
  • Parreñas, R. S.(2005). Children of global migration: Transnational families and gendered woes. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press.
  • Oberle, Holly
    Copyright © 2012 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

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