Family, Definition of

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Family, Definition of

Over the decades, social scientists have struggled in their efforts to define the multidimensional concept of family. Through her research Jan Trost (1990) confirmed this overwhelming definitionitional dilemma experienced not only by family researchers but also the general population. Specifically, she illustrated the difficulty and diversity with which people identify those who could or should be labeled family members. For some in her sample, family consisted of only closest family members, the nuclear family, while for others family included various other kin, friends, and even pets. This study highlights the difficulty in defining who is part of the family. However, the complexity of defining the family does not end with the determining of family membership. Family definitions are also linked to ideological differences.

For example, John Scanzoni and colleagues (1989, p. 27), in their attempt to expand the definition of the family in the 1980s, discussed the traditional family defined as two parents and a child or children as the prevailing paradigm of the family. They state, "All other family forms or sequencing tend to be labeled as deviant (as in research on minorities) or as 'alternatives' (when occurring among whites)." They challenged the view held by many early writers that the traditional family was the ideal family, the family type by which the success of other families may be evaluated. This statement illustrates how the definition of family is not only structurally focused but also oriented to both ideology and process. Katherine Allen (2000, p. 7) further defines the ideology and process when she states, "Our assumptions, values, feelings, and histories shape the scholarship we propose, the findings we generate, and the conclusions we draw. Our insights about family processes and structures are affected by our membership in particular families, by the lives of those we study, and by what we care about knowing and explaining." These inescapable ideological differences result in a definition of the family that is driven by theory, history, culture, and situation.

Is it possible to arrive at a definition of family that is universal? A universal definition would require that the definition be viable when applied to all situations and societies, historically, developmentally, and cross-culturally. Most argue that such a definition is either not possible (Settles 1987) or only possible to discuss in relation to categories of definitions (Trost 1990). The latter argues that the definition of family will vary based on situational requirements. Most experts in the field have concluded that "there is no single correct definition of what a family is" (Fine 1993, p. 235). Rather, the approaches that individuals have taken in attempting to define the family have ranged in meaning from very specific to very broad, from theoretical to practical, and from culturally specific to culturally diverse.

Related Constructs

Researchers have attempted to define the family based on constructs that are larger than the family. For example, the family has been viewed as a close relationship or a social group. Difficulty and theoretical problems related to defining family or families have led some to seek these broader constructs that transcend the definition of the family, from their view leading to a higher level of understanding (Goode 1959; Kelley et al., 1983; Scanzoni et al. 1989).

For example, a close relationship defined as "strong, frequent, and diverse, interdependence that lasts over a considerable period of time" (Kelley 1983, p. 38) is a broader construct than family. This has been viewed as an encompassing term that would define most families. However, this generalizing concept, although applicable to most families, does not apply to all families—for example, the family where a parent is absent and does not want to be present. It also includes others who are not part of the family such as friends and co-workers.

The family has also been viewed as a form of social group, a group held together by a common purpose. Although the family is indeed a social group, it is a social group that is very distinct when compared to other social groups. Distinctions between a family and a group have been discussed by researchers (Day, Gilbert, Settles, and Burr 1995) and include the following: (1) family membership may be involuntary, and the connection may be more permanent; (2) actions of family members can be hidden and thus there is a safe environment provided for openness and honesty but also an environment for dark activities such as abuse, addictions, and neglect; (3) family members may be more intensely bonded through emotional ties; (4) there is often a shared family paradigm or world view; and (5) there is frequently a biological connectedness that is not present in other social groups.

The review of these two encompassing constructs makes it evident that although larger constructs are useful in understanding the family, they do not specifically define family. These broad constructs allow for the inclusion of those not part of the family and the exclusion those who are part of the family. To address the problem of excluding family members, some researchers have attempted to develop definitions of the family by accounting for any type of family.

Inclusive Definitions

Inclusive definitions are those that are so broad that no one's perception of family will be excluded. For example, James Holstein and Jaber Gubrium (1995) illustrate an inclusive definition of the family by utilizing a phenomenological and ethnomethodological theoretical perspective in an attempt to understand how individuals experience reality. Family, based on this perspective, is each individual's interpretation of who their kin are. The basic argument is that meanings and interpretations have no connection to rules, norms, or culture. Thus, the definition of family is based on the individual's local subculture and is his or her own reality. For example, Barbara Rothberg and Dan Weinstein illustrate an inclusive definition that can encompass all local subcultures by stating that: "the constellation of family is limited only by the limits of participants' creativity" (1966, p. 57).

Inclusive definitions are reasoned and scholarly attempts to deal with the increasing diversity of primary or close relationships in postmodern societies. According to David Cheal (1993), the 1980s and 1990s have brought a shift from defining the family as the modern family to defining it as the postmodern family. The family is no longer a fixed form; it is now more free form. The term family has been replaced by families and has become the embodiment of whatever the individual perceives to be family.

Based on this type of definition, the family becomes whatever the individual wants it to be. The definition of family is thus dependent on every feature of an individual's life, including beliefs, culture, ethnicity, and even situational experiences. Although this definition type is extremely universal, it is also very nebulous, thus making research on the family difficult. The researcher is confronted with the problem of no longer being able to define what family is, as it can become anything the individual wants it to be. For this reason, other researchers have proposed definitions of the family that focus on similarities among families and thus allow for theoretical as well as applied research.

Theoretical Definitions

Basing the definition of family on theoretical perspectives means that the definition of the family will vary based on the theoretical perspective that one takes. Multiple definitions of family have been formulated from particular theoretical perspectives (Doherty et al. 1993). Because of the variety of definitions that can be linked with specific theories, Suzanna Smith (1995) was able to create a different definition of the family for each of eight conceptual approaches.

For example, the definition of family for symbolic interaction theory is a unit of interacting personalities (Smith 1995). Those defining the family from a feminist perspective would assume that there are broad differences among marriages and families, and these differences are greater than the similarities. The traditional definition of the family would be rejected with emphasis on change and diversity (Thompson and Walker 1995).

However, most theories are not specifically directed at defining the family. David Klein and James White (1996) have pointed out that the family developmental theory is the only theory where the focus is specifically on the family. Other approaches can be and are used to study other social groups and institutions; in contrast, the developmental approach is microsystem oriented. According to this theory, family members occupy socially defined positions (e.g., daughter, mother, father, or son) and the definition of family changes over the family career.

Initially, the stages of change discussed in the literature related directly to the traditional nuclear family. According to Paul Mattessich and Reuben Hill (1987), some of the original theorists in the area, family life stage was based on changes in family size, age composition, and the occupational status of the breadwinner(s). The stages of family development identified were: childless couples, childbearing families, families with infants and preschool children, childbearing families with grade-school children, families with teenagers, families with young adults still at home, families in the middle years, and aging families.

In the 1990s, researchers updated this theory to include families defined in other ways over the family careers (Rodgers and White 1993; Klein and White 1996; White 1991). These authors specify the significance of change that is related to other transitions, such as cohabitation, births in later stages, separation, divorce, remarriage, or death. Thus, how one defines one's own family is not static, but changes with the addition of family members through close relationships, birth, adoption, and foster relationships or the loss of family members because of death or departure.

Talcott Parsons (1943), a structural-functionalist, discussed the development of the family by using more generic family definitions that apply to all members of society. According to Parsons, one is born into the biological family, or one's family of origin. If the individual is raised in this family, it becomes their family of orientation. However, if the marriage dissolves, or the child is given up for adoption, the new family of which the individual is part becomes the family of orientation. However, by leaving this family to marry or cohabitate, for example, the individual becomes part of the family of procreation. This term is somewhat dated because in several types of relationships such as childless or gay and lesbian relationships, procreation may not be a part of the relationship.

With the move from the family of origin or orientation to family of procreation, the individual's original nuclear family, or their closest family members, become part of their kinship group or their extended family, while their new partner or child become part of their new nuclear family. The North American family changes and develops with new members being added (e.g., new partners, birth, adoption) or replaced (e.g., foster parents, nonbiological parents, partners) over their lifetime (McGoldrick and Carter 1982). Thus, this terminology was developed to describe these family changes. It should be noted, however, that this theoretical terminology is most appropriate for the North American population. As has been pointed out by several writers, the basic family unit in non-North American and non-European countries is the extended family rather than the nuclear family (Ingoldsby and Smith 1995; Murdock 1949).

Thus, although theoretical definitions are important for research purposes, conceptual approaches are not in themselves true or false but are rather a set of assumptions with which to examine social phenomena. They may not apply to all situations or cultures. Although useful in doing research, definitions other than theoretical definitions may be more suitable in other situations. For example, practical or situational definitions of the family may be more appropriate in specific situations and circumstances.

Situational Definitions

Theoretical definitions direct research, whereas situational definitions are important in practical situations and thus are the working terminology. This terminology facilitates the training of professional caregivers. Situational definitions are used for special types of families and are utilized by individuals from social service agencies to deal with special situations in which family form is changed, and a new form of family must emerge to protect those within the family, often children (Hartman 1990; McNeece 1995; Seligmann 1990). For example, Margaret Crosbie-Burnett and Edith Lewis (1993) utilize a situational definition of family in working with families where alcohol is abused. The term pedifocal, defined as "all those involved in the nurturance and support of an identified child, regardless of household membership [where the child lives]" (p. 244), expands the definition of the family from being only family members to include those working with the family. Thus, the child's interests are put above other needs to protect the child, despite the change in family structure and relationships. In this case, others who are not related to the child may become fictive kin who respond to the child's needs and contributing to his or her well-being.

Marci Hanson and Eleanor Lynch further illustrate the broader situational definitions of family. In their research with teachers they state, state (1992, p. 285) family is, "any unit that defines itself as a family including individuals who are related by blood or marriage as well as those who have made a commitment to share their lives." Perhaps the most explicit example of a situational definition of the family was given by Sally Bould (1993, p. 138) who defines family as "the informal unit where those who cannot take care of themselves can find care in the time of need." The family in this case is expanded to include anyone who helps an individual.

Another example would be the Israeli Kibbutz of the past, where children were cared for in a group setting by people other than their parents
(i.e., the metaplot or caretaker). In this setting, although the children still have biological parents, they also have caretakers who become their parent figures (Broude 1994). Based on this definition, family is expanded to those who may be caretakers and thus may only be part of one's family for a short period of time. Although this is a useful definition in practical situations, more formal definitions exist that are based on societal rules and expectations.

Normative Definitions

Within the 1990s and into the early twenty-first century, the definition of family was no longer confined to the traditional family, but also included the normative family. Normative is a sociological concept that, according to Abu-Laban and Abu-Laban, "are agreed upon societal rules and expectations specifying appropriate and inappropriate ways to behave in a particular society" (1994, p. 53). These are terms and family types that are normative across most modern and postmodern societies.

Families with at least one parent and one child are viewed as a normative definition of the family in most if not all societies (Angus Reid Group 1996; Bibby 1995; Reiss 1965; Levin and Trost 1992; Rothberg and Weinstein 1966). For example, in a Swedish study done by Levin and Trost (1992), a majority of those surveyed identified as families married couples with children, nonmarried, separated, or divorced couples with children and single parents and their children.

The child in these cases is not necessarily biologically related to those providing care and nurturance. They may, for example, be adopted, grandchildren, products of other relationships, or perhaps children conceived through artificial insemination or a surrogate mother. Despite the lack of biological relationship these relationships can still be included as part of the normative definition of the family. All of these families would be considered examples of the nuclear family.

Also part of the normative family would be all others who are closest to the individual. Not only is the parent-child relationship a normative nuclear family in most societies, the definition of a normal family and nuclear families also includes couples in close relationships that lead to common-law relationships or marriage relationships. However, expectations of a legitimate and thus a normative family union may vary among and within various cultures, based on formal rules related to law, religious orientation, and cultural norms, as well as to informal expectations of family, friends, and associates.

Taking this one step further, intergenerational bonds are also normal if based on lineage or biological parentage are known as one's kinship group or extended family. These terms do not specify the number of parents or children. However, in most societies, the kinship group or the extended family includes one or two partners, their children, and a variety of involved relatives such as grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins.

Information on the intricacy and the cultural diversity of the extended family is discussed in the writings of many authours (e.g., Murdock 1949; Stanton 1995). The reasons that families continue to live in an extended family situation vary greatly among cultures and generations. Some identified in the literature are for mutual assistance both for household work and income and also the inheritance of property or the perpetuation of kinship values viewed as important to the preservation of the family system.

Thus, these norms based on culture, religion, and ethnicity all influence the definition of the family. These norms may or may not be adhered to, and what is normative may change over the stages of the family.


No universal definition of the family exists, but rather many appropriate definitions do (Petzold 1998). Definitions are not only racially and inter-generationally diverse (Bedford and Blieszner 2000), but are also situationally diverse.

Functionally, arguments related to defining the family are most often dependent on one's paradigm of social interaction and one's purpose in defining the term. Thus, perspectives on what constitutes family vary greatly. The family becomes what the individual or the researcher perceives it to be based on the purpose for which the term is being used. In defining family, there is often vigorous discussion contrasting form or process. Beliefs, which frequently have an emotional cornerstone; bias, our perception of what family is, should be or could be.

In all of the complexity of defining family, however, there is a strong emerging international theme within the scientific community that is based on evidence. Variations in family form and process are extremely prevalent but must also acknowledge the dominant structures by which cultures define family. In contrast to the reactionary themes of the 1960s and 1970s to "traditional family," we have observed openness to family diversity in more recent literature. As a result of greater international networks, particularly in the research communities, we are growing increasingly aware of dominant family definitions that acknowledge its great variety.

See also:Extended Families; Family Theory; Intentional Communities; Kinship; Nuclear Families


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brenda munro gordon munro