In the human perspective, a family is a group of persons connected by kinship, compassion, or sharing of residence. In a number of societies, the family is the basic unit for the socialization of children. A basic family unit is made up of a father, mother, and children, and is known as a nuclear family, however, this unit can be extended to include other relations to be known as an extended family.
The concept of the family has undergone a transformation and in today’s society, many people define the family structure as an arbitrary cultural set-up, a statement could be partially true. In ancient times, the family was a closely-knit, patriarchal clan consisting of a man, his wife or wives, and several children!
This has changed to include a monogamous parent taking care of the children. Besides, certain concepts of the family have broken with tradition within specific communities while some have been implanted through migration to thrive or else disappear in the new communities and societies.
Current debates and interest concerning the family have forced individuals to reassess themselves in a society driven by change and uncertainty. Because of its intricate nature, sociologists have not succeeded in coming with a universal definition of what family is and how is constructed. Rather, the definition is subject to individual interpretation and depends on the value a person attaches to being a member of a communal social group.
The aim of the paper is to give a concise definition of family, and the context of family structures such as the traditional family; single parent family, blended family and cohabiting relationship families. The paper also examines the influences that have progressively shaped the concept of family from the past to the present day.
A family is generally defined as a group of individuals who are linked by kinship or adoption, and who have a common residence. (Germov and Poole, 2011, 132). Kinship ties are connections or associations that link individuals through genealogy lines or marriage.
However, a few writers disagree with this concept. For instance, George Murdock, an American anthropologist, defines family as a social group that lives together, support each other economically, and raise children (Germov and Poole, 2011, 128).
In the mid 20th century, sociologists defined family as a man living together with his wife and children, joined by blood, marriage or adoption. The couple had sex, procreated, and cared for the children jointly, besides bringing resources such as money and food together. The family members also guarded and supported each other.
Again, some writers have given a different perspective. Some asserted that previous definitions of the concept of the family should be altered as they are founded on ‘monolithic’ models that exhibit partiality towards a specific kind of family typified by gender discrimination and legal attachment, instead of gender fairness and patterns of care or emotional response.
Besides, modern reproductive methods have changed family associations and the definition of terms such as ‘mother’ and ‘father’ gas considerably changed. For instance, women past their menopausal age can now have children through surrogate mothers. Consequently, an increasing number of studies are focusing on what really defines a family. This perspective overlooks the gender inclination of the couple and the legitimacy of the relationship, and centers rather on the patterns of caring and affection.
The concept of the family has been conventionally related to the traditional family setup, which can be defined as a relationship in the children live with both the biological parents with the father often at work while the mother stays at home (Germov & Poole, 2011, 128). Today less than ten percent of families satisfies this principle.
The second approach is that of single parent setup in which the child resides with one of the parents, and may result from death, divorce, separation, out-of-wedlock pregnancy, or a nonunion pregnancy. Milstead and Perkins (2010, para. 8) recognized that teenage mothers were less likely to enter marriage and preferred to care for the child without paternal help leading to certain social and economic deficits for both the mother and child including lack of proper education, poorly paying occupations, reliance on welfare, and bad health for both of them.
The third approach is that of a blended family, in which the child lives with one of the biological parents, and that parent’s partner. This type of family may also include children born to the new couple. This family setup is made up of children, one of the biological parents, and a stepparent (Kinnear, 2010, 8). Even though the availability of another adult may lead to more material and financial resources, studies indicate that such children may be more disadvantaged than those living in stable single-parent families. In fact, children living in blended families have a higher likelihood of suffering emotionally and/or psychologically than those in single parent families.
The fourth perspective is that of a cohabiting relationship, in which a child lives with one of the biological parents, and that parent’s significant other, however, in contrast to blended families, the adults are not married. This type of family has been on the rise and a possible explanation could be that couples take it as a good practice before marriage. In contrast, Joltes (2007, para. 2) notes that those who have cohabited are more likely to divorce than those who have not. Cohabiting families regularly create less defined family roles, lower levels of parental support, supervision and involvement, and more conflicts (Kinnear, 2010, 8).
In contrast from the family setups described above, the traditional family is characterized by a unit comprising of a married couple with two or more children. In this setup, the male adult is the head of the house and the breadwinner too, while the female adult performs household tasks and cares for children and her husband.
Back then, the gender roles were clear. Most (preferably all) members of the family attended a church service weekly. Children were obedient, respectful and responsible. Families resided in the same town, or at least close to each other. Instances of divorce were an abomination and were very rare. Unmarried couples were uncommon too, and the act was thought of as shameful (Briggs, 2002, 5).
The number of unmarried adults was very low. The 1950s was a period when everybody worked together towards a common goal; society was stable or improving, and disagreements extremely rare. Women were satisfied with their housekeeping roles and respected their husbands as the house heads. Similarly, it was generally accepted that homosexuality, divorce, sex before marriage, abortion, and illegitimate birth did not exist, or occurred only to ‘bad’ families. Indeed, such issues were never conversed in an open forum.
For instance, women living in Australia in the 1950s had their lives centred on family and housekeeping tasks. Women who held wartime jobs were supposed to quit their jobs to create opportunities for men who had previously been in war. Consequently, women quit their jobs and returned to their housekeeping tasks. However, a few women challenged these norms and retained their jobs, but were paid less than men for similar jobs and were often given lowly paying jobs.
The practices in the traditional family have transformed significantly, and it is unlikely that we will ever switch back to the conventional nuclear family as the only ideal type of family. For the near future, the new family setup is here to stay. The ‘cereal packet’ image of the family comprising of the father, mother, and the children joyously having breakfast together is a bad reminder of how single-parent, blended, extended, same-sex, or childless families have considerably dented the idea of a perfect family.
Add this to the effects of the multiplicity of ethnic and cultural origins, aboriginal Australians and post-war migrations, and all Australians will finally encounter family forms quite dissimilar from their own. In Australia, as in many societies, the nuclear family setup is no longer conventional.
Towards the end of the 20th century, major demographic changes had affected even the family setup. Societies were aging while the number of children and youths was diminishing. These anomalies led to a shift in roles that today challenge the traditional family setup.
Today, families may comprise of couples who may be married or cohabiting, and have a child who is either a co-resident. A new form of family setup emerged in the 21st century, as mentioned by Anthony Giddens and Ulrich Beck. The two sociologists write that from the mid 70s onwards, significant changes occurred in family life and relationships; marriage rates were failing, divorce was on the increase, and fertility rates dropping. According to Saggers and Sims (2004, 34), these changes marked the end of the family.
While often referred to as a ‘haven in a heartless world’, the fact is that families cannot be insulated from the world of which we are a component. In fact, change in the family stricture has always been inherently linked to wider social changes. As society undergoes swift, turbulent and far-reaching changes in economic, cultural and political aspects, family keeps pace with the changes (Saggers and Sims, 2004, 32).
The family, as we once knew it, has undergone rapid transformations and is today a shadow of its former self. Previously unacceptable behaviors such as homosexuality and same-sex families are now welcomed in the family. Consequently, these unnatural acts have further deteriorated the family by causing same-sex families, which raises important sociological questions about the actual meaning of the term ‘family’.
Secondly, the rising number of women in the workforce has altered the basic roles of members of the family. Divorce and separation, once abhorred, is now a normal affair. Indeed, parental divorce disrupts the lives of almost one in five Australian children. Cohabiting has also found its way into the modern family, and this has resulted into a popular and often quoted belief that the Australian family is disintegrating.
While the social construct of the family has evolved to cater for the social pressures of modern life, the values attached to it are perhaps more enduring. While the concept of the family is multifaceted, perhaps it comes down to the individuals belonging to any particular family group, who seek the similar values of belonging and compassion that offer a true definition of what a family is.
Briggs, Freda. 2002. The changing family, from Children and Families : Australian Perspectives, Sydney: Allen & Unwin.
Joltes, Richard. 2007. Critical Enquiry: Family Values. Web.
Kinnear, Pamela. 2002. New families for changing times. Discussion Paper No 47, ISSN 1322-5422. Web.
Milstead, Kayla & Perkins, Gerra. 2010. Family structure Characteristics and academic success: Supporting the work of school counsellors. Academic Leadership, Vol 8, issue 4. Web.
Poole, Marylin & Germov John. 2011. Public Sociology, An introduction to Australian Society, 2nd edition, Sydney: Allen & Unwin.
Saggers, Sherry and Sims, Margaret. 2004. Diversity: Beyond the nuclear family, Edited by Marilyn Poole, Sydney: Allen & Unwin.