Why There Is No 'Crisis of Families': They're Different, but Better

By Bullough, Vern L. | Free Inquiry, Winter 1998 | Go to article overview

Why There Is No 'Crisis of Families': They're Different, but Better


Bullough, Vern L., Free Inquiry


What constitutes a family is no easy question. The Latin word familia comes from the word famel, a slave who was the property of his or her master. Later the tenn was used to denote domestic property as well as persons. Aristotle used the Greek equivalent of the tenn household to describe a family and explained that it encompassed a combination of a man's property (either domestic animals or slaves) as well as his relationship to a woman. The ancient Hebrews' definition was equally patriarchal although it was expanded to include polygamous wives.

But the term family also has had broader connotations. The nineteenth-century anthropologist Lewis H. Morgan reported that about two-thirds of the people of the world did not distinguish between kin: all were consanaguinei, whether grandparent, parent, brother, sister, child or grandchild, uncle, aunt, or cousin, although there were variations on just who was included among different peoples. This definition probably had validity in a rural community where people stayed put for most of their lives, but how much meaning does it have in a society where grandparents are in Florida and grandchildren are in Texas, or when the natural father is in New York and the natural mother and her new husband are in Washington?

REAL FAMILIES

Generally we now define family somewhat differently than in the past, distinguishing it from household or from kindred. In its current American setting, the family is often not differentiated from the marriage pair - one man and one woman - and, while this definition has eliminated the patriarchal dominance of the past, it does not include other two-person units who live together and who have agreed to share resources and give each other support but who for some reason or other are not married. Such a definition also lacks the idea of commitment to each other and responsibility for members of the unit, which seems essential to defining a family. If this idea of commitment can be included and combined with the concept of a pair of people or some other number of individuals living together and sharing resources, we can approach a realistic description of what constitutes a family. In fact, it is this loose definition on which most American statistics are gathered. It deliberately does not include children since not all families have them, and, if they do, they might not live with them. Since, however, every cultural group might define the composition somewhat differently and many make much more rigid or narrow definitions, it is difficult to make cross-cultural comparisons.

In order to try to get some unity, anthropologists traditionally have attempted to define family in functional manner, emphasizing the aspects of sexual, economic, personal, and cultural identification; procreation; child rearing; and education. This is helpful, although not necessarily for statistical compilations, if only because such a definition allows room for a family to change over the life span of an individual - from infancy to childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, and with marriage or partnership agreements, parenthood, divorce, polygamy, and death and other crises.

FAMILY MYTHOLOGY

There has been a tendency for some contemporary observers to speak of the nuclear family as the basic unit on the erroneous assumption that only extended families existed in the past. But the nuclear family itself is continually being redefined through changes brought about by death, illness, job opportunities, separation, divorce, children leaving the home, and numerous other changes that take place during an individual's lifetime. This only emphasizes that individuals in any discussion of the family often approach it from different perspectives, often defining it politically rather than realistically. The result has been a rhetoric of unreality about the family both in the past and the present, based on little more than idealistic or clouded images derived from television portrayals like "Little House on the Prairie" or "Ozzie and Harriet. …

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