family (in sociology)

family, a basic unit of social structure, the exact definition of which can vary greatly from time to time and from culture to culture. How a society defines family as a primary group, and the functions it asks families to perform, are by no means constant. There has been much recent discussion of the nuclear family, which consists only of parents and children, but the nuclear family is by no means universal. In the United States, the percentage of households consisting of a nuclear family declined from 45% in 1960 to 23.5% in 2000. In preindustrial societies, the ties of kinship bind the individual both to the family of orientation, into which one is born, and to the family of procreation, which one founds at marriage and which often includes one's spouse's relatives. The nuclear family also may be extended through the acquisition of more than one spouse (polygamy and polygyny), or through the common residence of two or more married couples and their children or of several generations connected in the male or female line. This is called the extended family; it is widespread in many parts of the world, by no means exclusively in pastoral and agricultural economies. The primary functions of the family are reproductive, economic, social, and educational; it is through kin—itself variously defined—that the child first absorbs the culture of his group.

Evolution of the Western Family

The patriarchal family, which prevailed among the ancient Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans, is often associated with polygamy (see marriage). In Rome, the paterfamilias was the only person recognized as an independent individual under the law. He possessed all religious rights as priest of the family ancestor cult, all economic rights as sole owner of the family property, and power of life and death over the members of the family. At his death, his name, property, and authority descended to his male heirs. The Roman system was transferred in many of its details into both the canon and secular law of Western Europe.

In the 19th cent., when the Western nations began to grant women equal rights with men with respect to the ownership of property (see husband and wife), the control of children (see parent and child), divorce, and the like, basic changes took place in the structure of the family, and the rights and protections associated with it. The state has also intervened to modify the authority of parents over their children. At the same time, education has shifted increasingly from the household to the school. The effect has been to loosen traditional family ties. In Western Europe, where legislation provides equal financial benefits and legal standing to all children, families have increasingly come to consist of one or two unwed parents and children, especially in Scandinavia and other parts of N Europe. The trend toward unwed parents has also occurred in the United States, where about 40% of children in the early 21st cent. were born to unwed mothers.

Another factor affecting the modern Euro-American family was the Industrial Revolution, which removed from the home to the factory many economic tasks, such as baking, spinning, and weaving. Economic and social conditions have discouraged the presence of the husband and father in the home; in industrial communities the wife and mother also is often employed outside the home, leaving the children to be cared for by others. Sociologists and psychologists find in these changed relations of the members of the family to each other and of the family to the community at large the source of many problems such as divorce, mental illness, and juvenile delinquency.


See W. J. Goode, The Family (1964); R. H. Klemer, Marriage and Family Relationships (1970); P. Laslett, Household and Family in Past Time (1972); T. Hareven, Transitions: The Family and the Life Course in Historical Perspective (1978); J. Elshtain, The Family in Political Thought (1982).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2014, The Columbia University Press.

Family: Selected full-text books and articles

The Family: A World History
Mary Jo Maynes; Ann Waltner.
Oxford University Press, 2012
Family Policy Matters: How Policymaking Affects Families and What Professionals Can Do
Karen Bogenschneider.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2002
Introduction to Family Processes
Randal D. Day.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2003 (4th edition)
Between Sex and Power: Family in the World, 1900-2000
Göran Therborn.
Routledge, 2004
Couples, Kids, and Family Life
Jaber F. Gubrium; James A. Holstein.
Oxford University Press, 2006
Families as Relationships
Robert M. Milardo; Steve Duck.
Wiley, 2000
Readings on the Changing Family
David A. Schulz; Robert A. Wilson.
Prentice-Hall, 1973
The Family on the Threshold of the 21st Century: Trends and Implications
Solly Dreman.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1997
Normal Family Processes: Growing Diversity and Complexity
Froma Walsh.
Guilford Press, 2003 (3rd edition)
Families and Societies: Survival or Extinction?
Betty Yorburg.
Columbia University Press, 1983
Family, Justice, and Delinquency
Brenda Geiger; Michael Fischer.
Greenwood Press, 1995
Kinship and Family Organization
Bernard Farber.
John Wiley & Sons, 1966
Nontraditional Families: Parenting and Child Development
Michael E. Lamb.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1982
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