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A family of Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso in 1997

A family is a domestic group of people, or a number of domestic groups, typically affiliated by birth or marriage, or by comparable legal relationships including domestic partnership, adoption, surname and in some cases ownership (as was the case in the Roman Empire).

Although many people (including social scientists) have understood familial relationships in terms of "blood," many anthropologists have argued that the notion of "blood" must be understood metaphorically, and in that in many societies family is understood through other concepts rather than "blood."

Article 16(3) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says, "The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State".

Family cross-culturally

According to sociology and anthropology, the primary function of the family is to reproduce society, either biologically, socially, or both. Thus, one's experience of one's family shifts over time. From the perspective of children, the family is a family of orientation: the family serves to locate children socially, and plays a major role in their enculturation and socialization. From the point of view of the parent(s), the family is a family of procreation the goal of which is to produce and enculturate and socialize children. However, producing children is not the only function of the family. In societies with a sexual division of labor, marriage, and the resulting relationship between a husband and wife, is necessary for the formation of an economically productive household. In modern societies marriage entails particular rights and privilege that encourage the formation of new families even when there is no intention of having children.

The structure of families traditionally hinges on relations between parents and children, between spouses, or both. Consequently, there are four major types of family: patrifocal, matrifocal, consanguineal and conjugal. (Note: these are ideal families. In all societies there are acceptable deviations from the ideal or statistical norm, owing either to incidental circumstances, such as the death of a member of the family, infertility or personal preferences).

A patrifocal family consists of a father and his children and is found in societies where men take multiple wives (polygamy or polygyny)and/or remain involved with each for a relatively short time. This type of family is rare from a worldwide perspective but occurs in Islamic states with considerable frequency. In some emirates the laws encourage this structure by allowing a maximum of four wives per man at any given time, and automatic deflection of custody rights to the father in the case of a divorce. In these societies a man will often take a wife and may conceive a child with her, but after a relatively short time put her out of his harem so he can take another woman without exceeding the quota of 4. The man then keeps his child and thus a patrifocal structure emerges. Even without the expulsion of the mother, the structure may be patrifocal because the children (often as infants) are removed from the harem structure and placed into the father's family.

A matrifocal family consists of a mother and her children. Generally, these children are her biological offspring, although adoption of children is a practice in nearly every society. This kind of family is common where women have the resources to rear their children by themselves, or where men are more mobile than women.

A consanguineal family consists of a mother and her children, and other people — usually the family of the mother. This kind of family is common where mothers do not have the resources to rear their children on their own, and especially where property is inherited. When important property is owned by men, consanguineal families commonly consist of a husband and wife, their children and other members of the husband's family.

A conjugal family consists of one or more mothers and their children, and/or one or more spouses (usually husbands). This kind of family is common where there is a division of labor requiring the participation of both men and women, and where families are relatively mobile. A notable subset of this family type is the nuclear family, in which one woman has one husband and they raise their children together.

Family in the West

The Simpson family is intended to represent the average middle American "nuclear" family.

The preceding types of families are found in a wide variety of settings, and their specific functions and meanings depend largely on their relationship to other social institutions. Sociologists are especially interested in the function and status of these forms in stratified, especially capitalist, societies.

Non-scholars, especially in the United States and Europe, use the term "nuclear family" to refer to conjugal families. Sociologists distinguish between conjugal families that are relatively independent of the kindreds of the parents and of other families in general, and nuclear families which maintain relatively close ties with their kindreds.

Non-scholars, especially in the United States and Europe, also use the term "extended family". This term has two distinct meanings. First, it is used synonymously with consanguinal family. Second, in societies dominated by the conjugal family, it is used to refer to kindred (an egocentric network of relatives that extends beyond the domestic group) who do not belong to the conjugal family.

These types refer to ideal or normative structures found in particular societies. In any society there is some variation in the actual composition and conception of families. Much sociological, historical and anthropological research is dedicated to understanding this variation, and changes over time in the family form. Thus, some speak of the bourgeois family, a family structure arising out of 16th and 17th century European households, in which the center of the family is a marriage between a man and woman, with strictly defined gender roles. The man typically is responsible for income and support, the woman for home and family matters. In contemporary Europe and the United States, people in academic, political and civil sectors have called attention to single-father-headed households, and families headed by same-sex couples, although academics point out that these forms exist in other societies.

Economic function of the family

In a traditional society the family is often supposed to have been the primary economic unit. This role has gradually diminished in modern times and in societies like the United States is much smaller except for certain sectors such as agriculture and a few upper class families. In China the family as an economic unit still plays a strong role in the countryside. However, the relations between the economic role of the family, its socio-economic mode of production and cultural values are highly complex.

Extended middle-class Midwestern U.S. family of Danish/German extraction

Kinship terminology

A kinship terminology is a specific system of familial relationships. The now rather dated anthropologist Louis Henry Morgan argued that kinship terminologies reflect different sets of distinctions. For example, most kinship terminologies distinguish between sexes (this is the difference between a brother and a sister) and between generations (this is the difference between a child and a parent). Moreover, he argued, kinship terminologies distinguish between relatives by blood and marriage (although recently some anthropologists have argued that many societies define kinship in terms other than "blood").

But Morgan also observed that different languages (and thus, societies) organize these distinctions differently. He thus proposed to describe kin terms and terminologies as either descriptive or classificatory. "Descriptive" terms refer to only one type of relationship, while "classificatory" terms refer to many types of relationships. Most kinship terminologies include both descriptive and classificatory terms. For example, in Western societies there is only one way to be related to one's brother (brother = parents' son); thus, in Western society, brother is a descriptive term. But there are many ways to be related to one's cousin (cousin = mother's brother's son, mother's sister's son, father's brother's son, father's sister's son, and so on); thus, in Western society, "cousin" is a classificatory term.

Morgan discovered that what may be a descriptive term in one society can be a classificatory term in another society. For example, in some societies there are many different people that one would call "mother" (the woman of whom one was born, as well as her sister and husband's sister, and also one's father's sister). Moreover, some societies do not lump together relatives that the West classifies together (in other words, in some languages there is no word for cousin because mother's sister's children and father's sister's children are referred to in different terms).

Armed with these different terms, Morgan identified six basic patterns of kinship terminologies:

  • Hawaiian: the most classificatory; only distinguishes between sex and generation.
  • Sudanese: the most descriptive; no two relatives are referred to by the same term.
  • Eskimo: has both classificatory and descriptive terms; in addition to sex and generation, also distinguishes between lineal relatives (who are related directly by a line of descent) and collateral relatives (who are related by blood, but not directly in the line of descent). Lineal relatives have highly descriptive terms, collateral relatives have highly classificatory terms.
  • Iroquois: has both classificatory and descriptive terms; in addition to sex and generation, also distinguishes between siblings of opposite sexes in the parental generation. Siblings of the same sex are considered blood relatives, but siblings of the opposite sex are considered relatives by marriage. Thus, one's mother's sister is also called mother, and one's father's brother is also called father; however, one's mother's brother is called father-in-law, and one's father's sister is called mother-in-law.
  • Crow: like Iroquois, but further distinguishes between mother's side and father's side. Relatives on the mother's side of the family have more descriptive terms, and relatives on the father's side have more classificatory terms.
  • Omaha: like Iroquois, but further distinguishes between mother's side and father's side. Relatives on the mother's side of the family have more classificatory terms, and relatives on the father's side have more descriptive terms.

Societies in different parts of the world and using different languages may share the same basic terminology; in such cases it is very easy to translate the kinship terms of one language into another, although connotations may vary. But it is usually impossible to translate directly the kinship terms of a society that uses one system into the language of a society that uses a different system.

Some languages, such as Chinese, Japanese, and Hungarian, add another dimension to some relations: relative age. There are, e.g., different words for "older brother" and "younger brother". Thus, although Westerners may naturally agree with Morgan that "brother" is descriptive rather than classificatory, speakers of these languages might disagree.

English kinship terminology

Shows the relationships and names for various family members.

Most Western societies employ English kinship terminology. This kinship terminology is common in societies based on conjugal (or nuclear) families, where nuclear families must be relatively mobile.

Members of the nuclear family use descriptive kinship terms:

  • Mother: the female parent
  • Father: the male parent
  • Son: the males born of the mother; sired by the father
  • Daughter: the females born of the mother; sired by the father
  • Brother: a male born of the same mother; sired by the same father
  • Sister: a female born of the same mother; sired by the same father

It is generally assumed that the mother's husband is also the genitor. In some families, a woman may have children with more than one man or a man may have children with more than one woman. Children who share one parent but not another are called "half-brothers" or "half-sisters." Children who do not share parents, but whose parents are married, are called "step-brothers" or "step-sisters."

If a person is married to the parent of a child, but is not the parent of the child themselves, then they are the "step-parent" of the child, either the "stepmother" or "stepfather". Children who are adopted into a family are generally called by the same terms as children born into the family.

Typically, societies with conjugal families also favor neolocal residence; thus upon marriage a person separates from the nuclear family of their childhood (family of orientation) and forms a new nuclear family (family of procreation). This practice means that members of one's own nuclear family were once members of another nuclear family, or may one day become members of another nuclear family.

Members of the nuclear families of members of one's own nuclear family may be lineal or collateral. When they are lineal, they are referred to in terms that build on the terms used within the nuclear family:

  • Grandparent
    • Grandfather: a parent's father
    • Grandmother: a parent's mother
  • Grandson: a child's son
  • Granddaughter: a child's daughter

When they are collateral, they are referred to in more classificatory terms that do not build on the terms used within the nuclear family:

  • Uncle: father's brother, father's sister's husband, mother's brother, mother's sister's husband
  • Aunt: father's sister, father's brother's wife, mother's sister, mother's brother's wife
  • Nephew: sister's sons, brother's sons
  • Niece: sister's daughters, brother's daughters

When separated by additional generations (in other words, when one's collateral relatives belong to the same generation as one's grandparents or grandchildren), these terms are modified by the prefix "great".

Most collateral relatives were never members of the nuclear family of the members of one's own nuclear family.

  • Cousin: the most classificatory term; the children of aunts or uncles. Cousins may be further distinguished by degree of collaterality and generation. Two persons of the same generation who share a grandparent are "first cousins" (one degree of collaterality); if they share a great-grandparent they are "second cousins" (two degrees of collaterality) and so on. If the shared ancestor is the grandparent of one individual and the great-grandparent of the other, the individuals are said to be "first cousins once removed" (removed by one generation); if the shared ancestor is the grandparent of one individual and the great-great-grandparent of the other, the individuals are said to be "first cousins twice removed" (removed by two generations), and so on. Similarly, if the shared ancestor is the great-grandparent of one person and the great-great-grandparent of the other, the individuals are said to be "second cousins once removed."

Distant cousins of an older generation (in other words, one's parents' first cousins) are technically first cousins once removed, but are often classified with "aunts" and "uncles".

Similarly, a person may refer to close friends of one's parents as "aunt" or "uncle," or may refer to close friends as "brother" or "sister". This practice is called fictive kinship.

Relationships by marriage, except for wife/husband, are qualified by the term "-in-law". The mother and father of one's spouse are one's mother-in-law and father-in-law; the spouse of one's son or daughter is one's son-in-law or daughter-in-law. The term "sister-in-law" refers to three essentially different relationships, either the wife of one's brother, or the sister of one's spouse, or the wife of one's spouse's sibling. "Brother-in-law" is similarly ambiguous. There are no special terms for the rest of one's spouse's family.

The terms "half-brother" and "half-sister" indicate siblings who one share only one parent.

Specific distinctions vary among Western societies. For instance, in French, the prefix beau- or belle- is used for both "-in-law" and "step-"; in other words, one's belle-soeur could be the sister of one's spouse, the wife of one's sibling, the wife of one's spouse's sibling, or the daughter of one's parent's spouse. In Spanish, each of the roles that English creates with the suffix "-in-law" has a different word (suegros parents-in-law, yerno son-in-law, nuera daughter-in-law, cuñados siblings-in-law), but there is a separate suffix -astro or -astra that is equivalent to "step-". In Swedish, terms for grandparents differ on the mother's and father's sides: "mormor" and "morfar" (mother-mother, mother-father) vs. "farfar" and "farmor" (father-father, father-mother).

Kin terms may not always be translatable, and if translatable, may be culture specific. For example, the Spanish word consuegro indicates the parent of one's son- or daughter-in-law (that is, two people whose children marry are consuegros to each other); there is no equivalent term in English. In polygynous African societies where English and French are official languages, a sister-wife (in French belle-épouse) is another wife of one's husband; although these terms are in common use ("I would leave my husband, but I like my sister-wives"), they are not readily understood in European cultures. The words brother, sister, aunt, uncle have stronger fictive-kinship nuances in many African cultures than in European ones, as exemplified by the phrase "he is my brother: same mother, same father" for a biological brother.

See also


  • American Kinship, David Schneider
  • A Natural History of Families, Scott Forbes, Princeton University Press, 2005, ISBN 0691094829
  • More Than Kin and Less Than Kind, Douglas W. Mock, Belknap Press, 2004, ISBN 0674012852

External links

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