What do we mean by 'family'?
What do we mean by 'family'?

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What do we mean by 'family'?

2 Can we, and should we, define what we mean by ‘family’ ?

2.1 Attempting definitions

A common foundation for any academic discussion – as you may be well aware – is to start by defining the key terms. Not only may this help towards clear thinking and communication, it can also itself constitute a very significant theoretical task, since concepts make up the basic framework for developing knowledge about any subject.

Activity 1

Without any further reading, you may like to spend a couple of minutes writing down how you might define ‘family’ if you were embarking on an academic essay about family lives. What key elements do you think should be included in any definition?



You may have found this to be quite a straightforward task, or you may have found it really difficult. Either way, as you read on, you can compare your own definition with the following discussion of the academic debates. Social scientists have also varied as to how far they regard the task of defining ‘family’ as relatively straightforward or fraught with difficulties. Indeed, students sometimes joke about how much social scientists seem to love endlessly discussing key terms and their meanings, and defining ‘family’ could certainly serve as an example!

Some writers thus offer definitions of ‘family’ with apparent confidence, as if the term is unproblematic:

A group of people, related by kinship or similar close ties, in which the adults assume responsibility for the care and upbringing of their natural or adopted children.

(Jary and Jary, 1995)

Others pay more attention to diversity and variation, but even so, may presume some shared underlying features, so that the definition of ‘family’ becomes variations on a theme. Common elements include:

  • co-residency and domesticity

  • blood, legal or (hetero)sexual ties

  • the care of children.

You may have observed, however, that these themes – taken together – evoke strong resonances with the notion of the nuclear family: i.e. the model of ‘the family’ that encompasses two married parents living together with their shared biological children. Nevertheless, some sociological definitions also take care to point out that this is indeed a model which is taken to represent an (idealised) institution. In this sense, then, it is something that needs to be understood separately from people's lived experiences of family, which may or may not correspond to this model. It is also a model with limited historical and cultural relevance.

  • As these debates have developed, then, efforts have been made to:

  • identify the institutionalised model of ‘family’ separately from the lived experience of family

  • incorporate diversity and variations

  • acknowledge the gap between ideals and (sometimes harsh) realities.

Some writers have gone further still, putting the uncertainty about the meaning of family at the centre of any attempt at definition:

family Most commonly, a social group defined in some combination by parentage, kinship (including marriage), and co-residence. Historically, the family has been taken to be the basic unit of social organization, but the latter half of the twentieth century has seen a widespread breakdown of consensus about the meaning of the term. Once presumed to be a universal feature of human societies (subject to certain variations), both structural definitions of the family based on the kin relations that compose it and … definitions based on the functions that it performs (e.g., reproduction) have failed to meet the challenge of the observed variety of forms of collective, small-group life in human societies.

(Calhoun, 2002)

These are very important insights which go beyond the days when the family was seen as a solid, natural and unremarkable object of study or policy-making, as in the UK Beveridge Report (1942), for example. This report, which formed the foundation of the Welfare State after 1945 and the Second World War, was based on the assumption of the nuclear white heterosexual family. More recent policy debates, and guidelines used by professionals such as social workers, struggle between wanting to deploy the rhetoric of ‘the family’ as if this is unproblematic, whilst also recognising diversity of family forms and cultures in order to be able to ‘speak’ to the population at large. So what is seen as new about diversity and change in contemporary family lives in European and New World countries may in fact be a recognition of the variable and diverse meanings that we give to this term. By acknowledging diversity, it is easier to think about and acknowledge the variations and ambiguities in family meanings and in families themselves. Nevertheless, this recognition of the varied meanings of ‘family’ does not happen consistently. Furthermore, particular meanings may also confer moral judgements and evaluations about what are the ‘best’ or most ‘normal’ families. The meanings attached to family have thus become more open to argument, not only in everyday and policy contexts, but also in academic discussions.


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