Introduction to Sociology
Monday March 29, 2010
I. What is a family?
A. General definition and characteristics
1. The family is a primary group of people, usually related by ancestry,
marriage, or adoption, who form a cooperative economic unit and care for
the young and each other. The family members consider their identity to
be intimately attached to the group, and they are committed to maintaining
the group over time. (for instance, a biological father who maintains no
social or economic ties to his kids, and who does not identify with those
children would NOT be considered family)
a. Although earlier definitions often specified that family
members “reside together” this is no longer part of the widely-
accepted definition, given increases in the number of children
living apart from their non-custodial parent, and other changes
such as an increase in the number of “commuter marriages”.
The family is a social institution
, and thus it changes yet persists over
time. From the functionalist perspective, it contributes to the maintenance
of society by providing a setting for raising and rearing children.
3. Families are shaped by their relationship to systems of inequality in
society. Race, class, gender and age stratification affect how society
values certain families, and they influence the resources available to them.
4. The family is closely linked to other social institutions, such as law or
the economy. The economy is a very important influence on the family.
can have a powerful effect on how the family
Important family decisions such as whether to marry, cohabit,
divorce, and to have children (and how many children to have) are
strongly guided by economic factors.
Laws and legal changes
family roles and relationships. For instance, the law in 44 states currently
says that gays and lesbians cannot marry.
5. An important idea when studying families is that “
families are systems of
social relationships that emerge in response to social conditions and that, in turn,
shape the future direction of society.”
These social conditions can be conceptualized as
having both STRUCTURAL/INSTITUTIONAL and CULTURAL aspects. The former
refer to the influence of social institutions such as the economy, educational system, or
political system (as described above). Structural/institutional influences on family life
reflect the influence of established and organized systems of social behavior with a
Cultural influences on family structure and behavior refers to
widespread beliefs, norms, and values that define the way of life for a given group or