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Family Structures

Diversity in Family Forms

There are many types of families, including family of procreation, nuclear family, binuclear family, blended family, and extended family.

Understandings of what constitutes a family are embedded in the culture of a society. Sociologists study how families exist and function within a particular society, sometimes pointing out the gap between assumptions about the idea of family and what data show about families. For example, in the United States a common assumption tends to characterize the past as a time of perfect families and straightforward norms and expectations related to the institution of the family. Many social scientists refer to this as the "nostalgia trap." The reality is that families in the United States and elsewhere have always taken many forms. Their makeup has always included, to some degree, same-sex relationships, stepfamilies, mixed-race families, and families who have chosen not to have children or not to marry at all.

Family structures vary from culture to culture and change over time. However, sociologists define five main types of family structures.

  • A binuclear family is a unit made up of two households formed by divorce, usually consisting of children and new spouses of the divorced parents.
  • A family of procreation, also known as family of orientation, refers to the family people are born into.
  • A nuclear family is a parent-child unit, consisting of at least one parent and one child.
  • A blended family consists of two or more participating adults and their children as well as children from previous relationships. Children in this type of family live with both sets of parents or near one while living with the other.
  • An extended family includes relatives beyond the family of procreation, based on blood and kinship bonds.

These types of families are not static. People might find themselves in more than one type of family over time. Within a family of procreation multiple family structures can develop as kinship ties move out to tertiary forms. Within all these categories are diverse forms of families including same-sex marriages and relationships, mixed-race families, and created families, those based on close ties with friends and fictive kin.

Family Norms and Patterns

Social and cultural norms relating to families reflect and contribute to social, economic, and political change.

Sociologists often look at how social norms around families and family structures change alongside cultural, economic, and political trends. One area of interest is the composition of households. In the United States, sociologists and demographers consider a household to be a group of people living together within one housing unit. Norms related to households reflect patterns in a society. For example, cohabitation, living with a romantic partner without being married, is a relatively new cultural norm that developed in many societies during the 20th century. The increasing prevalence of cohabitation is also a significant factor that has impacted marriage and divorce rates in the United States. Economic influences can also affect social and cultural norms related to households and families. One illustration of this is the way that the strength of the economy can impact how and where young adults live. During extended economic downturns, it can be difficult for young adults to achieve financial independence. This can create social expectations of an extended period of financial responsibility for parents toward children. It can change social norms about housing situations, as financial pressures encourage young adults to remain or return to living with their parents. For instance, in the United States sociologists study the "boomerang effect." This refers to a pattern of young adults leaving home for college and then returning home after graduation. In most cases, this is connected to economic patterns—college graduates cannot find jobs and are burdened by student debt. The boomerang effect also tends to push the average age of first marriage upward, as young adults seek financial stability before committing to marriage.

Immigration patterns can also impact social norms around families. Large numbers of immigrants bring new cultural patterns to a society, such as patterns related to multigenerational living. In the United States there was a decline over the course of the 20th century in the number of multigenerational households. However, as immigration led to greater racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity in the overall population, this trend has reversed somewhat. Researchers attribute this change particularly to the increased Hispanic population in the United States. Both Hispanic and Asian families are more likely than other groups to live in multigenerational households. Hispanic immigration to the United States since 1980 has significantly changed the demographic makeup of the country. The family norms of Hispanic cultures have thus become more prevalent throughout the United States.