18 chapter eighteen Families

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chapter eighteen


What is a family?

How are families in the United States changing?

Why is there a debate over the future of the family?

Rosa Yniguez is one of seven children who grew up in Jalisco, Mexico, in a world in which families were proud of having many children. Rosa remembers visiting the home of friends of her parents who had a clock in their living room with a picture of each of their twelve children where the numbers on the clock face would be.

Now thirty-five years old, Yniguez is living in the United States and working as a cashier in a San Francisco department store near her home. Recalling her childhood, she says, “In Mexico, many of the families I knew had six, eight, ten children. Sometimes more. But I came to this country to get ahead. That is simply impossible with too many kids.” As a result of her desire to keep her job and make a better life for her family, Yniguez has decided to have no more than the three children she has now.

Hispanics have become the largest racial or ethnic minority in the United States because of a traditionally high birth rate and large families. But today more and more Latinas are making the same decision as Rosa Yniguez and opting to have fewer children. Studies show that the birth rate for all immigrant women has dropped by 30 percent during the past decade (Navarro, 2004). 

Families have been with us for a very long time. But as this story indicates, U.S. families are changing in response to a number of factors, including the desire of women to have more career options and to provide better lives for their children. In fact, the family is changing faster than any other social institution (Bianchi & Spain, 1996). This chapter explores the changes in family life, as well as the diversity of families both around the world and here in the United States.

Families: Basic Concepts

The family is a social institution found in all societies that unites people in cooperative groups to care for one another, including any children. Family ties are also called kinship, a social bond based on common ancestry, marriage, or adoption. All societies contain families, but exactly whom people call their kin has varied through history and varies today from one culture to another. From the point of view of any individual, families change as we grow up, leaving the family into which we were born to form a family of our own.

Here as in other countries, families form around marriage, a legal relationship, usually involving economic cooperation, sexual activity, and childbearing. The traditional belief in the United States is that people should marry before having children; this expectation is found in the word matrimony, which in Latin means “the condition of motherhood.” Today two-thirds of children are born to married couples, but one-third are born to single women who may or may not live with a partner.

Families, then, have become more diverse. Which relationships are and are not considered a family can have important consequences, because companies typically extend benefits such as health care only to family members.

The U.S. Census Bureau, which collects data used by sociologists, counts as families only people living together who are linked by “blood, marriage, or adoption.”1 All Census Bureau data in this chapter are based on that definition. However, the trend in the United States is toward a broader definition of families to include both homosexual and heterosexual partners and unmarried as well as married couples who live together. These families of affinity are made up of people who think of themselves as a family and wish others to see them that way.

Families: Global Variations

How closely related do people have to be in order to be part of a family? In preindustrial societies, people commonly recognize the extended family, a family consisting of parents and children as well as other kin. This large group is sometimes called the consanguine family because it includes everyone with “shared blood.” With industrialization, however, increasing social mobility and geographic migration give rise to the nuclear family, a family composed of one or two parents and their children. The nuclear family is also called the conjugal family, meaning “based on marriage.” Although many people in our society think of kinship in terms of extended families, most people carry out daily routines within a nuclear family.

The family is changing most quickly in nations that have a large welfare state (see Chapter 17, “Politics and Government”). In the Thinking Globally box on page 472, the sociologist David Popenoe takes a look at Sweden, which, he claims, is home to the weakest families in the world.

Marriage Patterns

Cultural norms, and often laws, identify people as suitable or unsuitable marriage partners. Some marital norms promote endogamy, marriage between people of the same social category. Endogamy limits potential partners to people of the same age, race, religion, or social class. By contrast, exogamy is marriage between people of different social categories. In rural areas of India, for example, people are expected to marry someone of the same caste (endogamy) but from a different village (exogamy). The reason for endogamy is that people of similar position pass along their standing to their offspring, maintaining the traditional social hierarchy. Exogamy, on the other hand, links communities and encourages the spread of culture.

In high-income nations, laws permit only monogamy (from the Greek, meaning “one union”), marriage that unites two partners. Global Map 18–1 on page 474 shows that monogamy is the rule throughout North and South America as well as Europe, although many countries in Africa and southern Asia permit polygamy (from the Greek, meaning “many unions”), marriage that unites a person with two or more spouses. Polygamy has two forms. By far the more common form is polygyny (from the Greek, meaning “many women”), marriage that unites one man and two or more women. For example, Islamic nations in the Middle East and Africa permit men up to four wives. Even so, most Islamic families are monogamous because few men can afford to support several wives and even more children.


The Weakest Families on Earth? A Report from Sweden

The Swedes have managed to avoid many of the social problems—violent crime, drug abuse, and savage poverty—that blight whole cities in the United States. Instead, this Scandinavian nation seems to fulfill the promise of the modern welfare state, with a large and professional government bureaucracy that sees to virtually all human needs.

But one drawback of an expanding welfare state, according to David Popenoe (1991, 1994), is that Sweden has the weakest families on Earth. Because people look to the government, not spouses, for economic assistance, Swedes are less likely to marry than members of any other high-income society. For the same reason, Sweden also has a high share of adults living alone (36 percent compared to 24 percent in the United States). In addition, a large proportion of couples live together outside marriage (28 percent, versus 7 in the United States), and more than half of all Swedish children (compared to one-third in the United States) are born to unmarried parents. Average household size in Sweden is also the smallest in the world (2.0 persons, versus 2.6 in the United States). Finally, Swedish couples, whether married or not, are more likely to break up than partners in any other high-income nation.

Popenoe claims that a growing culture of individualism and self-fulfillment, along with the declining influence of religion, began eroding Swedish families in the 1960s. The movement of women into the labor force also played a part. Today Sweden has the lowest proportion of women who are homemakers (10 percent, versus 22 percent in the United States) and the highest percentage of women in the labor force (77 percent, versus 59 percent in the United States).

But most important, according to Popenoe, is the expansion of the welfare state. The Swedish government offers its citizens a lifetime of services. Swedes can count on the government to deliver and school their children, provide comprehensive health care, support them when they are out of work, and pay for their funerals.

Many Swedes supported this welfare state, thinking it would strengthen families. But as Popenoe sees it, government is really replacing families. Take the case of child care: The Swedish government operates child care centers, staffed by professionals and available regardless of parents’ income. However, the government gives nothing to parents who wish to care for children in their own home. In effect, government benefits encourage people to let the state do what family members used to do for themselves.

But if Sweden’s system has solved so many social problems, why should anyone care about the family getting weaker? For two reasons, says Popenoe. First, it is very expensive for government to provide many “family” services; this is the main reason that Sweden has one of the highest rates of taxation in the world. Second, it is unlikely that government employees in large child care centers can provide children with the same love and emotional security given by two parents living as a family. Popenoe believes that small, intimate groups do some things better than large organizations.

What do you think?

1. Do you agree with Popenoe that government should not replace families? Explain your answer.

2. In the United States, we have a much smaller welfare state than in Sweden; should our government do more for its people? Why or why not?

3. With regard to children, list two specific things that government can do better than parents and two things that parents do better than government.

Polyandry (from the Greek, meaning “many men” or “many husbands”) is marriage that unites one woman and two or more men. This extremely rare pattern exists in Tibet, a mountainous land where agriculture is difficult. There, polyandry discourages the division of land into parcels too small to support a family and divides the work of farming among many men.

Most of the world’s societies have at some time permitted more than one marital pattern. Even so, most marriages have been monogamous (Murdock, 1965, orig. 1949). This historical preference for monogamy reflects two facts of life: Supporting several spouses is very expensive, and the number of men and women in most societies is roughly equal.


Given the high level of divorce in the United States, do you think “serial monogamy” would be a better description of our marriage system than “monogamy”? Explain your position.

Residential Patterns

Just as societies regulate mate selection, they also designate where a couple lives. In preindustrial societies, most newlyweds live with one set of parents who offer them protection, support, and assistance. Most common is the norm of patrilocality (Greek for “place of the father”), a residential pattern in which a married couple lives with or near the husband’s family. But some societies (such as the North American Iroquois) favor matrilocality (meaning “place of the mother”), a residential pattern in which a married couple lives with or near the wife’s family. Societies that engage in frequent local warfare tend toward patrilocality, so sons are close to home to offer protection. On the other hand, societies that engage only in distant warfare may be either patrilocal or matrilocal, depending on whether its sons or daughters have greater economic value (Ember & Ember, 1971, 1991).

Industrial societies show yet another pattern. Finances permitting, they favor neolocality (from the Greek, meaning “new place”), a residential pattern in which a married couple lives apart from both sets of parents.

Patterns of Descent

Descent refers to the system by which members of a society trace kinship over generations. Most preindustrial societies trace kinship through either the father’s side or the mother’s side of the family. Patrilineal descent, the more common pattern, is a system tracing kinship through men. In this pattern, children are related to others only through their fathers, so that fathers pass property on to their sons. Patrilineal descent characterizes most pastoral and agrarian societies, in which men produce the most valued resources. Less common is matrilineal descent, a system tracing kinship through women. Matrilineal descent, in which mothers pass property to their daughters, is found more frequently in horticultural societies, where women are the main food producers.

Industrial societies with greater gender equality recognize bilateral descent (“two-sided descent”), a system tracing kinship through both men and women. In this pattern, children recognize people on both the father’s side and the mother’s side as relatives.


Based on this discussion, how would you explain the common practice in the United States of a woman taking her husband’s name after marriage?

Patterns of Authority

Worldwide, polygyny, patrilocality, and patrilineal descent are dominant and reflect the global pattern of patriarchy. But in industrial societies like the United States, more egalitarian family patterns are evolving, especially as the share of women in the labor force goes up. However, men are still typically heads of households, and most U.S. parents give children their father’s last name.

Theoretical Analysis of Families

As in earlier chapters, the three major theoretical approaches offer a range of insights about the family. We can use all three to gain a deeper understanding of family life.

Functions of the Family: Structural-Functional Analysis

According to the structural-functional approach, the family performs many vital tasks. In fact, the family operates as the backbone of society.

1. Socialization. As explained in Chapter 5 (“Socialization”), the family is the first and most important setting for child rearing. Ideally, parents help children become well-integrated, contributing members of society (Parsons & Bales, 1955). Of course, family socialization continues throughout the life cycle. Adults change within marriage, and as any parent knows, mothers and fathers learn as much from their children as their children learn from them.

2. Regulation of sexual activity. Every culture regulates sexual activity in the interest of maintaining kinship organization and property rights. The incest taboo is a norm forbidding sexual relations or marriage between certain relatives. Although the incest taboo exists in every society, exactly which relatives cannot marry varies from one culture to another. The matrilineal Navajo, for example, forbid marrying any relative of one’s mother. Our bilateral society applies the incest taboo to both sides of the family but limits it to close relatives, including parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts, and uncles (National Map 8–1 on page 197 shows which states allow or forbid first-cousin marriages). But even brother-sister (but not parent-child) marriages existed among the ancient Egyptian, Incan, and Hawaiian nobility (Murdock, 1965, orig. 1949).

Reproduction between close relatives of any species can result in mental and physical damage to offspring. Yet only human beings observe an incest taboo, a fact suggesting that the key reason for controlling incest is social. Why? First, the incest taboo limits sexual competition in families by restricting sex to spouses. Second, because kinship defines people’s rights and obligations toward one another, reproduction among close relatives would hopelessly confuse kinship ties and threaten social order. Third, forcing people to marry outside their immediate families ties together the larger society.

3. Social placement. Families are not needed for people to reproduce, but they help maintain social organization. Parents pass on their own social identity—in terms of race, ethnicity, religion, and social class—to their children at birth.

4. Material and emotional security. Many people view the family as a “haven in a heartless world,” offering physical protection, emotional support, and financial assistance. Perhaps this is why people living in families tend to be happier, healthier, and wealthier than people living alone (Goldstein & Kenney, 2001; U.S. Census Bureau, 2005).

Critical review  Structural-functional analysis explains why society, at least as we know it, is built on families. But this approach glosses over the diversity of U.S. family life and ignores how other social institutions (such as government) could meet some of the same human needs. Finally, structural-functionalism overlooks negative aspects of family life, including patriarchy and family violence.


To understand what your family means to you, make a list of all the benefits of family life, and then try to find an alternative source (such as friends, clubs, or government) for each one.

Inequality and the Family: Social-Conflict and Feminist Analysis

Like the structural-functional approach, the social-conflict approach, including feminist analysis, considers the family as central to our way of life. But rather than focusing on ways that kinship benefits society, this approach points out how the family perpetuates social inequality.

1. Property and inheritance. Friedrich Engels (1902, orig. 1884) traced the origin of the family to men’s need (especially in the upper classes) to identify heirs so that they could hand down property to their sons. Families thus concentrate wealth and reproduce the class structure in each new generation.

2. Patriarchy. Feminists link the family to patriarchy. To know their heirs, men must control the sexuality of women. Families therefore transform women into the sexual and economic property of men. A century ago in the United States, most wives’ earnings belonged to their husbands. Today women still bear most of the responsibility for child rearing and housework (Benokraitis & Feagin, 1995; Stapinski, 1998; England, 2001).

3. Racial and ethnic inequality. Racial and ethnic categories persist over generations because most people marry others like themselves. Endogamous marriage supports racial and ethnic hierarchies.

Critical review  Social-conflict and feminist analysis shows another side of family life: its role in social stratification. Engels criticized the family as supporting capitalism. But noncapitalist societies also have families (and family problems). The family may be linked to social inequality, as Engels argued, but the family carries out societal functions not easily accomplished by other means.

Constructing Family Life: Micro-Level Analysis

Both structural-functional and social-conflict analyses view the family as a structural system. By contrast, micro-level analysis explores how individuals shape and experience family life.

Symbolic-Interaction Analysis

Ideally, family living offers an opportunity for intimacy, a word with Latin roots meaning “sharing fear.” As family members share many activities over time, they build emotional bonds. Of course, the fact that parents act as authority figures often limits their closeness with younger children. Only as children approach adulthood do kinship ties open up to include sharing confidences with greater intimacy (Macionis, 1978).

Social-Exchange Analysis

Social-exchange analysis, another micro-level approach, describes courtship and marriage as forms of negotiation (Blau, 1964). Dating allows each person to assess the advantages and disadvantages of a potential spouse. In essence, exchange analysts suggest, people “shop around” for partners to make the best “deal” they can.

In patriarchal societies, gender roles dictate the elements of exchange: Men bring wealth and power to the marriage marketplace, and women bring beauty. The importance of beauty explains women’s traditional concern with their appearance. But as women have joined the labor force, they are less dependent on men to support them, and so the terms of exchange are converging for men and women.

Applying Theory


Structural-Functional Approach

Social-Conflict and Feminist Approach

Symbolic-Interaction Approach

What is the level of analysis?




What is the importance of the family for society?

The family performs vital tasks, including socializing the young and providing emotional and financial support for members.

The family perpetuates social inequality by handing down wealth from one generation to the next.

The reality of family life is constructed by members in their interaction.

The family helps regulate sexual activity.

The family supports patriarchy as well as racial and ethnic inequality.

Courtship typically brings together people who offer the same level of advantages.


Thinking about the “marriage marketplace,” why do you think women have traditionally been less willing than men to reveal their age?

Critical review  Micro-level analysis balances structural-functional and social-conflict visions of the family as an institutional system. Both the interaction and exchange viewpoints focus on the individual experience of family life. However, micro-level analysis misses the bigger picture: Family life is similar for people in the same social and economic categories. The Applying Theory table summarizes what we can learn by applying each of the theoretical approaches to family life.

Stages of Family Life

The family is a dynamic institution, with marked changes across the life course. New families begin with courtship and evolve as the new partners settle into the realities of married life. Next, for most couples at least, come the years spent developing careers and raising children, leading to the later years of marriage after the children have left home to form families of their own. We will look briefly at each of these four stages.


November 2, Kandy, Sri Lanka.  Winding through the rain forest of this beautiful island, our van driver, Harry, recounts how he met his wife. Actually, he explains, it was more of an arrangement: The two families were both Buddhist and of the same caste. “We got along well, right from the start,” recalls Harry. “We had the same background. I suppose she or I could have said no. But love marriages happen in the city, not in the village where I grew up.”

In rural Sri Lanka, as in rural areas of low- and middle-income countries throughout the world, most people consider courtship too important to be left to the young (Stone, 1977). Arranged marriages are alliances between extended families of similar social standing and usually involve an exchange not just of children but also of wealth and favors. Romantic love has little to do with marriage, and parents may make such arrangements when their children are very young. A century ago in Sri Lanka and India, for example, half of all girls married before reaching age fifteen (Mayo, 1927; Mace & Mace, 1960). As the Thinking Globally box on page 478 explains, child marriage is still found in some parts of the world today.

Because traditional societies are more culturally homogeneous, almost all young men and women have been well socialized to be good spouses. Therefore, parents can arrange marriages with little thought about whether or not the two individuals involved are personally compatible because they know that the partners will be culturally compatible.

Industrialization erodes the importance of extended families and weakens tradition. Young people in industrial societies choose their own mates and delay marriage until they have gained the financial security needed to live apart from their parents and the experience needed to select a suitable partner. During this time, dating sharpens courtship skills and allows sexual experimentation.

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