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Family as a Social Phenomenon


Family is the basic unit of social organization in all human societies. Since prehistoric times, families have served as the primary institution responsible for raising children, providing people with food and shelter, and satisfying peoples need for love and support. The term family generally refers to a group of people relatedto one another by birth, marriage, or adoption. In contemporary society, people often apply the word family to any group that feels a sense of kinship(family connection).

Family types vary in different countries and among different cultures. In Western, industrialized societies, the nuclear familyranks as the most common family type. It consists of a father, a mother, and their children. But nuclear families exist alongside many other types of family units. In the singleparent family, for example, a mother or a father heads the family alone. A blended familyis formed when a divorcedor widowedparent remarries. As divorce rates have risen, the number of singleparent and blended families has increased.

An increasingly common family form in Western societies is the consensual union, in which coupleslive together but remain unmarried. When a homosexual couple decides to live together as a family, they form a same-sex union. Although such unions have become more common, most countries do not recognize them as legal families. People often call a married couple whose children have grown up and left home an empty-nest family.

In many parts of the world, parents and children live together with other family members under the same roof. These complex families usually contain several generations of family members, including grandparents, parents, and children. They may also include brothersor sistersand their families, uncles, aunts, and cousins. Even when relatives do not live together, they still consider themselves members of the same extended family.

Family members can be relatedto one another by blood that is, by birth; by affinity that is, through marriage; or through adoption. Most nuclear families consist of a father, a mother, and their biological children (children born to them). When a couple adopts a child, the child becomes a member of their family. Brothers and sisters who share the same parents are siblings. Half brothersand half sistersshare either the same biological mother or biological father. When divorced or widowed parents remarry, the parents new spouse becomes the childrens stepfatheror stepmother.

Children from the couples previous marriages become stepbrothersand stepsistersto one another. When people marry, they gain a new set of relatives called in-laws. The mother of a persons spouseis called a mother-in-law, the brother is called a brother-in-law, and so on throughout the rest of the family.

The parents of a persons mother or father are that persons grandparents. Great-grandparentsare the parents of a persons grandparents. An aunt is the sister of a persons mother or father. An uncle is the brother of a parent. An uncles wife is also called aunt, and an aunts husband is also called uncle. A first cousinis the child of a persons aunt or uncle. The child of a first cousin is a persons first cousin once removed that is, removed by one generation. Children of first cousins are second cousins to each other.

Some people consider certain friends as part of their family because they feel special affection for them. Though these friends are not true family members, such friends are called fictive kin, and family members might call them aunts or uncles. Relatives or close friends of a parent may become godparentsto that parents children. Godparents, as sponsors to a Christian baptism, often play more vital roles in the lives of families than other fictive kin. In Latin American and Hispanic American families, godparents, or compadres, provide advice, emotional support, and assistance in times of need.

Families perform many necessary functions, both for individual family members and for society as a whole. In virtually all cultures, the family serves as the basic institution for bearing children, caring for them during their early years, and preparing them to function effectively in society. Families around the world must also provide food and clothing to their members. In addition, families meet important psychological needs, such as the need for love, support, and companionship. The familys duties have changed over time. In the past, families not only cared for the young but also grew their own food, made their own clothing, and provided services for themselves that modern families generally do not provide. Parents taught reading, writing, and craft skills to their children. Families also cared for sick and elderlyrelatives and often provided financial support for members in need. Since the 1800s, many of these traditional responsibilities have shifted to such institutions as schools, hospitals, insurance companies, and nursing homes.

Roles within the family have also changed. Traditionally, the father was expected to take up an occupation to support his wife and children. The mother, in turn, ran the home and cared for the children. Today, however, both parents commonly work outside the home, and fathers often perform household dutiesformerly expected of women.

The home is the center of family activities. These activities include raising children, eating meals, playing games, watching television, keeping house, and entertaining friends. In the home, children learn basic social skills, such as how to talk and get along with others. They also learn health and safety habits there. A familys home life is influenced by which members live in the home and by the roles each member plays. Home life can also be affected by relatives who live outside the familys home. Traditions, laws, and social conditions help determine who lives in a home and the place each family member holds.

Traditions, which are customs or beliefs that people have followed for a long time, strongly influence family life. For example, some Americans have little contact with relatives outside the nuclear family. But many Chinese families feel strong ties to such relatives and see them often. Aunts, uncles, and cousins traditionally play important roles in the lives of these people.

Laws affect family behavior in various ways. Some set forth the legal rights and responsibilities people have as husbands, wives, parents, and children. In many Western nations, laws forbid abuse of children by parents, and of one spouseby the other. Laws also deal with marriage, divorce, and adoption. Social conditions can also influence family life. For example, in cultures that discourage women from working outside the home, mothers become full-time homemakers, while men act as the sole wage earners.

(Steven Mintz, Ph.D., Associate Professor of History, University of Houston.)

5. Answer the questions:

1. What is the role of the family in modern society?

2. What responsibilities do parents have toward their children?

3. How many different types of family do you know?

4. What is a nuclear family (single-parent family, blended family, consensual union, same-sex union, empty-nest family, extended family)?

5. In what countries does an extended family type still predominate? What type of family is the most characteristic one for your country?

6. How can family members be related to one another?

7. What is the difference between siblings and half-brothers or sisters?

8. How are second cousins related to each other?

9. Who are in-laws?

10. Whom do we call fictive kin?

11. What are the functions the family fulfills in society?

12. How have these functions changed over time?

13. How have traditional family roles changed?

14. What laws regulate relations within a family?

: 2016-08-29

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