What is Family?

Family is a group of people joined by consanguinity (birth), affinity (marriage), or co-residence (based on the etymology of the English word “family”), and/or shared consumption (nurtured kinship).

Family Historical Society

In many societies around the world, family is the primary framework for the production and reproduction of people biologically and/or socially. As such, families are many times classified as matrifocal (mother and her children), conjugal (husband, wife, and children), avuncular (e.g. a grandparent, a brother, his sister, and her children), or extended (parents and children co-reside with other members of a parent’s family). In other contexts, the term “family” can also be used in reference to a community, nation, or global village.

Key components of building the family unit include sharing resources (for example, food and water), the providing of care and nurture, and fostering moral and emotional connections. Although for many centuries around the world, marriages were arranged for economic, social, or political reasons.

However, there is much historical data that points to the idea that the human family is more of an institution rather than just biological relationships. Even though the concept of “blood” relationships is at the center of many families, anthropologists also assert that the concept of “blood” can be metaphoric and many civilizations view family through other constructs besides biological connection. 

Many early academics asserted that Darwin’s biological theory of evolution was a key component in the evolution of families. Further, Friedrich Engels posited that economic factors led humans to the creation of families (and societies in general) from the primitive communities that previously existed. This theory was prevalent until about the 1980s when other theories such as “structural functionalism” took hold. Structural functionalism is a theory that views society as a complex system composed of parts that work together in the promotion of solidarity and stability. 

The modern Western definition of family has been greatly influenced by cultural and religious values as promulgated by religions such as Catholicism, Judaism, and Protestantism. Further, with the modern acceptance of divorce, there are many more so-called “blended families” which consist of families with mixed parents: one or both parents re-marry and bring their children into the new marriage.

The issue of whether or not the concept of family is “declining” in modern times relies heavily on one’s definition of “family.” For example, less half of American households center on a married family, and one-fifth of households are following the traditional method of a married couple raising a family together. However, it must be noted that there has been a modern societal shift toward emotional fulfillment and love being the driving factor behind marriage and family. That is, people primarily seek to get married and start a family because of love. That being the case, it could be argued that the overall concept of family is necessarily weakened since it is now considered more socially acceptable for parents to divorce and form new families based on emotional needs.