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The term family generally refers to a domestic group, or a number of
domestic groups linked through descent (demonstrated or stipulated) from a
common ancestor, marriage, or adoption. In mathematics, a family is a group
of, somehow, related functions or numbers; such as, a family of
antiderivatives. Families, mathematical or sociological, have some degree of kinship.
In Western culture, family refers specifically to a group of people
affiliated by blood or by legal ties such as marriage or adoption. Many
anthropologists argue that the notion of "blood" must be understood
metaphorically; some argue that there are many non-Western societies where
family is understood through other concepts rather than "blood."
According to sociology and anthropology, the primary function of the family
is to reproduce society, both (or either) biologically and (or) socially.
Thus, one's experience of one's family shifts over time. From the
perspective of children, the family is a family of orientation: the family
serves to locate children socially, and plays a major role in their
enculturation and socialization. From the point of view of the parent(s),
the family is a family of procreation the goal of which is to produce and
enculturate and socialize children. However, producing children is not the
only function of the family. In societies with a sexual division of labor,
marriage, and the resulting relationship between a husband and wife, is
necessary for the formation of an economically productive household. In
modern societies marriage entails particular rights and privilege that
encourage the formation of new families even when there is no intention of
The structure of families traditionally hinges on relations between parents
and children, between spouses, or both. Consequently, there are three major
types of family: matrifocal, consanguinal, and conjugal. (Note: these are
ideal families. In all societies there are acceptable deviations from the
ideal or statistical norm, owing either to incidental circumstances, such as
the death of a member of the family or infertility, or personal
A matrifocal family consists of a mother and her children. Generally, these
children are her biological offspring, although adoption of children is a
practice in nearly every society. This kind of family is common where women
have the resources to rear their children by themselves, or where men are
more mobile than women.
A consanguinal family consists of a mother and her children, and other
people -- usually the family of the mother. This kind of family is common
where mothers do not have the resources to rear their children on their own,
and especially where property is inherited. When important property is owned
by men, consanguinal families commonly consist of a husband and wife, their
children, and other members of the husband's family.
A conjugal family consists of one or more mothers and their children, and/or
one or more spouses (usually husbands). This kind of family is common where
men desire to assert control over children, or where there is a sexual
division of labor requiring the participation of both men and women, and
where families are relatively mobile.
Family in the West
The preceding types of families are found in a wide variety of settings, and
their specific functions and meanings depend largely on their relationship
to other social institutions. Sociologists are espcecially interested in the
function and status of these forms in stratified, especially capitalist,
Non-scholars, especially in the United States and Europe, also use the term
"nuclear family" to refer to conjugal families. Sociologists distinguish
between conjugal families that are relatively independent of the kindreds of
the parents, and of other families in general, and nuclear families which
maintain relatively close ties with their kindreds.
Non-scholars, especially in the United States and Europe, also use the term
extended family. This term has two distinct meanings. First, it is used
synonymously with consanguinal family. Second, in societies dominated by the
conjugal family, it is used to refer to kindred (an egocentric network of
relatives that extends beyond the domestic group) who do not belong to the
These types refer to ideal or normative structures found in particular
societies. In any society there is some variation in the actual composition
and conception of families. Much sociological, historical, and
anthropological research is dedicated to understanding this variation, and
changes over time in the family form. Thus, some speak of the bourgeois
family, a family structure arising out of 16th and 17th century European
households, in which the center of the family is a marriage between a man
and woman, with strictly defined gender roles. The man typically is
responsible for income and support, the woman for home and family matters.
In contemporary Europe and the United States, people in both the academy,
politics, and civil society have called attention to single-father-headed
households, and families headed by same-sex couples, although academics
point out that these forms exist in other societies.
A kinship terminology is a specific system of familial relationships. The
anthropologist Louis Henry Morgan argued that kinship terminologies reflect
different sets of distinctions. For example, most kinship terminologies
distinguish between genders (this is the difference between a brother and a
sister) and between generation (this is the difference between a sister and
a mother). Moreover, he argued, kinship terminologies distinguish between
relatives by blood and marriage (although recently some anthropologists have
argued that many societies define kinship in terms other than "blood").
But Morgan also observed that different languages (and thus, societies)
organize these distinctions differently. He thus proposed to describe kin
terms and terminologies as either descriptive or classificatory.
"Descriptive" terms refer to only one type of relationship, while
"clasificatory" terms refer to many types of relationships. Most kinship
terminologies include both descriptive and classificatory terms. For
example, in Western societies there is only one way to be related to one's
brother (brother = parents' son); thus, in Western society, brother is a
descriptive term. But there are many ways to be related to one's cousin
(cousin = mother's brother's son, mother's sister's son, father's brother's
son, father's sister's son, and so on); thus, in Western society, "cousin"
is a classificatory term.
Morgan discovered that what may be a descriptive term in one society can be
a classificatory term in another society. For example, in some societies
there are many different people that one would call "mother" (the woman of
whom one was born, as well as her sister and husband's sister, and also
one's father's sister). Moreover, some societies do not lump together
relatives that the West classifies together (in other words, in some
languages there is no word for cousin because mother's sister's children and
father's sister's children are referred to in different terms).
Armed with these different terms, Morgan identified six basic patterns of
* Hawaiian: the most classificatory; only distinguishes between gender
* Sudanese: the most descriptive; no two relatives are referred to by the
* Eskimo: has both classificatory and descriptive terms; in addition to
gender and generation, also distinguishes between lineal relatives (who
are related directly by a line of decent) and collateral relatives (who
are related by blood, but not directly in the line of descent). Lineal
relatives have highly descriptive terms, collateral relatives have
highly classificatory terms.
* Iroquois: has both classificatory and descriptive terms; in addition to
gender and generation, also distinguishes between siblings of opposite
sexes in the parental generation. Siblings of the same sex are
considered blood relatives, but siblings of the opposite sex are
considered relatives by marriage. Thus, one's mother's sister is also
called mother, and one's father's brother is also called father. But
one's mother's brother is called father-in-law, and one's father's
sister is called mother-in-law.
* Crow: like Iroqois, but further distinguishes between mother's side and
father's side. Relatives on the mother's side of the family have more
descriptive terms, and relatives on the father's side have more
* Omaha: like Iroqois, but further distinguishes between mother's side
and father's side. Relatives on the mother's side of the family have
more classificatory terms, and relatives on the father's side have more
Societies in different parts of the world and using different languages may
share the same basic terminology; in such cases it is very easy to translate
the kinship terms of one language into another. But it is usually impossible
to translate directly the kinship terms of a society that uses one system
into the language of a society that uses a different system.
Western kinship terminology
Most Western societies employ Eskimo Kinship terminology. This kinship
terminology is common in societies based on conjugal (or nuclear) families,
where nuclear families must be relatively mobile.
Members of the nuclear family use descriptive kinship terms:
* Mother: the woman of whom one was born
* Father: the husband of the mother
* Son: the males born of the woman or wife
* Daughter: the females born of the woman or wife
* Brother: a male born of the same mother
* Sister: a female born of the same mother
It is generally assumed that the mother's husband is also the genitor. In
some families, a woman may have children with more than one man or a man may
have children with more than one woman. Children who share one parent but
not another are called "half-brothers" or "half-sisters." Children who do
not share parents, but whose parents are married, are called "step-brothers"
or "step-sisters." Children who are adopted into the family are generally
called by the same terms as children born into the family.
Typically, societies with conjugal families also favor neolocal residence;
thus upon marriage a person separates from the nuclear family of their
childhood (family of orientation) and form a new nuclear family (family of
procreation). This practice means that members of one's own nuclear family
were once members of another nuclear family, or may one day become members
of another nuclear family.
Members of the nuclear families of members of one's own nuclear family may
be lineal or collateral. When they are lineal, they are referred to in terms
that build on the terms used within the nuclear family:
* Grandfather: a parents' father
* Grandmother: a parents' mother
* Grandson: a child's son
* Granddaughter: a child's daughter
When they are collateral, they are referred to in more classificatory terms
that do not build on the terms used within the nuclear family:
* Uncle: father's brother, father's sister's husband, mother's brother,
mother's brother's husband
* Aunt: father's sister, father's brother's wife, mother's sister,
mother's brother's wife
* Nephew: sister's sons, brother's sone
* Niece: sister's daughters, brother's daughters
When separated by additional generations (in other words, when one's
collateral relatives belong to the same generation as one's grandparents or
grandchildren), these terms are modified by the prefix "grand".
Most collateral relatives were never members of the nuclear family of the
members of one's own nuclear family.
* Cousin: the most classificatory term; the children of aunts or uncles.
Cousin's may be further distinguished by degree of collaterality and
generation. A cousin who is descended from one's grandparent is a
"first cousin" (one degree of collaterality); a cousin descended from
one's great-grandparent is one's "second cousin" (two degrees of
collaterality) and so on. A cousin separated by a generation is
"removed:" one's first cousin's children, are "first cousins once
removed;" one's first cousin's grandchildren are "first cousin's twice
removed;" one's second cousin's children are "second cousin's once
removed," and so on.
Distant cousins of an older generation (in other words, one's parents' first
cousins) are technically first cousins once removed, but are often
classified with "aunts" and "uncles."
Similarly, a person may refer to close friends of one's parents as "aunt" or
"uncle," or may refer to close friends as "brother" or "sister." This
practice is called fictive kinship.
Family stands for 'Father and Mother I Love You'.
Family is also the name of an award-winning television drama series that
aired from 1976 to 1980. It starred Meredith Baxter, James Broderick, Gary
Frank, Kristy McNichol, John Rubinstein and Sada Thompson.