Defining Family

Learning Outcomes

  • Describe family as a social institution

Family is a key social institution in all societies, which makes it a cultural universal. Similarly, values and norms surrounding marriage are found all over the world in every culture, so marriage and family are both cultural universals. Statuses (i.e., wife, husband, partner, mom, dad, brother, sister, etc.) are created and sanctioned by societies. While marriage and family have historically been closely linked in U.S. culture, with marriages creating new families, their connection is becoming more complex, as illustrated by the opening vignette and in the subsequent data on cohabitation.

Sociologists are interested in the relationship between the institution of marriage and the institution of family because families are the most basic social unit upon which society is built, but also because marriage and family are linked to other social institutions such as the economy, government, and religion. So what is a family? Family is a socially recognized group (usually joined by blood, marriage, cohabitation, or adoption) that forms an emotional connection among its members and that serves as an economic unit of society. Sociologists identify different types of families based on how one enters into them. A family of orientation refers to the family into which a person is born. A family of procreation describes one that is formed through marriage. These distinctions have cultural significance related to issues of lineage.

Marriage is a legally recognized social contract between two people, traditionally based on a sexual relationship and implying a permanence of the union. Marriage is a cultural universal, and like family, it takes many forms. Who gets married, what the marriage means to the couple and to the society, why people get married (i.e., economic reasons, political reasons, or for love), and how it occurs (i.e., wedding or other ceremony) vary widely within and between societies. In practicing cultural relativism, we should also consider variations, such as whether a legal union is required (think of “common law” marriage and its equivalents), or whether more than two people can be involved (consider polygamy). Other variations on the definition of marriage might include whether spouses are of opposite sexes or the same sex, and how one of the traditional expectations of marriage–that children will be produced–is understood today.

Photo (a) shows a family walking with a dog on a beach. Photo (b) shows a child in a stroller with stuffed animals, balloons, and an LGBTQ flag being pushed by two men.
Figure 1. The modern concept of family is far more encompassing than in past decades, which is evidenced in both laws (formal norms) and social control (both formal and informal). (Photo (a) courtesy Gareth Williams/flickr; photo (b) courtesy Guillaume Paumier/ Wikimedia Commons)

The sociological understanding of what constitutes a family can be explained by the paradigms of symbolic interactionism and functionalism. These two theories indicate that families are groups in which participants view themselves as family members and act accordingly. In other words, families are arrangements in which people come together to form a strong primary group connection and to maintain emotional ties with one another. Such families may include groups of close friends or teammates.

Chart "For children, growing diversity in family living arrangements." It compares the years 1960, 1980, and 2014, showing a decrease in family living arrangements to 46% (down from 73%) in the percentage of children living in a home with two parents in their first marriage. In 2014, 15% live with two parents in a remarriage, 7% with cohabiting parents (up from zero in 1960), 26% with a single parent (up from 9% in 1960), and 5% with no parent (up from 4% in 1960).
Figure 2. Family dynamics have shifted significantly in the past sixty years, with fewer children living in two-parent households.

In addition, the functionalist perspective views families as groups that perform vital roles for society—both internally (for the family itself) and externally (for society as a whole). Families provide for one another’s physical, emotional, and social well-being. Parents care for and socialize children. Later in life, adult children often care for elderly parents. While interactionism helps us understand the symbolic, subjective experience and meaning of belonging to a “family,” functionalism illuminates the many purposes of families and their roles in the maintenance of a balanced society (Parsons and Bales 1956).

Diverse Family Units

Irrespective of what form a family takes, it constitutes a basic social unit upon which societies are based, and can reflect other societal changes. For example, the bar graph shows how much the family structure has changed in a relatively short period of time. What trends do you see in the bar graph? What variables might help explain the increase in single parents between 1960 and 1980 and 2014? What variables might help explain the decrease in children living in two parent/first marriage families? Which theoretical perspectives can help explain this phenomenon?

The study also revealed that 60 percent of U.S. respondents agreed that if you consider yourself a family, you are a family (a concept that reinforces a meaning-making interactionist perspective) (Powell 2010). The government, however, is not so flexible in its definition of “family.” The U.S. Census Bureau defines a family as “a group of two people or more (one of whom is the householder) related by birth, marriage, or adoption and residing together” (U.S. Census Bureau 2019). While this definition can be used as a means to consistently track family-related patterns over several years, it excludes some family types, such as cohabiting, unmarried heterosexual and homosexual couples.

Family is, indeed, a subjective concept, but it is a fairly objective fact that family (whatever one’s concept of it may be) is very important to people in the United States. In a 2010 survey by Pew Research Center in Washington, DC, 76 percent of adults surveyed stated that family is “the most important” element of their life—just one percent said it was “not important” (Pew Research Center 2010). It is also very important to society. President Ronald Reagan, expressing a sentiment that can apply just as easily to a married lesbian couple with adopted children as to a traditional, heterosexual couple with no children, once stated, “The family has always been the cornerstone of American society. Our families nurture, preserve, and pass on to each succeeding generation the values we share and cherish, values that are the foundation of our freedoms” (Lee 2009). While the exact constitution of the family may have changed in recent years, the fundamentals of emotional closeness and support are still present. Most responders to the Pew survey stated that their family today is at least as close (45 percent) or closer (40 percent) than the family with which they grew up (Pew Research Center).

First Families

Photos of President Trump with his family at his inauguration and of President Obama with his family in the White House.
Figure 2. First families. (a) President Trump with his wife, Melania, and five kids. (b) President Obama with his wife, Michelle, and kids Malia and Sasha.


When a political candidate runs for office in the United States, there is a lot of attention paid to the candidate’s family because this is thought to be a reflection of the candidate and the candidate’s values.

When former U.S. President Barack Obama ran for office, many questioned his Kenyan lineage through his father’s side, as well as his upbringing in Hawaii and Indonesia, where his mother was doing anthropological work. His parents separated when he was young, and he was raised by his white mother. Michelle Obama, originally from the south side of Chicago, was educated at Princeton and Harvard, then held a prestigious position at the University of Chicago, which she left once her husband was elected. The former first couple married in 1992 and have two children who were born in 1998 and 2001.

President Donald Trump grew up in New York City (in Queens) to Fred, a real estate developer, and Mary Anne Trump. He was married and divorced twice, and had four children (three with Ivana Trump and one with Marla Maples) before marrying current First Lady Melania Trump, with whom he has a fifth child, Barron Trump. Both Ivana and Melania were models and were both born in Eastern Europe (Czechoslovakia and Slovenia respectively). Three marriages and five children make the First Family quite unique in U.S. Presidential history.

Think It Over

  • Think about family composition (i.e., makeup) from 1960 to 2014 using the bar graph above. Can you predict what the family structure will be like in 2030? What variables might influence family structure going forward?
  • According to research, what are people’s general thoughts on family in the United States? How do they view nontraditional family structures? How do you think these views might change in twenty years?

Try It


socially recognized groups of individuals who may be joined by blood, marriage, or adoption and who form an emotional connection and an economic unit of society
family of orientation:
the family into which one is born
family of procreation:
a family that is formed through marriage
a legally recognized contract between two or more people in a sexual relationship who have an expectation of permanence about their relationship

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