Lines of Descent and Family Stages

Learning Outcomes

  • Differentiate between lines of decent and residence

Residency and Lines of Descent

Descent refers to the socially recognized links between ancestors and descendants or one’s traceable ancestry and can be bilateral, or traced through either parents, or unilateral, or traced through parents and ancestors of only one sex. The former occurs in the United States because both paternal and maternal ancestors are considered part of one’s family. The latter, unilateral descent, is practiced in the other 40 percent of the world’s societies (O’Neal 2006).

There are three types of unilateral descent: patrilineal, which follows the father’s line only; matrilineal, which follows the mother’s side only; and ambilineal, which follows either the father’s only or the mother’s side only, depending on the situation. In partrilineal societies, such as those in rural China and India, only males carry on the family surname. This gives males the prestige of permanent family membership while females are seen as only temporary members. U.S. society assumes some aspects of partrilineal decent. For instance, most children assume their father’s last name even if the mother retains her birth name.

In matrilineal societies, inheritance and family ties are traced to women. Matrilineal descent is common in Native American societies, notably the Crow and Cherokee tribes. In these societies, children are seen as belonging to the women and, therefore, one’s kinship is traced to one’s mother, grandmother, great grandmother, and so on (Mails 1996). In ambilineal societies, which are most common in Southeast Asian countries, parents may choose to associate their children with the kinship of either the mother or the father. This choice may be based on the desire to follow stronger or more prestigious kinship lines or on cultural customs such as men following their father’s side and women following their mother’s side (Lambert 2009).

Tracing one’s line of descent to one parent rather than the other can be relevant to the issue of residence. In many cultures, newly married couples move in with, or near to, family members. In a patrilocal residence system it is customary for the wife to live with (or near) her husband’s blood relatives (or family of orientation). Patrilocal systems can be traced back thousands of years. In a DNA analysis of 4,600-year-old bones found in Germany, scientists found indicators of patrilocal living arrangements (Haak, et al 2008). Patrilocal residence is thought to be disadvantageous to women because it makes them outsiders in the home and community; it also keeps them disconnected from their own blood relatives. In China, where patrilocal and patrilineal customs are common, the written symbols for maternal grandmother (wáipá) are separately translated to mean “outsider” and “women” (Cohen 2011).

Similarly, in matrilocal residence systems, where it is customary for the husband to live with his wife’s blood relatives (or her family of orientation), the husband can feel disconnected and can be labeled as an outsider. The Minangkabau people, a matrilocal society that is indigenous to the highlands of West Sumatra in Indonesia, believe that home is the place of women and they give men little power in issues relating to the home or family (Joseph and Najmabadi 2003). Most societies that use patrilocal and patrilineal systems are patriarchal, but very few societies that use matrilocal and matrilineal systems are matriarchal, as family life is often considered an important part of the culture for women, regardless of their power relative to men.

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The selected clip from this video explains how to view family through a sociological lens, then examines both marriage and residential patterns in different societies.

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Stages of Family Life

The concept of family has changed greatly in recent decades. Historically, it was often thought that many families evolved through a series of predictable stages. Developmental or “stage” theories used to play a prominent role in family sociology (Strong and DeVault 1992). Today, however, these models have been criticized for their linear and conventional assumptions as well as for their failure to capture the diversity of family forms. While reviewing some of these once-popular theories, it is important to identify their strengths and weaknesses.

The set of predictable steps and patterns families experience over time is referred to as the family life cycle. One of the first designs of the family life cycle was developed by Paul Glick in 1955. In Glick’s original design, he asserted that most people will grow up, establish families, rear and launch their children, experience an “empty nest” period, and come to the end of their lives. This cycle will then continue with each subsequent generation (Glick 1989). Glick’s colleague, Evelyn Duvall, elaborated on the family life cycle by developing these classic stages of family (Strong and DeVault 1992):

Stage Theory. This table shows one example of how a “stage” theory might categorize the phases a family goes through.
Stage Family Type Children
1 Marriage Family Childless
2 Procreation Family Children ages 0 to 2.5
3 Preschooler Family Children ages 2.5 to 6
4 School-age Family Children ages 6–13
5 Teenage Family Children ages 13–20
6 Launching Family Children begin to leave home
7 Empty Nest Family “Empty nest”; adult children have left home

The family life cycle was used to explain the different processes that occur in families over time. Sociologists view each stage as having its own structure with different challenges, achievements, and accomplishments that transition the family from one stage to the next. For example, the problems and challenges that a family experiences in Stage 1 as a married couple with no children are likely much different than those experienced in Stage 5 as a married couple with teenagers. The success of a family can be measured by how well they adapt to these challenges and transition into each stage. While sociologists use the family life cycle to study the dynamics of family over time, consumer and marketing researchers have used it to determine what goods and services families need as they progress through each stage (Murphy and Staples 1979).

As early “stage” theories have been criticized for generalizing family life and not accounting for differences in gender, ethnicity, culture, and lifestyle, less rigid models of the family life cycle have been developed. One example is the family life course, which recognizes the events that occur in the lives of families but views them as parting terms of a fluid course rather than in consecutive stages (Strong and DeVault 1992). This type of model accounts for changes in family development, such as the fact that in today’s society, childbearing does not always occur with marriage. It also sheds light on other shifts in the way family life is practiced. Society’s modern understanding of family rejects rigid “stage” theories and is more accepting of newer, more fluid models.

The Evolution of Television Families

Contemporary family sitcoms on television or streaming services such as Netflix or Hulu depict the changing family structure in the larger society, but how much have depictions of the “typical” American family evolved? Popular shows like The Simpsons (1989-present), Family Guy (1999-present), and American Dad (2005-present) are all satirical animated sitcoms that depict a white, blue collar family (The Simpsons and Family Guy) or a white, upper middle class family (American Dad) with a stay-at-home mom, a working dad, and children. This sounds pretty similar to the Cleavers and the Waltons, popular sitcom families from the 1950s and 1960s. Most of the iconic families you saw in television sitcoms included a father, a mother, and children cavorting under the same roof while comedy ensued. The 1960s was the height of the suburban U.S. nuclear family on television with shows such as The Donna Reed Show and Father Knows Best. While some shows of this era portrayed single parents (My Three Sons and Bonanza, for instance), the single status almost always resulted from being widowed—not divorced or unwed.

There were some notable exceptions in the 1980s including shows such as Diff’rent Strokes (1978-1986) (a widowed man with two adopted African American sons) and One Day at a Time (1975-1984 and a reboot with the same title on Netflix from 2017-2019) (a divorced woman with two teenage daughters and a divorced Cuban veteran mom with a son and a daughter). Still, traditional families such as those in Family Ties (1982-1989) and The Cosby Show (1984-1992) dominated the ratings. The late 1980s and the 1990s saw the introduction of the dysfunctional family with shows such as Roseanne (1988-1997 and 2018), and Married with Children (1986-1997), which portrayed traditional nuclear families, but in a much less flattering light than those from the 1960s did (Museum of Broadcast Communications 2011).

Although family dynamics in real U.S. homes were changing, the expectations for families portrayed on television were not. The United States’ first reality show, An American Family (which aired on PBS in 1973) chronicled Bill and Pat Loud and their children as a “typical” U.S. family. During the series, the oldest son, Lance, announced to the family that he was gay, and at the series’ conclusion, Bill and Pat decided to divorce. Although the Loud’s union was among the 30 percent of marriages that ended in divorce in 1973, the family was featured on the cover of the March 12 issue of Newsweek with the title “The Broken Family” (Ruoff 2002).

Over the past ten years, the nontraditional family has become somewhat of a tradition on television. While most situation comedies focus on single men and women without children, those that do portray families often stray from the classic structure: they include unmarried and divorced parents, adopted children, gay couples, and multigenerational households. Even those that do feature traditional family structures may show less-traditional characters in supporting roles, such as the brothers in the highly rated shows Everybody Loves Raymond and Two and Half Men. Even wildly popular children’s programs as Disney’s Hannah Montana and The Suite Life of Zack & Cody feature single parents.

In 2009, ABC premiered an intensely nontraditional family with the broadcast of Modern Family. The show follows an extended family that includes a divorced and remarried father with one stepchild, and his two biological adult children: one is in a traditional two-parent household, and the other is a gay man in a committed relationship who is raising an adopted daughter. While this dynamic is more complicated than the typical “modern” family, its elements may resonate with many of today’s viewers. “The families on the shows aren’t as idealistic, but they remain relatable,” states television critic Maureen Ryan. “The most successful shows, comedies especially, have families that you can look at and see parts of your family in them” (Respers France 2010). Do the shows you select allow you to better understand (and perhaps laugh at) some of the dynamics within your own family?

Many Americans consume shows through different modalities than “television,” so the modality itself has also evolved. Netflix was founded in 1997, but it did not enter the creative realm with “Netflix Originals” until 2012. Today, Netflix and other streaming services like Amazon Prime and Hulu are taking a more active role in shaping media representations of the American family.

Think It Over

  • Explain the difference between bilateral and unilateral descent. Using your own association with kinship, explain which type of descent applies to you?
  • What shows do you watch that depict American families? Using your sociological imagination, situate those shows within this context by describing the family structure, the racial/ ethnic background and any other minority groups, and other sociological variables like class, religion, and gender.
  • How do you think viewing patterns have changed with the advent of streaming services based on your own viewing habits? Where, when, how (and what device/s), and with whom do you watch these shows? Are they similar or different to that of your parents and grandparents?

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a type of unilateral descent that follows either the father’s or the mother’s side exclusively
the socially recognized links between ancestors and descendants or one’s traceable ancestry
bilateral descent:
the tracing of kinship through both parents’ ancestral lines
the act of entering into marriage while still married to another person
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 life course:
a sociological model of family that sees the progression of events as fluid rather than as occurring in strict stages
family life cycle:
a set of predictable steps and patterns families experience over time
family of orientation:
the family into which one is born
family of procreation:
a family that is formed through marriage
a person’s traceable ancestry (by blood, marriage, and/or adoption)
a legally recognized contract between two or more people in a sexual relationship who have an expectation of permanence about their relationship
matrilineal descent:
a type of unilateral descent that follows the mother’s side only
matrilocal residence:
a system in which it is customary for a husband to live with the his wife’s family
patrilineal descent:
a type of unilateral descent that follows the father’s line only
patrilocal residence:
a system in which it is customary for the a wife to live with (or near) the her husband’s family
unilateral descent:
the tracing of kinship through one parent only

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