Families: Definitions, Contexts and Theoretical Orientations


A human family is basically defined as a group of people associated together by blood, natural attraction, and/or a shared residence; this is the classification of people who are closely and exclusively related. It is the basic unit of human socialization whose primary purpose is to produce and reproduce other human beings either biologically or socially. Family productivity is achieved through the sharing of material substances say semen, blood or food; legal links and obligations; and moral and emotional relationships (Baxter & Smart, 2011, p. 15). The family plays an orientation purpose to children by socially placing them and provides room for their enculturation, it also aids in the formation of an economically productive personality and society at large.

Family Structures

The LSAC Consortium (2008) describes parenting and family structures in varied ways. For a long time the family structure has been comprised of a married man and a woman; father and mother, providing support and care to their biologically begotten children; this is basically described as a traditional family support system or a conjugal family which to some considerable level has been replaced by a variety of alternative forms of family (Bowes, Watson & Pearson, 2009, p. 91). A family is initiated at birth and later develops and establishes its strengths over a number of generations which play significant emotional and economic roles in the development of every member in the family. A number of influential changes such as divorce, the introduction of single parent families, teenage pregnancies, homosexuality and increased interests in the adoption of children have caused the adoption of alternative forms of family and the resultant departure from the known traditional family system. A combination of various nuclear families which reside together creates an extended family which in turn places an increased demand on the caregivers.

A single parent family comprises of a lone parent who takes the responsibility of the children without the considerable support of the other biological parent. Sole parent families result from the increasing cases of divorce among married couples or unexpected pre-marital pregnancies; this has in turn weakened the sense of permanence of the marriage institution allowing married partners to easily leave marriages. Related to sole parent families are the step families which are established by the combination of two sole families which in most cases have been caused by the divorce of nuclear family partners, together forming a new family form.

In addition to the above new forms of families are same sex families; these are either gay or lesbian couples that make a choice to raise children mostly gotten through adoption. However, in certain legal set-ups, say in conservative cultural environments, homosexual partners together with their children are not really described as a family. Additionally, the participation of the extended family in the role of child rearing is not really valued as a family responsibility. These views are seen as the conservative contributions in favor of the traditional family structure which identifies the rampant diversity in family patterns as the major cause of the various problems affecting the family for example increase in violence, crime and drug abuse which according to the conservatives is not fit for the continuance a viable traditional family structure. The existence of the known ideal family structure-the nuclear family, is faced with great challenges due to declining marriage and fertility rates and social trends.

The statistical information from the historical, legal and social research studies on the family structure raise a number of debatable issues concerning the adoption of the traditional family system of father, mother and their biological children as the only cross-culturally acceptable family system (Zubrick et al., 2008, p. 78). The findings from such studies establish that the human family is more of an institution rather than being merely a biological unit initiated on the basis of natural human relationship and associations. As an organization, the family is viewed and defined as an organization of human beings which is founded on the basis shared values and principles, which must not be solely biological; and united for a common specific purpose. This purpose may either be companionship or child rearing over a given acceptable period of time as opposed to the traditional family system which advocates for a permanent unit primarily established for the purpose of procreation. Such divergent views of the family system are a result of the diversification of the human society and cultural beliefs in that what is acceptable to be true and normal is relative.

The origin of such subjective discussions and family arrangements is derived from the experienced universal change in resource control and economical factors which are greatly influential in the establishment of a primitive community transforming it into a class-divided society (Edgar, 2004, p. 57). Additionally, diverse religion and cultural belief make it almost impossible for the universe to adopt a common family system which due to the influence of human interactions results to further changes in the traditional family structure.

As much as the traditional nuclear family remains prominent in the society today, its existence is drastically declining whereas a great number of children are being brought up in quite different family structures caused by a cultural diversity of the population and social trends resulting to single-parent, step and blended, multiple household and same sex families. This causes a change in the belief system that strongly influences human behavior in terms of what is normal and acceptable. A number of children in various families experience a stable family environment while others have more complicated living arrangements to bear with. Such unbearable and problem causing living arrangements include breakdown of the marriage arrangements of the parents, lack of contact with a non-resident parent say in a sole-parent family, difficulties in adjusting to a new family setup in case the sole-parent decides to remarry, and children having to spent their lifetime with a sole parent resulting to underdevelopment in certain human faculties (Griggs et al., 2009, p. 214).


The registered change in the family structures poses a number of considerable implications to the long known and traditional family structure. A reduction in the family size may result to a situation where a family member fails to fully rely on the other family members if he/she is affected with a difficulty or a disability. It may also pose a number of side effects to the planning of housing and community infrastructure. Thus a continuing diversification of the living arrangements of the family may require a change in the provision of government service aimed at supporting the varied family types. Acceptable and commonly adopted communication patterns and belief system in a family is greatly important for family growth and development. It ensures the stability of the family and general family happiness basically because it protects the family unit from the devastating contentions of divorce and illegitimacy of family members. Thus the traditional family structure is a more preferred and superior family system and any witnessed deviation from is a decline in the family unit.


Baxter, J., & Smart, D. (2011). Fathering in Australia among Couple Families with Young Children: Research highlights. Family Matters, No. 88, 15-26.

Bowes, J., Watson, J., & Pearson, E. (2009). Families as a Context for Children. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

Edgar, D. (2004). Globalization and Western Bias in Family Sociology. Boston: Blackwell.

Griggs, J. et al. (2009). They’ve always been there for me: Grandparental Involvement and Child well-being. Children and Society, 24 (3), 200-214.

Zubrick, S. R.et al. (2008). Parenting and Families in Australia. Social Policy Research Paper No. 34, Canberra: Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs. Web.

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