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What is a Family? – by Chike Agu

Written for SOC 3131.  Nominated by Professor Carol Garza.

What is a family? To answer this question, a person might reminisce about a memory they shared with relatives at a family gathering. If they were the World Factbook, however, they might say a mother, a father and, as of 2009, 2.05 kids. Early structural functionalists shared this view; they believed that the ideal family was a nuclear family. But as the average makeup of families changes over time, it is becoming more accepted that there is no set structure for a functional family.

Structural functionalists look at society as a large “organism,” with the belief that individuals and institutions are “organs” working together to help the organism operate effectively. Functionalist theorists believe that each individual’s position in life is determined and can be described based on how they benefit society as a whole.

Sociologists who subscribed to the theory of structural functionalism saw the nuclear family as the best model to perform the function of a family in society. These ideas created a stereotype of families that is described as “the monolithic family” or “nuclear family.”  In a monolithic family, the husband has the traditional breadwinner role and provides economic support for the needs of the family, while the wife is a caregiver and stay-at-home mom who looks after the children. Nuclear families are such an accepted norm that any other type of family is seen as a dysfunctional family, and part of the decline of family structure rather than just another option for family structure. One sociologist who espoused this view was Talcott Parsons, who thought the optimal family consisted of an “instrumental” husband and “expressive” wife. He believed that a woman who worked outside of her home was “disruptive or dysfunctional” (Aulette, 2007, p. 10).

There are many problems with the idea of the monolithic family, i.e., the nuclear family, as the ultimate model. First, the monolithic family model presents a very outdated, gender- and class-biased view of how families should be. Macro-level changes in the economy, like increases in the cost of living, have made it very difficult for a family to survive on just the income of one member. Upper-class wives may have the luxury of not working, but working-class families often have to work multiple jobs, and have both mother and father in the workforce to just barely get by. The set up of the monolithic family doesn’t give the impression of a group of people working together in equality, but rather one of a male-dominated institution where the wife and children are dependent on the husband’s income.

Accepting the nuclear family construction as “the family” is also racially biased, because many members of minority groups, especially blacks and Hispanics, do not have nuclear families. The movie Claudine (1974), set in 1970s Harlem, depicts the struggles of an African American female on welfare, trying to provide for her family by secretly working as a maid. Claudine’s family is an example of a minority family that defies the idea of the necessity of a nuclear family; she was a single mother with six children. Although Claudine’s family was not a nuclear family, they were no more dysfunctional than any other family; Claudine had a job, provided for her family and raised responsible children.  Furthermore, the homosexual couples interviewed in the documentary 10 Couples (2006), Eric and Stan and Octavia and Deborah, who lived together as a family, showed that a family does not need to have a heterosexual union to be successful. Octavia and Deborah were together for over ten years. The misconception of an ideal family will lead to the view that same-sex couples, minority families and working-class families are deviant when they are not; these couples have the same downfalls and successes as nuclear families. The Civil Rights, Women’s Rights, and most recently the Gay Rights movements create awareness that all families are not the same, nor need to be the same to be functional.

Sociologists such as Barrie Thorne and Baca Zinn are helping to create a “revisionist view” of family structures. They refute the idea that monolithic families are the best and most prevalent organization of families. The 2000 census shows that only about 7 percent of American families fit the monolithic description.  Table 1.2 (see below) shows even more evidence to contradict the idea of monolithic families; only 24.9% of families are married with children under 18, while 26.8% are married without children under 18 (Aulette, 2007, p. 13). As the table shows, there is no majority family construction. Rather there is great variety; there are single-parent, no-children, and extended-family households. Families may even be extended networks of kin and “fictitious”/non-kin who exchange duties and favors between each other, as Carol Stack shows in All Our Kin (1974). All Our Kin describes Carol Stack’s ethnographic study of an impoverished African American neighborhood from Chicago. Through her research Stacks discovers a culture of adaptive strategies, such as exchange networks between kin, that help the members of the community to survive adverse conditions. The residents of the Flats, who are in such a network, often trade government aid, child-rearing responsibilities, and living space—exchanges that are often associated with family members. This case study is an example of how dynamic family constructions can be (Stack, 1974).

Juliet Mitchell provides a more contemporary view on the functions of families. According to Juliet Mitchell, there are four essential functions and social structures that are interwoven into the organization of families: production, reproduction, socialization and sexuality. Production involves all the economic resources that are created by families and reproduction deals with the procreation of future generations. Socialization of the children in a family occurs by parents and older generations of family members passing on ideologies and values to their children. Sexuality is also a part of family organization, as is illustrated by the fact that sex is referred to in terms of marriage (e.g. “pre-marital sex”) (Aulette, 2007, p. 16).  All of these functions are intertwined with each other.  For example, as part of the socialization of a child, a parent might expose him to sports and video games, which will help him to learn gender roles that will effect the expression of his sexuality. Mitchell’s ideas provide support for the argument that diversity in families is acceptable because of two reasons: every family doesn’t have to perform all these functions, and it is not necessary to have a married couple with children to perform these functions.

James Henslin (2009) states similar functions of a family: economic production, socialization of children, care of the sick and aged, recreation, sexual control and reproduction. He goes a step further than just refuting the idea that the nuclear family is “the family;” he actually gives reasons why nuclear families may lead to dysfunction.  Henslin writes that, unlike extended families with large kinship networks that can share material and emotional support, nuclear families are more isolated and have to deal with the pressures of life alone. This leads to an “emotional overload,” and the isolation of nuclear families may make them more vulnerable to abuse between family members (p. 333). Since nuclear families have a greater expectation to be self-sufficient, it is understandable that they could suffer from isolation, whether it is by their own will or not. In All Our Kin, whenever a nuclear family formed in the Flats, if they wanted to advance their own economic standing, they had to leave the kinship exchange network. This is because although the network was a source of support, it also drained the economic resources of the families involved (Stack, 1974).

With the great parity between the percentages of different family constructions it is clear to see that there is no dominant family model. Structural Functionalists have had to change their beliefs, from asserting that the nuclear family is the only functional type of family, to more open interpretations that recognize the great variability and success of different family models in the twenty-first century.


Aulette, J. R. (Ed.). (2007). Changing American families. New York: Pearson.

Central Intelligence Agency. (2009). The world factbook. Retrieved March 23, 2010, from https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/us.html#

Henslin, J. M. (Ed.). (2009). Essentials of sociology. New York: Pearson.

Public Interest & the American Civil Liberties Union. (Producers). (2006). 10 couples [Motion picture]. Retrieved March 23, 2010, from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aacoDgWrlFs&NR=1

Stack, C. (1974). All our kin. New York: Basic Books.

Weinstein, H. (Producer). (1974). Claudine [Motion picture]. United States: Third World Cinema.


The author would like to thank Keri Bertino, the Director of the Baruch College Writing Center, and Professor Carol Garza for their help in editing and revising this paper.

Topic: Nonfiction, Spring 2010 Tags: None

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