Family sociology, the basic social group united through bonds of kinship or marriage, present in all societies. Ideally, the family provides its members with protection, companionship, security, and socialization. The structure of the family, and the needs that the family fulfils vary from society to society. The nuclear family—two adults and their children—is the main unit in some societies. In others, the nuclear family is a subordinate part of an extended family, which also consists of grandparents and other relatives. A third family unit is a single-parent family, in which children live with an unmarried, divorced, or widowed mother or father.
Anthropologists and social scientists have developed several theories about how family structures and functions evolved. One theory is that, in prehistoric hunting and gathering societies, two or three nuclear families, usually linked through bonds of kinship, banded together for part of the year but dispersed into separate nuclear units in those seasons when food was scarce. The family was an economic unit; men hunted, while women gathered and prepared food and tended children. Infanticide and expulsion of the infirm who could not work were common. Some anthropologists contend that prehistoric people were monogamous because monogamy prevails in non-industrial, tribal forms of contemporary society. These theories are all open to contention, however.
Many social scientists assert that the modern Western family developed largely from that of the ancient Hebrews, whose families were patriarchal (male-governing) in structure. The family resulting from the Graeco-Roman culture was also patriarchal and bound by strict religious precepts. In later centuries, as the Greek and then the Roman civilizations declined, so did their well-ordered family life.
With the advent of Christianity, marriage and child-bearing became central concerns in religious teaching. The purely religious nature of family ties was partly abandoned in favour of civil bonds after the Reformation, which began in about the 1500s. Most Western nations now recognize the family relationship as primarily a civil matter.
III THE MODERN FAMILY
Historical studies have indicated that family structure has been less changed by urbanization and industrialization than was once supposed. As far as is known, the nuclear family was the most prevalent pre-industrial unit and is still the basic unit of social organization in most modern industrial societies. The modern family differs from earlier traditional forms, however, in its functions, composition, and life cycle, and in the roles of mothers and fathers.
The only function of the family that continues to survive all change is the provision of affection and emotional support by and to all its members, particularly infants and young children. Specialized institutions now perform many of the other functions that were once performed by the agrarian (rural) family: economic production, education, religious schooling, and recreation. Employment is usually separate from the family group; family members often work in different occupations and in locations away from the home. Education is provided by the state or by private groups. Religious training and recreational activities are available outside the home, although both still have a place in family life. The family is still responsible for the socialization of children, but even in this capacity, the influence of peers and of the mass media has assumed a larger role.
Family composition in industrial societies has changed dramatically since the onset of the Industrial Revolution. The average number of children born to a woman in the United States, for example, fell from 7.0 in 1800 to 2.1 by 2000. In the United Kingdom, the average in 2000 was 1.7 children, compared to 3.5 children in 1900. Consequently, the number of years separating the births of the youngest and oldest children has declined. This has occurred in conjunction with increased longevity. In earlier times, marriage normally dissolved through the death of a spouse before the youngest child left home. Today, husbands and wives (and unmarried long-term partners) potentially have about as many years together after the children leave home as before. The proportion of traditional nuclear family households in the United Kingdom, comprising a couple of one or more dependent children, fell from a third in 1971 to just under a quarter in spring 2002.
Some of these developments are related to ongoing changes in women’s roles. In Western societies, women in all stages of family life have joined (or re-joined after having children) the labour force. Rising expectations of personal gratification through marriage and family, together with easier divorce and increasing employment opportunities for women, have contributed to a rise in the divorce rate in the West. In 2000, for instance, there was approximately one divorce for every two marriages in the United States. In both Great Britain and Australia, the rate was approximately two in every five marriages.
During the 20th century, extended family households declined in prevalence in the West. This change is associated particularly with increased residential mobility and with the diminished financial responsibility of children for ageing parents, as pensions from jobs and government-sponsored benefits for retired people became more common.
By the 1970s the prototypical nuclear family had yielded somewhat to modified structures including the single-parent family, the stepfamily, and the family without children. One-parent families in the past were usually the result of the death of a partner or a spouse. Now, however, most one-parent families are the result of divorce, although some are created when unmarried mothers bear children. Between 1971 and 1991 the proportion of lone-parent households with dependent children doubled, from 3 to 6 per cent. The proportion remained at around this level in 2002. At the end of the 20th century, a total of around 3 million children—nearly a quarter of children—lived in a single-parent family. Almost one in five dependent children live in lone-mother families, while lone-father families accounted for around 2 per cent of all families with dependent children in 2000.
A stepfamily is created by a new marriage of a single parent. It may consist of a parent and children and a childless spouse, a parent and children and a spouse whose children live elsewhere, or two joined one-parent families. In a stepfamily, problems in relations between nonbiological parents and children may generate tension; the difficulties can be especially great in the marriage of single parents when the children of both parents live together as siblings. In 2001 stepfamilies accounted for 8 per cent of the total number of families with dependent children in the United Kingdom. Eighty-eight per cent of these stepfamilies consisted of a couple with one or more children from the previous relationship of the female partner only.
Families without children may be increasingly the result of deliberate choice on the part of the partners or spouses concerned, a choice that is facilitated by the wider availability of birth control (contraception). For many years the proportion of couples who were childless declined steadily as cures for venereal and other diseases that cause infertility were discovered. In the 1970s, however, the changes in the status of women reversed this trend. Couples particularly in the West now often elect to have no children or to postpone having them until their careers are well established.
Since the 1960s, several variations on the family unit have emerged. More unmarried couples are living together, before or instead of marrying. Similarly, some elderly couples, most often widowed, are finding it more economically practical to cohabit without marrying. Homosexual couples also live together as a family more openly today, sometimes sharing their households with the children of one partner or with adopted or foster children. Communal living, where “families” are made up of groups of related or unrelated people, have long existed in isolated instances. Such units began to occur in the West during the 1960s and 1970s, but by the 1980s the number of communal families had diminished.
IV WORLD TRENDS
All industrial nations are experiencing family trends similar to those found in the West. Improved methods of birth control and legalized abortion have had an impact in decreasing the numbers of one-parent families that are unable to be self-supporting. Divorce is increasing even where religious and legal impediments to it are strongest. In addition, smaller families and a lengthened post-parental stage are found in all industrial societies.
In the developing world, particularly, the number of surviving children in a family has rapidly increased as infectious diseases, famine, and other causes of child mortality have been reduced. Because families often cannot support so many children, the reduction in infant mortality and the consequent population growth have posed a challenge to the resources of developing nations.