Defining the Family: A Historical and International Perspective

  
 
Family Functions: A Closer Look at Families around the world 
1) Sexual Gratification:  All societies have norms governing  
sexual behavior. Some societies have strict ideas about this   
behavior, others impose very few limitations on the behavior.  
Also within socities, families play a role in the establishing the   
stated norms.  Most societies typically prohibit sexual intercourse  
within the family, but beyond that, there is great variation  
among societies around the world.  For example, in the 1990-1993  
world survey, the question was asked"Do you and your spouse share   
the same sexual attitudes?". Thirty- six countries were examined  
in this survey.  Here are a few of the results:  
Percent of spouses that responded "yes"

 
Is it suprising that more than 2/3 of icelanders replied yes, 65% of   
Americans and 62% of Canadians, while in Japan, only 21% of   
couples responded yes?  It is clear that sexual attitudes and the  
role of families providing sexual gratification varies widely.  This   
is true among many other family functions as well.  
2) Economic Support: In most societies, the economic well-being of  
dependents lies primarily within the family unit, with the exception  
of residents of the Kibbutz.  In primitive societies, adults would   
go out and hunt the food, and then bring it back to the family.  
In modern societies, caregivers as well as other family members  
are able to provide economically for the rest of the family.  The  
following chart examines varying societies attitudes regarding  
the neccessity of an adequate income for marital happiness.  
"Is an adequate income very imporant for a successful marriage?"  

World Value Surveys(1990-1993)
 
The less developed nations with low per capita income dominate  
the top of this distribution.  In contrast, only relatively small   
minorities in scandanavian nations think income is very important  
for successfull marriages.  This is probably due to the fact that these  
nations possess unusually large welfare systems that have essentially  
replaced the family unit as the primary source of economic support.  
3)Emotional Support:In most societies, the family unit is reponsible 
for the emotional well being, security, and personal sense of worth 
for its members.  Of course not all families are able to provide  
for the needs of its members, as child abuse, extramarital affairs,  
runaways, etc. might suggest.  In the 1981-1983 surveys, families 
around the world were asked to report on the relationship between 
the respondent's parents.   

% that indicated that their mother and father were very close 
 
By this chart, it can be seen that S.Africa has the closest reported 
family relationships. Mexico, Canada, and the U.S. are fairly close, 
while Japan rates very low(29%).  From what we have seen,  
Japanese differ somewhat  in their attitudes toward family as  
opposed to their Western counterparts. From the 1990-1993 world  
values survey,it was reported that only 12% of Japanese people are  
satisfied with their home life.  This can be understood on the basis  
of the degree in which the family  imposes upon the individual  in  
Japan. 
   
*The charts and information from this page 
was taken from Sociology by Rodney Stark 
website created by Liz Burlein. 

Direct comments and questions to
eburlein@niu.edu
    What is the definition of family?
According to Sociology by Rodney Stark, the most consistant efforts to define what the family is has  drawn on the functionalist perspective.  Anthropologists and Sociologists claim that the family is a universal social institution, and therefore, it must do something vital for human beings.  Functionalists attempt to define the family on the basis of the functions that  the family performs.  In 1949, George Peter Murdock defined the family as "a social group characterized by common residence, economic cooperation, and reproduction. " He added that the family "includes adults of both sexes , at least two of whom maintain a socially approved sexual relationship, and one or more children".  Murdock went on to describe four main functions of the family which included:  
1)sexual relationships  
2)economic cooperation among members  
3)reproduction  
4)socialization of infants and children  
Murdock's definition came under attack for a number of reasons.  First of all, many people pointed out that there were many societies that were exceptions to Murdock's stated functions.  
Other people thought that Murdocks functions were too narrow.  It can also be seen that in the present day, Murdock's definition does not cover the types of family that differ from the traditional family structure.  Eventually most sociologists adopted a definition based on the idea of kinship and limited to the function of childcare. Weiss(1988) defines the family as a "small kinship structured group with the key function of nurturant socialization of the newborn."  
Traditional European Families
Until the 1960' and 70's there was little reliable data about family life in previous times. Untl that time, our ideas about family 
life came from novels, letters, autobiographies, and diaries written from the times.  These sources only represented 
a narrow portion of society(the wealthy and literate).  To undestand the nature 
of the average family, scholars have had to labor hard to find out this information. What was discovered would be a shock 
to many.  The typical family was far from the warm, intimate and caring family 
that most people have long celebrated. In Shorter's book The Making of the Modern 
Family(1975) shorter found out a great deal about the traditional European family. 

Household Composition: Shorter discovered that the extended family living in a single 
household was not typical except in wealthy, urban and rural homes.  The typical household did include members outside of the nuclear family, but they were ususally 
temporary members, lodgers, or hired hands. Also, while wealthy households contained ten+ people, the typical households had on average 5 or 6 members. 
While women did give birth to many children, there was a high infant mortality rate, and children were often sent off early 
to make a life for themselves.  Many households had few elderly, and usually 
did not have both parents living.  Suprisingly enough, female-headed households are just as common now as they were back then(just for different reasons). 

Crowding The majority of European families lived in one room.  Rural families sometimes shared their one-room households with livestock, and urban dwellers usually had someone outside of their home living with them.   

Outsiders:  Many rural households had 
teenage hired hands.  Urban households had lodgers.  Sometimes, several unrelated families shared one room.  The traditional family lacked privacy and well-defined boundaries.  Families ate, slept, gave birth, dressed, and engaged in sex in front of 
one another.  These crowded living conditions undermined family relations. 

Child Care:  Countless numbers of child abuse was reported in journals kept by local doctors.  Parents left their children alone by themselves, and many infants died from neglect, sickness, and even from being eaten by farm animals.  Even when parents were around their children, they very frequently attended to thier emotional needs.  There were very high rates of 
infant mortality, and so very few families 
attempted to form close attachments with their children.   

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