What needs emphasis today is the political significance of the family. A people whose marriages and families are weak can have no solid institutions.
Why do we hear so much about the family nowadays? The stories seem to be either negative (i.e., stories of family violence and failures to properly care for their young and old, the breakdown thesis), reformative (e.g., the Christian Coalition's Contract for the American Family), or where have the "good old days" gone (i.e., federal statistics showing rising divorce rates, how three in ten births are illegitimate, or the disappearance of the Ward and June Cleaver family model) in tone. Perhaps all of the attention owes to shared assumptions that relationships between family members is prototype for all other social relations, that the family unit is the fundamental building block for all societies, and that the family is society's shock-absorber of social change. One cannot, for instance, expect a person to do more for a stranger or an acquaintance than what he/she would do for a family member. And, as Michael Novak observes above, if the family breaks down not all of the remaining institutions can put "society" back together again.
It is worth noting that the word family originally meant a band of slaves. Even after the word came to apply to people affiliated by blood and marriage, for many centuries the notion of family referred to authority relations rather than love ones. The sentimentalization of family life and female nurturing was historically and functionally linked to the emergence of competitive individualism and formal egalitarianism for men.
--Stephanie Coontz, The Way We Never Were, pp. 43-44
Preparations for the 1980 White House Conference on the Family collapsed when representatives of the political left insisted that the word "families" should be used instead of "family" to acknowledge the vast diversity of American family types. Webster's Dictionary offers twenty-two definitions. The Census Bureau defines a family as "two or more persons related by birth, marriage or adoption who reside in the same household"--a definition selected by only 22 percent of a random sample of 1,200 adults in a 1990 survey conducted by Massachusetts Mutual Insurance Company.
Is family ultimately based on blood--hence an adopted son is a lesser son, and a stepfamily is a lesser family? In 1993, a Florida teenager who had, upon her birth, been sent home with the wrong family, did not want to go to her biological parents when the mistake had been uncovered. In the legal case that resulted, her lawyer began with the question "What constitutes a family?" and claimed that "[biology] alone--without more--does not constitute or sustain a family."
Should the word be defined in terms of:
What difference does it make how "family" is defined? As will be developed, there are political, economic, legal, and religious interests bound up with the definition. Sociologically, being identified as a "family member" implies differences in the social rights and obligations toward others who are identified (both by the broader society and by the members, themselves) as "family" as opposed to being a stranger, colleague, neighbor, roommate, friend or one so distantly related (e.g., fifth cousin twice removed) as to not really "count" as family. (Of course, where a culture draws this line between family and not-family is highly variable; one is no more distantly related from any other person on earth than a fifty-second cousin or so. Pet owners and their pet owning friends may view Fido as "family"--and Fidos have been known to inherit the bulk of their deceased owners' estates.)
Despite controversies over what the "family" is, there is considerable evidence about what the consequences of family life are for individuals. For instance:
OUTLINE OF FAMILY PAGE
ACROSS CULTURES AND TIME
FAMILY STRUCTURES & PROCESSES
|Matters of Gender|
|Matters of Age|
|Matters of Sex|
|AMERICANS' RELATIONSHIP PREFERENCES|
|Courtship & Pairing|
|Before Commitments Made|
|RELATIONS BETWEEN HUSBANDS AND WIVES THROUGH TIME|
|When First Wed and it Consequences|
|The Bearing of Relative Age|
|The Bearing of Relative Education|
|PARENTING||Thinking about Socialization|
|The Father Role|
|The Mother Role|
|Children Having Children|
|Adoption & Foster Parenting|
|The Son/Daughter Role|
|OTHER FAMILY PLAYERS:
BEYOND THE NUCLEAR CAST
|Implications of 3+
Generations Alive Simultaneously
|Grandparents & the Greats|
|Uncles, Aunts, & Cousins|
|Godparents & Surrogate Kin|
& AFFECTED BY
|WORK & THE COMMODIFICATION OF FAMILY LIFE|