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Family:  Basic Concepts

Family: Basic Concepts

Author: Zach Lamb

Differentiate between the relationships inherent in family, kinship, marriage, extended family, and nuclear family.

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Family: Basic Concepts

Source: Intro Music by Mark Hannan; Public Domain

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Hello. Welcome to Sociological Studies. In this lesson, we're going to discuss the family, and the goal is really to get you to see how sociologists think, conceptualize, and theorize the family. And it's not in the way that you typically think of when you think of your family. You think of your family as something natural-- set. Of course this person's in my family, and of course this person is not in my family.

But sociologists don't look it that way, necessarily. They see the family as a product of society. How we look at the family, decide who's in it and who's not, is really a social construction. Societies at this point in time and through history have had different ways of determining familial social relationships, tracing descent, genealogy, kinship-- these ideas. They're not always the same. The family itself is a cultural universal, meaning the family unit is found in some form in every culture and in every society, but membership and definitions and delineation of the family is not the same in each society.

So the family, then, is structured through social interaction. The family is a social construction. That's the idea we're going to focus on in this lesson, but let's start by defining the family. To define the family-- and excuse my rather Star Wars-esque writing, getting smaller to bigger, but a family-- I think you can read it-- is it a group of two or more people who cooperate economically and are related by blood, marriage, or adoption.

Think of your family. Who is in it? Who's not considered a part of your family? Why not? These are very easy questions for you to answer, such that you probably might have even thought it was silly for me to ask you. But how you define family and delineated the boundaries of your family might not be the same way that someone in Malawi, a country in Africa-- how they define family. So you see, then, that there are cultural and social elements to how we define family.

As I said, the family is a social construction. This means that it's a product of the particular society and the needs of that society that you're living in. So in the United States, families are often distinguished two ways. We have the nuclear family and the extended family. Again, you probably are very, very familiar with these terms, because this is just taken for granted-- notions of how the family works. The nuclear family consists of two people and their children, and often, nuclear families are defined by marriage.

We all know what marriage is, but I'm going to define it for you as a legal union involving economic cooperation, sexual activity, and often, but not always, childbearing. The extended family is the nuclear family plus relatives like aunts, uncles, cousins. But your family is not natural. Ahh! What do you mean, my family's not natural? There's nothing natural about it. It's one way to organize relationships in society and to form that basic societal institution, the family unit, but there's nothing natural about it. It could've been done another way.

And understanding a similar idea, what we call kinship, is helpful for making sense of how social relationships make up a family. So kinship, then, is a culturally patterned social relationship based on common ancestry, marriage, or adoption. And with kinship, again I'm going to ask you the obvious question. Who are your ancestors? How do you trace your descent? Where do you come from? These answers are not natural, just like the way you answered the family question was not natural.

We constructed our ideas of family. Anthropologists looking at other societies with a comparative lens have really been the ones who have given us insights on the social construction of our relationships of common ancestry and kinship. They have fascinatingly identified seven different systems of kinship that are all distinct from each other. So, for instance, in our society, we draw a kinship relationship with our father's brother, and we call our father's brother uncle.

But in a different kinship system, one that anthropologists call the Iroquois system of kinship, your father's brother is not labeled as an uncle. They don't have that uncle relationship that we do. In the Iroquois system, then, your father's brother is labeled more strongly, and is also looked at as a parent. There's no distinction made for uncle, for your father's brother. But in the Iroquois system of kinship, your father's sister is called aunt, but your mom's sister is called parent. See, the sex is the same. But your mom's brother is uncle. So you see, it's more complicated than ours, and it defines the family differently.

And the point with including this bit about anthropology, then, is really just to show you that kinship and family are social constructions, and this is the lens that sociologists bring to studying these topics. I hope you enjoued this sociological introduction to family and kinship. Have a great rest of your day.

Terms to Know
Extended Family

A family composed of your nuclear family plus extended relatives such as grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles.


A group of two or more people who cooperate economically and are related by blood, marriage, or affiliation.


A culturally patterned social relationship based on common ancestry, marriage, or adoption.


A legal union usually involving economic cooperation, sexual activity, and (sometimes) childbearing.

Nuclear Family

Limiting the scope of family to two adults and their children.