Thefamily is a social institution that unites individuals into cooperative groupsthat oversees the bearing and rearing of children. Marriage may be one of theimportant rituals that are instrumental in uniting individuals. Whereas themarriage and family appear to be universal there is a global variety in this institution.Let us look at some of the basic concepts related to family and marriage andsee some global diversity in each.

Family: A social group of two ormore people, related by blood, marriage, or adoption who usually live together.In other words it is a group of persons directly linked by kin connections, theadult members of which assume the responsibility for caring for children.

Thisis a conventional definition of family. In the technologically advancedsocieties, today, some people object to defining only married couples andchildren as “families” because it implies that everyone should accept a singlestandard of moral conduct. More and more organizations are coming to recognize families of affinity, that is people with orwithout legal or blood ties who feel they belong together and wish to define themselvesas a family.

Household: It consists of allpeople who occupy the same housing unit – a house, an apartment, or other livingarrangement.

Kinship: A social bond, based onblood, marriage, or adoption that joins individuals into families.

Connectionsbetween individuals established either through marriage or through lines ofdescent that connect blood relatives (parents, siblings, children, cousins,in-laws).

Nuclear family: Twomarried adults living together in a household without their children. This isalso called a conjugal family.

Extended family: Whenclose relatives other than a married couple and children live either in thesame household or in a close and continuous relationship with one another. Itmay include grandparents, brothers and their wives, unmarried sisters, aunts,uncles, nephews, and cousins. It is also called a consanguine family.

Family of orientation: A family in which an individual grows up, usually born in it as well.This family is central to a child’s socialization and orientation.

Family of procreation: Family formation by the individuals themselves. It is the family thatyou create through marriage or remarriage and then procreate as well. Thisfamily is formed when a couple has their first child.

Marriage Patterns

Marriage: A legally sanctionedrelationship of two or more people, usually involving economic cooperation aswell as normative sexual activity and child-bearing that people expect to beenduring. Marriage is the appropriate context for procreation that is how theconcept of illegitimacy comes in. It is a socially approved mating arrangement– usually marked out by a ritual of some sort (wedding) indicating the couple’snew public status.

Cultural norms, as well as laws, identify people assuitable or unsuitable marriage partners. Incesttaboos prohibit marriage between certain close relatives. Who is a close relativemay vary from society to society. For example in Pakistan the marriage betweenfirst cousins is allowed but in most of the industrialized societies it hasprohibited by law.

  • Endogamy: The practice of mate selection from the same social category. It limitsmarriage prospects to others of the same age, race, religion, or social class.
  • Exogamy: The practice that mandates marriage between different social categories.It could imply an incest taboo, which could also be transformed into writtenlaw.
  • Monogamy: A form of marriage joining two partners. At a time the two partners areonly in “one union”. The two partners may divorce and enter into a new union ata time, which may be referred to as serial monogamy. This practice is mostly followed in technologically advanced societies.
  • Polygamy: A form of marriage uniting three or more people. It could take differentforms of many unions. Polygamy exist in three specific forms, including
    • Polygyny: A form of marriage uniting one male and two or more females. Islamicnations permit men up to four wives, though they have to fulfill certainconditions.
    • Polyandry: A form ofmarriage uniting one female with two or more males. This pattern appears onlyrarely (often quoted example of Tibet).
    • Group marriage: Agroup of men marrying a group of women. It is an odd situation.

Residential Patterns

Justas societies regulate mate selection, so they designate where a couple residesafter marriage. In preindustrial societies, most newly weds live with one setof parents, gaining economic assistance and economic security in the process.

  • Patrilocal: A residential pattern in which a married couple lives with or near thehusband’s family.
  • Matrilocal: A residential pattern in which a married couple lives with or near thewife’s family.
  • Neolocal: A residential pattern in which a married couple lives apart from theparents of both the spouses.

Patterns of Descent

Descentrefers to the system by which the members of a society trace kinship over generations.Most preindustrial societies trace kinship through only one side of the family– the father or the mother. It is also an orderly way of passing property andother rights to the next generation.

  • Patrilineal: A system tracing kinship through males. Children are related to oneanother only through their fathers and fathers typically pass their property onto their sons. It is mostly found in agrarian societies.
  • Matrilineal: A system tracing kinship through women.
  • Bilateral: (two sided descent) A system tracing descent through both men andwomen. One may come across this system in industrial societies portrayinggender equality.

Patterns of Authority

  • Patriarchy: A system in which authority is vested in males; male control of a societyor a group. This is the most prevalent system all over the world.
  • Matriarchy: Authority vested in females; female control of a society or group.True matriarchy rarely found in history.
  • Egalitarian: Authority more or less equally divided between people or groups(husband and wife). In reality patriarchy continues – typical bride takes thegroom’s last name; children are given the father’s last name.


Structural-Functionalistssuggest that family performs several vital functions. In fact in thisperspective family has been considered as “The backbone of society”. At thesame time the social conflict paradigm considers the family central to theoperations of society, but rather than focusing on societal benefits, conflicttheorists investigate how the family perpetuates social inequality. The importantfunctions are:

1. Regulationof sexual activity.

Everyculture regulates sexual activity in the interest of maintaining kinshiporganization and property rights. One universal regulation is the incest taboo,a cultural norm forbidding sexualrelations or marriage between certain kin. Preciselywhich kin fall within the incest taboo varies from one culture to another.Mostly marriage with close relatives like parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles,siblings, is prohibited.

Theincest taboo may have medical explanations as reproduction between closerelatives of any species can mentally and physically impair off springs. Yet ithas social reasons. First the incest taboo minimizes sexual competition withinfamilies by restricting legitimate sexuality to spouses. Second incest tabooforces people to marry themselves outside their immediate families, which servethe purpose of integrating the larger society. Third, since kinship definespeople’s rights and obligations towards each other, reproduction among closerelatives would hopelessly confuse kinship ties and threaten social order.

2. Reproduction.

Perhapsthe only function that seems to have been left to a great extent untouched isreproduction. Without reproduction the continuation of society is at stake and thelegitimate births take place only within the wedlock. Yet even this vital andinviolable function has not gone unchallenged. A prime example is the number ofsingle women in the Western society who have children (about one third of allbirths in US).

3. Socializationof children.

Thefamily is the first and most influential setting for socialization.

Ideallythe parents teach children to be well-integrated and participating members ofsociety. In fact, family socialization continues throughout life cycle. Adults changewithin marriage, and, as any parent knows, mothers and fathers learn as muchfrom raising their children as their children learn from them.

Theconflict sociologists try to find fault with the outcome of this socializationthrough which there is likely to be the transmission of cultural values. Thereis the continuity of patriarchy, which subordinates women to men. Families therefore transform women intothe sexual and economic property of men. Most wives’ earnings belong to theirhusbands.

4. Socialplacement.

Parentsconfer their own social identity – in terms of race, ethnicity, religion, andsocial class – on children at birth. This fact explains the long-standingpreference for birth to married parents. This is more like ascription of socialstatus to the children,

Nevertheless,racial and ethnic categories shall persist over generations only to the degreethat people marry others like themselves. Thus endogamous marriage shores upthe racial and ethnic hierarchy of a society.

Conflictsociologists traced the origin of the family to the need to identify heirs sothat men (especially in the higher classes) could transmit property to theirsons. Families thus support the concentration of wealth and reproduce the classstructure in each succeeding generation. Therefore family plays an important functionin maintaining social inequality; hence it is a part and parcel of capitalism.

5. Careof the sick and elderly.

Familyhas been a big insurance against the old age as well as during sickness. As thesociety moves towards the industrialization this function is likely to be takenover by institutionalized medicine and medical specialists. Care of the aged islikely to change from a family concern to a government obligation. In Pakistanisociety, by and large, it remains to be an important function of the family.

6. Protectivefunction.

Familyprovides some degree of physical, economic, and psychological security to itsmembers. Attack on a person is considered to be an attack on the family.

Similarlyguilt and shame are equally shared by the family. People view the family as a “haveninthe heartless world”, looking to kin for physical protection, emotionalsupport, and financial assistance. People living in families tend to behealthier than living alone.

7. Economicproduction.

Priorto industrialization, the family constituted an economic team.

Familymembers cooperated in producing what they needed to survive. When industrializationmoved production from home to factory, it disrupted this family team andweakened the bonds that tied family members together. In Pakistan family stillperforms an important function at least in helping its members in establishingtheir careers and obtaining jobs.