Section 6.1: Marriage and Family

Fundamentals of Sociology - Adam McKee and Scott Bransford

Let’s now consider marriage and family. Think of them as the foundation of most communities, shaping how people act and what they expect from each other. In the United States, marriage and family are super close, but this relationship is always changing and getting more complex.

Marriage might seem straightforward, but it’s actually pretty diverse. Generally, it’s a legal agreement between two people, usually involving a romantic relationship and the expectation that it’ll last a long time. This idea mainly comes from Western cultures (Cherlin, 2013).

However, there are many ways to be “married.” Some people have a common-law marriage without a big ceremony, others might be in polygamous relationships with more than two people, and then there are same-sex marriages. Also, not everyone sees having kids as a must in a marriage anymore, especially with changing views and technologies like IVF (Inhorn & Birenbaum-Carmeli, 2008).

Sociologists are super interested in the link between marriage and family. Traditionally, marriages start families, which are the basic building blocks of society. Both give people certain roles and status that others recognize (Bengtson, Acock, Allen, Dilworth-Anderson, & Klein, 2005).

Family: More Than Just Relatives

So, what’s a family? You might picture a mom, dad, two kids, and a pet, but that leaves out a lot of other family types, like single parents or same-sex couples without kids. Shouldn’t they count as families too?

Defining a family is a hot topic. Some people focus on the family structure and roles, but sociologists prefer to look at the connections between members (Collins, 1998). We define a family as a socially recognized group (by blood, marriage, living together, or adoption) that has emotional ties and works together economically within society.

Families come in two types: the one you’re born into (family of orientation) and the one you make through marriage or partnership (family of procreation). These ideas are important because they relate to culture, heritage, and where we come from (Gilding, 2010).

According to symbolic interactionism and functionalism, two big sociological theories, a family is a group where members see themselves as part of it and act accordingly. Families can include close friends or teams who have strong emotional ties. Families are crucial for providing physical, emotional, and social well-being, and they play a big role in keeping society balanced (Turner, 2013).

The Wide World of Families

Families around the world are incredibly diverse, each with its roles and duties, all adding to society’s richness. In some families, grandparents are the main caregivers, while in others, siblings might take on parental roles (Cherlin, 2013).

Families don’t just care for each other; they also teach the next generation about cultural norms, values, and beliefs (Andersen & Taylor, 2007). They provide emotional support, love, and friendship and help us deal with stress (Giddens, 2013).

But families don’t just get shaped by society; they shape society too. The way families raise their members affects how those members behave and interact with others, influencing society as a whole (Parsons, 1955).

Families also play a big economic role. They pool resources to support each other, pass down wealth through inheritance, and contribute to the economy by buying things and working (Bengtson et al., 2005).

In the next sections, we’ll dive deeper into family structures, roles, and societal functions. We’ll also look at the challenges families face today and how these are changing what families look like.

๐Ÿ” Reflect

As you think about your own family and those around you, how do you see these concepts of marriage and family playing out in real life? What similarities and differences do you notice in the families you know compared to the definitions and roles discussed here?

Family and Marriage: Changing Perspectives

The Evolving Definition of ‘Family’

Let’s talk about family life, the core of our personal experiences and society. In the U.S., where ideas and values are always shifting, the term ‘family’ can stir up different thoughts and feelings. For example, a 2010 study found that nearly everyone agrees a traditional family with a husband, wife, and kids is indeed a family. Most also agree that a childless married couple counts as a family.

But when it comes to non-traditional setups, opinions vary a lot. Most people see unmarried couples with kids as a family, but far fewer think the same when there are no kids involved. For gay couples, the numbers drop further, especially if they don’t have children. This shows that children are a big factor in how we view families (Powell, Bolzendahl, Geist, & Steelman, 2010).

Interestingly, 60% of people think if you see yourself as a family, then you are one. This idea fits with the interactionist viewpoint, focusing on personal perception (Blumer, 1969). But official definitions, like the one from the U.S. Census Bureau, are stricter and don’t cover many modern family types.

Despite this, sociologists note that today’s family concept is broader and more flexible. Society recognizes various family forms, reflecting different individual needs (Cherlin, 2013).

Family: A Universal Value

Regardless of the definition, family is incredibly important to most people in the U.S. A survey found that a whopping 76% say family is the most crucial part of their life. This sentiment reflects President Ronald Reagan’s belief in the family as a societal cornerstone (Lee, 2009). Although family structures have changed, the core elements of emotional closeness and support remain vital. Many people feel their current family is as close or closer than the one they grew up in.

Marriage: A Contested Institution

What about marriage? Well, it’s a hot debate in the U.S. Many religious and social conservatives believe marriage should be strictly between a man and a woman, based on religious texts and the basics of human reproduction. On the other hand, social liberals and progressives argue that marriage should be open to two consenting adults, regardless of gender. They believe denying civil, social, and economic marriage benefits to same-sex couples is unfair.

๐Ÿ”ย  Reflect

How do you see the concept of family and marriage evolving around you? Are your views on what constitutes a family similar to or different from the broader societal opinions? How do you think these changes in perception affect the individual and society as a whole?

Marriage Patterns: Adapting and Evolving

Rethinking Traditional Marriage

In recent times, society’s view on marriage has shifted significantly. We’re seeing more single parents and couples living together without tying the knot, known as cohabitation. This trend is leading some people to think marriage might not be as crucial as it once was. In fact, a survey revealed that nearly 40% of participants believe marriage is becoming old-fashioned (Pew Research Center, 2010).

But this doesn’t mean marriage is disappearing. Instead, we’re seeing it evolve. People are marrying later, often focusing on education and careers first. Despite these changes, marriage remains a central and evolving institution in society.

Diversity in Marriage Forms

In the U.S., we typically think of marriage as a monogamous relationship, but around the world, there’s a lot of variety. For instance, polygamy, where someone has more than one spouse, is accepted in many cultures, especially in Northern Africa and East Asia (Ember, Ember, & Peregrine, 2002).

Polygamy usually means polygyny (a man with multiple wives), which is more common than polyandry (a woman with multiple husbands). The reasons behind polygamy are complex and can involve population growth, religious beliefs, and societal status.

While polygamy is culturally accepted in some places, it’s not the norm. Usually, only a small percentage of men in polygamous societies have multiple wives, and they tend to be older, wealthier, and hold higher status (White & Burton, 1988).

In the U.S., polygamy is mostly seen as unacceptable and is illegal. It’s often linked to the Mormon faith, although the mainstream Mormon Church stopped practicing it in 1890. Some fundamentalist groups, like the FLDS, still practice polygamy, but they represent a tiny fraction of Mormons.

There’s also a misconception about how common polygamy is among Mormons, often due to media portrayal. In reality, very few fundamentalist Mormons practice polygamy in North America. A small number of Muslims in the U.S. practice polygamy, too, though it’s not widely discussed.

๐Ÿ”ย  Reflect

As you observe the relationships and marriages around you, how do you see these patterns and perceptions playing out? How do the diverse forms of marriage and the changing views on its importance resonate with your experiences or the societal trends you’ve noticed?

Tracing Our Family Roots

Bilateral and Unilateral Descent

When we dive into our family history in the United States, we usually look at both our mom’s and dad’s sides, considering ancestors from both as part of our lineage. This is called bilateral descent, where kinship is traced through both parents, and it’s common in about 60% of societies, mostly in modern countries (Kottak, 2008).

But, not everyone does it this way. About 40% of the world’s societies practice unilateral descent, following the family line through just one parent. This is often seen in cultures with a strong focus on herding or agriculture. There are three main types:

  1. Patrilineal Descent: This follows the father’s line only. It’s common in places like rural China and India, where the family name and inheritance pass through males. Females are often seen as joining their husband’s family after marriage, so their birth family considers them temporary members (Whyte, 2005).
  2. Matrilineal Descent: Here, the lineage follows the mother’s side. Societies like the Native American Crow and Cherokee tribes trace inheritance and family ties through women. Children belong to the mother’s family, making her, her mother, and her grandmother the main lineage carriers.
  3. Ambilineal Descent: In these societies, found often in Southeast Asia, families can decide whether children follow the father’s or mother’s line. The choice can depend on several factors, like the prestige of the parent’s family or cultural customs.

Residence Post-Marriage

The way a society traces descent often influences where a couple lives after they marry. In patrilocal societies, it’s common for the wife to move in with or near her husband’s family. This can make her feel like an outsider, disconnected from her own family. For instance, in China, a country with strong patrilineal traditions, the term for maternal grandmother reflects this outsider status.

On the flip side, matrilocal societies expect the husband to live with or near his wife’s family. The Minangkabau people of West Sumatra, Indonesia, are a good example. Here, the home is considered the woman’s domain, and men have less influence over home and family matters.

Interestingly, while societies with patrilocal and patrilineal tendencies often lean towards patriarchy, those with matrilocal and matrilineal structures aren’t necessarily matriarchal. It shows that the concept of family and power dynamics within it can be more complex and varied than a simple division of matriarchy and patriarchy.

๐Ÿ” Reflect

Thinking about your own family, how do you trace your lineage? Can you see the influence of these descent patterns in your family or community? How do different cultures’ approaches to lineage and residency after marriage resonate with or differ from your personal experiences?

Stages of Family Life: A Dynamic Journey

Evolving Concepts of Family Life

Family life is a fascinating journey, and how we understand it has changed a lot over time. There used to be this idea that families go through a set of predictable stages. These theories were once a big deal in family sociology, but now they’re critiqued for being too linear and not considering the diversity of families today (McGoldrick, Carter, & Garcia-Preto, 2016).

The Family Life Cycle

Still, one useful way to think about families is through the ‘family life cycle.’ Think of it as the common phases a family goes through. Paul Glick sketched out this idea in 1955, suggesting a typical pattern: growing up, making a family, raising kids, enjoying an ’empty nest,’ and then the later years of life. He believed this cycle repeats with each generation (Glick, 1989).

Evelyn Duvall built on this, outlining specific stages of family life. This framework helped people understand the challenges and achievements families face over time. For example, the issues a new couple faces are different from those of a couple with teenagers. The goal for families was to adapt and smoothly transition through these stages.

Marketers and consumer researchers loved this model too. They used it to predict what goods and services families might need as they moved from one stage to another (Wells & Gubar, 1966).

Beyond Rigid Stages

However, this ‘stage’ approach didn’t sit well with everyone. Critics said it oversimplified family life and ignored the diversity in gender, ethnicity, culture, and lifestyles. So, more flexible models, like the family life course, have popped up. This approach sees family events as part of a fluid journey, not just fixed stages.

This modern view accommodates changes in society, like how having kids and getting married don’t always happen in the same order anymore. It also recognizes other shifts in how families work and live. Today’s understanding of family life is more about embracing the complexities and diversities of 21st-century families, rather than sticking to rigid stages.

๐Ÿ” Reflect

As you think about your own family or those around you, how do you see the family life cycle playing out? Do you think the concept of predictable stages is relevant, or do more flexible models resonate better with your experiences? How do these theories help you understand the complexities of family life today?

Changes in Family Structure

Evolving Forms of the American Family

The family, a fundamental pillar of society, is always changing, reflecting shifts in societal values, beliefs, and practices. The image of the traditional nuclear family โ€” a married couple with their children โ€” is diversifying into various forms (U.S. Census Bureau, 2020).

Nuclear Family and Beyond

While the nuclear family was long considered the norm, recent statistics show a different picture. Only 62% of children live in such households, down from 66% a decade ago. This decline points to an increase in other family types, such as single-parent families and cohabiting parents (Livingston, 2021).

Single-Parent Households on the Rise

Single-parent households, primarily led by mothers, are increasingly common. In 2020, nearly a third of children lived with a single parent, indicating a significant shift from traditional family structures (Kreider & Ellis, 2011). These households sometimes include a non-biological partner, adding another dimension to the family dynamic.

Stepfamilies and Guardianship

Stepfamilies have become a standard part of the family landscape, with their composition reflecting the complex interplay of life stages and dynamics. Meanwhile, some children live with guardians like grandparents, often due to challenging circumstances such as parental drug abuse or incarceration (Pilkauskas & Dunifon, 2016).

Impact on Children’s Lives

The family structure profoundly affects children’s well-being. Children in dual-parent households generally have more financial and educational advantages. However, the benefits also depend on the parents’ marital status, with children of divorced parents often faring better than those with never-married parents, primarily due to socioeconomic factors (Amato, 2005).

Cohabitation and Same-Sex Couples

Cohabitation is now a common alternative to marriage, with many seeing it as a step toward marriage. However, its impact on marriage success varies. Additionally, the rise in same-sex couple households reflects broader societal acceptance. These families are similar in many ways to opposite-sex couples and are equally effective in parenting (Farr, Forssell, & Patterson, 2010).

Choosing Singlehood

More people are choosing to remain single, influenced by various social, cultural, and personal factors. This trend reflects a shift in attitudes, where being single isn’t seen as rejecting marriage but rather as a different lifestyle choice. By the age of forty, a significant portion of the population will have never married (DePaulo & Morris, 2006).

Conclusion: The Constant Importance of Family

Despite these changes, one thing remains clear: the importance of family, whatever form it takes, in our lives. As society continues to evolve, so too does the concept of what constitutes a family, reflecting the diverse tapestry of human relationships and bonds.

๐Ÿ” Reflect

How have you seen family structures change in your community or broader society? Do these evolving forms reflect the changing values and needs of contemporary life? How do these various structures impact the individuals within them and society at large?


This section presents an examination of the complexities surrounding marriage and family in contemporary society. The historical understanding of family structures, particularly the nuclear family, is initially explored, highlighting its evolution over time. It is important to note that the traditional nuclear family, consisting of married parents and their children, no longer represents all families in the United States, according to the U.S. Census Bureau in 2020.

In this section, the rise of single-parent households and the increasing role of stepparents in two-parent homes are emphasized. It also acknowledges situations where biological or adoptive parents may not be present, resulting in other relatives or non-relatives assuming guardian roles. The growing trend of grandparents becoming primary caregivers due to circumstances such as parental drug abuse or incarceration is also addressed.

Another significant aspect discussed in this section focuses on the socioeconomic impact of parental marital status on children. Children from two-parent homes generally experience greater financial and educational advantages compared to those from single-parent homes. However, this does not imply that single-parent households are disadvantageous in all respects. Rather, it emphasizes the need for comprehensive support mechanisms for such families.

Furthermore, this section acknowledges the increasing prevalence of cohabitation and the shifting societal attitudes towards this arrangement. The rise of same-sex couple households and the legal recognition of these relationships is also a prominent topic. The growing acceptance of choosing to stay single as a lifestyle is also discussed while recognizing that societal pressures, particularly on women, still exist.

The exploration of the evolving family structure in this section underscores the importance of inclusive policies and practices that support all types of families. As society continues to change, it is crucial to address these transformations in the understanding of marriage and family dynamics.

Word Count: 3312

Key Terms

Family, Nuclear family, Single-parent household, Stepparent, Extended family, Cohabitation, Same-sex couples, Divorce, Marriage, Foster parent, Grandparents as parents, Single, Family life cycle, Family life course, Family structure, Family diversity, Family formation, Non-traditional family, Adoptive parent, Biological parent, Stepfamily, Family dynamics, Family stability, Parental marital status, Never-married individuals

References and Further Readingย 

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File Created:ย  05/07/2023

Last Modified:ย  06/23/2023

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