Professor Marshall

LESSON 3: Family Structures

Family Structures

How to define "the family"

As a foundation to our studies this semester, we will be concentrating on families in the United States today. Some lesser materials will incorporate historical reference to different families with regard to racial and ethnic compositions.

Defining the Family

Census Definitions

The US Census uses the term "household" to basically define what a family is.

Household: a household, as defined by the U.S. Census, must have its own entrance and must also have basic facilities such as electric, and water. A household may be comprised of a group of unrelated people or of family related by blood or marriage. A household may also consist of just one person, or multiple people.

Households are further defined by the Census in two ways:

  1. Family, which consists of at least two people (identified as householder +); at least two of these people must be related by blood or marriage or adoption
  2. Non-families, which consist of a person living with other people who are not related OR a single person (a single person household is called a "non-family household")

Family Definitions Recognized in Literature

In comparison to the U.S. Census definitions of family, you can see that, from the list below, there are myriad ways to define family which have been recognized in the body of research on family in America:

  • Married intact, nuclear families
  • Joint-custody families
  • Cohabiting families
  • Single-parent families
  • Voluntary child-free families
  • Blended families
  • Stepfamilies
  • Grandparent-led families
  • Same-sex parent families
  • Commuter families
  • Foster families
  • Institutional-setting families
  • Community families

Many of the prior definitions are NOT recognized by the Census however society would be disrupted if these forms of family stopped FUNCTIONING as families.


For this activity, you'll need to have a few sheets of blank paper and some colored pencils or crayons.

Color and detail are very important. On one sheet of paper, draw a picture of that "ideal" American family. Next, on the second sheet of paper, draw a picture of your own family.

Now, looking about pictures side-by-side, think about how you would answer the following:

  • Based on family customs, traditions, gender roles, religion, work ethic, education, politics, finances/economics, etc., imagine what the ideal family might be like.
  • How about your own family? How would you describe your own family's customs, traditions, gender roles, etc.?
  • Was there a pattern in responses?
  • Did there appear to be more "normalcy" in your family, or in the "ideal family?
  • What ideas do you suppose we have about what the ideal" family is in our society?
  • Which of your responses are stereotypical?
  • How have your experiences shaped your responses?
  • How can using the Sociological Imagination help us to dispel stereotypes?

FUNCTIONS of the Family

In sociology, functional theorists always look for how a specific social institution or structure is functioning or dysfunctioning. Functional theory is a macro perspective, meaning that it attempts to answer questions about social behavior from the top down:

Macro Perspective

When studying the family, the functional theorist wants to address what the functions of the family are. Functional theorists are not concerned with specific families (meaning, the functional theorist does not set out to do case study research of a particular family). Rather, the functional theorist is concerned with how the institution of the family functions to maintain the structure of society. With that in mind, the functional theorist would say that the major functions of the family in American society today consist of:

  1. Provision of food, shelter, and clothing
  2. Creating/nurturing a sense of identity and feeling of belonging
  3. Teaching language and communication skills
  4. Maintaining cultural heritage and passing it down to new generations
  5. Providing economic support to those in the family who are unable to support themselves (young children, or the elderly or infirm)
  6. Connecting the family to the broader community or society

A Note about Family and Community

While most of the items on our list above are "no-brainers," the last on our list is often overlooked. Families do not live in isolation from their communities. One of the functions of the family is to make connections to the broader community or society. When families are connected to their communities they are strengthened. Individuals within the family and the family itself learn that they can find sources of comfort and economic support within the broader communities in which they live. Likewise, when families become part of the communities in which they live, they strengthen the fabric of society. This strengthening helps to create a well-functioning community and in turn provides additional support for the families that live in those communities.