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, in sociology
family, a basic unit of social structure, the exact definition of which can vary greatly from time to time and from culture to culture. How a society defines family as a primary group, and the functions it asks families to perform, are by no means constant. There has been much recent discussion of the nuclear family, which consists only of parents and children, but the nuclear family is by no means universal. In the United States, the percentage of households consisting of a nuclear family declined from 45% in 1960 to 23.5% in 2000. In preindustrial societies, the ties of kinship bind the individual both to the family of orientation, into which one is born, and to the family of procreation, which one founds at marriage and which often includes one's spouse's relatives. The nuclear family also may be extended through the acquisition of more than one spouse (polygamy and polygyny), or through the common residence of two or more married couples and their children or of several generations connected in the male or female line. This is called the extended family; it is widespread in many parts of the world, by no means exclusively in pastoral and agricultural economies. The primary functions of the family are reproductive, economic, social, and educational; it is through kin—itself variously defined—that the child first absorbs the culture of his group.

Evolution of the Western Family

The patriarchal family, which prevailed among the ancient Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans, is often associated with polygamy (see marriage). In Rome, the paterfamilias was the only person recognized as an independent individual under the law. He possessed all religious rights as priest of the family ancestor cult, all economic rights as sole owner of the family property, and power of life and death over the members of the family. At his death, his name, property, and authority descended to his male heirs. The Roman system was transferred in many of its details into both the canon and secular law of Western Europe.

In the 19th cent., when the Western nations began to grant women equal rights with men with respect to the ownership of property (see husband and wife), the control of children (see parent and child), divorce, and the like, basic changes took place in the structure of the family, and the rights and protections associated with it. The state has also intervened to modify the authority of parents over their children. At the same time, education has shifted increasingly from the household to the school. The effect has been to loosen traditional family ties. In Western Europe, where legislation provides equal financial benefits and legal standing to all children, families have increasingly come to consist of one or two unwed parents and children, especially in Scandinavia and other parts of N Europe. The trend toward unwed parents has also occurred in the United States, where about 40% of children in the early 21st cent. were born to unwed mothers.

Another factor affecting the modern Euro-American family was the Industrial Revolution, which removed from the home to the factory many economic tasks, such as baking, spinning, and weaving. Economic and social conditions have discouraged the presence of the husband and father in the home; in industrial communities the wife and mother also is often employed outside the home, leaving the children to be cared for by others. Sociologists and psychologists find in these changed relations of the members of the family to each other and of the family to the community at large the source of many problems such as divorce, mental illness, and juvenile delinquency.


See W. J. Goode, The Family (1964); R. H. Klemer, Marriage and Family Relationships (1970); P. Laslett, Household and Family in Past Time (1972); T. Hareven, Transitions: The Family and the Life Course in Historical Perspective (1978); J. Elshtain, The Family in Political Thought (1982).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™ Copyright © 2022, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.


A group of people, related by KINSHIP or similar close ties, in which the adults assume responsibility for the care and upbringing of their natural or adopted children.

Historically and comparatively, there have been wide variations in the family form. In order to analyse these differing family arrangements, sociologists have used the key notions of the EXTENDED FAMILY and the nuclear family. The extended family refers to a group of people, related by kinship, where more than two GENERATIONS of relatives live together (or in very close proximity),usually forming a single HOUSEHOLD. The nuclear family comprises merely parents (or parent) and their dependent child(ren). Sociologists have argued that the nuclear family form has developed as a concomitant of industrialization (although there have been suggestions recently that the prior existence of individualistic family structures may have contributed to the rise of industrialism). With the geographical and social mobility normally associated with industrial development, sociologists have argued that the nuclear family has become socially and geographically isolated from wider kin networks, leading to what is known as the privatized nuclear family.

There remain wide variations in the forms which extended and nuclear families take, depending on social and cultural NORMS. For example, extended families vary according to kin structures, including polygamous family forms. Similarly, the number of children to be found in nuclear families differs widely. For example, in the UK, the trend has been towards having fewer children; and in China couples are prohibited from having more than one child.

As well as differences between societies, each family goes through a life cycle, and most individuals undergo several changes in family role in the course of their own lifetimes (see FAMILY OF ORIGIN OR ORIENTATION and FAMILY OF PROCREATION).

Recent changes in patterns of family life in Britain and in many Western societies, include:

  1. the increasing importance placed on personal fulfilment, overriding previously more dominant economic considerations;
  2. the increasing percentage of stable reproductive and cohabiting relationships outside conventional marriage patterns;
  3. the increasing incidence of DIVORCE and remarriage;
  4. an increase in the number of single-parent families, especially fatherless families.

A further change in the nuclear family, which may occur as a consequence of an ageing population, is an increase in the number of nuclear families which are caring for dependent parents (see COMMUNITY CARE). See also SOCIOLOGY OF THE FAMILY, SOCIALIZATION, MARRIAGE, DIVORCE.

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



a taxonomic category in botany and zoology. A family unites closely related genera of common origin. For example, among the genera making up the beech family, Fagaceae, are Fagus (beech), Quercus (oak), and Castanea (chestnut). The genera making up the squirrel family, Sciuridae, include Sciurus (tree squirrels), Marmota (marmots), Tamias (chipmunks), Citellus (susliks, or ground squirrels), and Spermophilopsis (long-clawed ground squirrels).

Some families contain a large number of genera. For example, the Compositae (composite family) include about 1,000 genera, the Leguminosae (pea family) and Rubiaceae (madder family) each have about 500 genera, and the Cricetidae (hamster family) and Bovidae (bovid family) each contain 50 to 100 genera. Some families have only a few genera. Still others include only a single genus, for example, the Punicaceae (pomegranate family), Ornithorhynchidae (duckbill family), Castoridae (beaver family), and Eschrichtiidae (gray whale family).

Large families are sometimes divided into subfamilies. Closely related families are united into orders and, in some cases, into such intermediate groups as superfamilies and suborders.



a small group related through marriage or blood kinship, the members of which are bound together by a common life, mutual moral responsibility, and mutual aid. In marriage and the family, relations determined by the differences between the sexes and by sexual necessity are manifested in moral and psychological relationships.

Because it is a social phenomenon, the family changes with the development of the economic basis of society. At the same time, the forms of the family develop relatively independently.

F. Engels applied the concept of the family to primitive communal society to designate the circle of people among whom sexual relations were permitted. In this sense, one may refer to three types of families: consanguine, group, and pairing. In the consanguine family, marriage relationships were forbidden between relatives of different generations. The group family, of which there were endogamous and exogamous varieties, developed as a result of the taboo on sexual ties between parents and children and between brothers and sisters. The pairing family was based on marital relations between one man and one woman. However, these relations were unstable and were easily dissolved. There may also have been a dislocated pairing family, in which each spouse lived in his original clan group.

Throughout these stages of the development of the family the basic form of the labor and everyday community was the clan, which was matriarchal or patriarchal in organization, depending on concrete historical circumstances and especially on the character of the division of labor between men and women.

The family emerged as a stable social association in the late Neolithic period, with the disintegration of the clan structure and the appearance of private property, a surplus product, and classes.

Engels wrote: “The more the traditional sexual relations lost their naïve, primitive character … the more degrading and oppressive must they have appeared to the women, and the more fervently must they have longed for the right to chastity, to temporary or permanent marriage with one man only” (in K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 21, p. 56). However, the chief reason for the emergence of monogamy was the need for the preservation, augmentation, and inheritance of private property. The first historical form of the monogamous family, the patriarchal family, was made possible by the enslavement of women, which resulted from the decline in their economic role and the concentration of wealth in the hands of male proprietors. In the patriarchal family, monogamy was strictly enforced only for women. For men, the rise of slavery and other forms of dependence and domination opened new opportunities for polygamy (concubinage of female slaves, hetaerism, and prostitution). In the Orient, polygamy was elevated into a legal form of marriage. Even the European patriarchal family was made up of relatives (the descendants of one man, with their wives and children) and household slaves, including concubines. (The Latin word familia means all the slaves belonging to one person.) For this reason, Engels defined the European patriarchal family as an “intermediate form” between polygamy and monogamy. The patriarchal family, which usually consisted of many members, was a production association. In its classic form it existed during the first stages of the slaveholding formation, but various modifications survived among many peoples under feudalism. With the growth of slaveholding production, the patriarchal family gradually became separate from the household economy. At the same time, the development of free trade and the colonatus system promoted the formation of the strictly monogamous family among certain groups in the population. The elimination of polygamy was accompanied by an increase in prostitution and adultery.

With the transition to feudalism, “monogamy, which developed out of the mingling of races on the ruins of the Roman world, clothed the domination of the men in milder forms and permitted women to occupy, at least with regard to externals, a far freer and more respected position than classical antiquity had ever known” (Engels, ibid., p. 72). The spread of the world religions, especially Christianity, strengthened the ideological ties binding the family. Male domination was sanctified, and submissiveness and self-sacrifice were elevated into woman’s highest virtues. A “touchingly sentimental cloak” was hung on the “economic frame” of marriage. Freed from economic cares, the ruling class reached a stage of cultural and moral development that made possible the emergence of “chivalrous love” and a “chivalrous attitude toward women.” However, to the extent that private property remained the foundation of marital and familial relations, chivalrous values emerged not inside but outside marriage, as its antipode. In addition to the contradiction in the family between “man the enslaver and the enslaved woman,” there was an equally sharp conflict between the economic goals of proprietary monogamy and the selectivity of sexual attraction, which was most strongly manifested in love.

At least in the cities, capitalist industrialization destroyed the characteristically feudal link between family life and production. Of all their economic functions, many families retained only one—the structuring of everyday life. In families associated with capitalist private property, the economic function was reduced to the accumulation of capital. Thus, the necessity for large, “inseparable” families and the patriarchal structure faded under capitalism. The majority of families consisted only of spouses and their children (the nuclear family), and family relations became less hierarchical and authoritarian. Women gained broad access to jobs in industrial enterprises and the service sphere. This guaranteed them a far greater degree of economic self-sufficiency and independence from men than had been possible under feudalism. Nonetheless, in the bourgeois states, women suffered from wage discrimination. Under the influence of the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat, many countries granted women civil rights, including the right of divorce.

Among the classes and social groups not directly linked with private property, marriage has changed steadily from an economic institution into a moral and legal union of a man and a woman, based on love and personal choice. In the household economy and childrearing, the duties of husband and wife have been redistributed to some extent. However, the most important part of the man’s contribution is associated with the peripheral forms of the family’s economic activity. Whether or not they work in production, women bear the main burden of housework. The development of services, leisure, and children’s institutions has made it possible for the family to free itself, either completely or partially, of a number of duties. This trend is known as the reduction of the family’s functions. Increasingly, the family has focused on its internal affairs, and intrafamilial relations have assumed a greater role in ensuring family stability and permanence. The decline in the influence of public opinion on the family, owing to urbanization, as well as the weakening of the economic, legal, and religious ties that once bound the family together, has sharply increased the “stress” on moral ties.

In capitalist society there are two contradictory tendencies toward change in the family, one toward renewal or “reconstruction” based on industrial and cultural progress, and the other toward disorganization. The tendency toward renewal is most characteristic of working families. The tendency toward disorganization is typical of the parasitic strata. Under capitalism, private property relations contribute to the prevalence of marriages for economic advantage and gain. The economic, political, and moral contradictions of capitalism also promote the alienation of the family from society. The family’s natural concentration on internal problems turns into isolation. At the same time, the possibilities for intrafamilial clashes increase, and the chances of settling them without damaging family unity decrease. All of these tendencies result in instability and an increase in divorce. In the USA, one in 16 marriages ended in divorce in 1890; in 1900, one in 13; in 1911, one in 11; in 1920, one in six; in 1940, one in five; and in the 1970’s, one in 3.5–4. The number of unofficial divorces, or “desertions” (primarily by men), is also rising.

As a result of socialist transformations, family relations are freed from the social forces of the old society, including proprietary law, the influence of the church, and class, estate, and national prejudices. All forms of discrimination against women are eliminated. At the same time, there is a systematic expansion in the network of social institutions designed to aid the family in childrearing and in managing the household. The rising prosperity and cultural level of the population lead to the formation of the socialist family.

Marxism-Leninism refutes the bourgeois and anarchist assertions that the socialization of the means of production in socialist and communist society is necessarily accompanied by the “socialization” of women and children and the destruction of the family. In reality, the communist ideal of relations between the sexes is “civil marriage with love” (V. I. Lenin, Soch., 5th ed., vol. 49, p. 56).

The socialist family is distinguished from the proprietary family by the motives underlying marriage and by the character of intrafamilial relations. In the USSR the overwhelming majority of marriages are entered as a result not of economic calculations or parental coercion but of the personal choice of the prospective spouses. Consequently, in socialist society more than in any other society, intrafamilial organization is characterized by greater equality between spouses and by greater cohesiveness of the family group. There is a growing tendency toward the division of large families and the establishment of separate residences for the older and younger generations. Under socialism, the family’s primary social function is increasingly the fulfillment of the needs of man and woman in matrimony, fatherhood, motherhood, and childrearing. The familial function of accumulating private property died out in the course of socialist transformations, and the domestic function is carried out not as the goal but as the condition of family life. The character of the family’s relations with society and the state has also changed considerably, and the family is increasingly involved in public activity. But even under the conditions of socialism, some families are not free from the vestiges of feudalism, religion, and philistinism, and this accounts for the still comparatively high percentage of divorce in socialist society. In the USSR in 1960 there were 1.3 divorces per 1,000 inhabitants: in 1965, 1.6; in 1970,2.6; and in 1973,2.8.

In developed socialist society the social role of the family increases as the role of the moral factor increases in public life. Familial relations are enriched. Under socialism, moral and legal norms are directed at strengthening the family and consolidating the principles of the socialist community. In the society of the future, the household functions of the family will decline significantly. The registration of marriage will lose its legal character, becoming a strictly moral, aesthetic act. However, it is reasonable to predict that there will be further expansion in the family’s role in ensuring personal happiness and the upbringing of the younger generation.


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Lenin, V. I. [Letter.] “Inesse Armand 23 maia (5 iiunia) 1914.” Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 48.
Lenin, V. I. [Letter.]4(17) ianv. 1915 g. Ibid., vol. 49.
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Grosse, E. Formy sem’i i formy khoziaistva. Moscow, 1898. (Translated from German.)
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Vol’fson, S. Ia. Sem’ia i brak v ikh istoricheskom razvitii. Moscow, 1937.
Shternberg, L. Sem’ia i rod u narodov Severo-Vostochnoi Azii. Moscow, 1939.
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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

What does it mean when you dream about a family?

Because each person’s family experiences are so involved and vary so much from individual to individual it is difficult to say anything definitive about families in dreams. If the dream does not seem connected to our actual family, then it could relate to our inner “family,” the different aspects of our own psyche.

The Dream Encyclopedia, Second Edition © 2009 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.


A group of elements whose chemical properties, such as valence, solubility of salts, and behavior toward reagents, are similar.
A taxonomic category based on the grouping of related genera.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific & Technical Terms, 6E, Copyright © 2003 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.


In urban planning, one or more persons occupying a single living unit.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Architecture and Construction. Copyright © 2003 by McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.


1. a group of persons related by blood; a group descended from a common ancestor
2. Biology any of the taxonomic groups into which an order is divided and which contains one or more genera. Felidae (cat family) and Canidae (dog family) are two families of the order Carnivora
3. Ecology a group of organisms of the same species living together in a community
4. Chiefly US an independent local group of the Mafia
5. Maths a group of curves or surfaces whose equations differ from a given equation only in the values assigned to one or more constants in each curve
6. Physics the isotopes, collectively, that comprise a radioactive series
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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