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Definition of Family - Theoretical Definitions

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaFamily Theory & Types of FamiliesDefinition of Family - Related Constructs, Inclusive Definitions, Theoretical Definitions, Situational Definitions, Normative Definitions, Conclusion

Theoretical Definitions

Basing the definition of family on theoretical perspectives means that the definition of the family will vary based on the theoretical perspective that one takes. Multiple definitions of family have been formulated from particular theoretical perspectives (Doherty et al. 1993). Because of the variety of definitions that can be linked with specific theories, Suzanna Smith (1995) was able to create a different definition of the family for each of eight conceptual approaches.

For example, the definition of family for symbolic interaction theory is a unit of interacting personalities (Smith 1995). Those defining the family from a feminist perspective would assume that there are broad differences among marriages and families, and these differences are greater than the similarities. The traditional definition of the family would be rejected with emphasis on change and diversity (Thompson and Walker 1995).

However, most theories are not specifically directed at defining the family. David Klein and James White (1996) have pointed out that the family developmental theory is the only theory where the focus is specifically on the family. Other approaches can be and are used to study other social groups and institutions; in contrast, the developmental approach is microsystem oriented. According to this theory, family members occupy socially defined positions (e.g., daughter, mother, father, or son) and the definition of family changes over the family career.

Initially, the stages of change discussed in the literature related directly to the traditional nuclear family. According to Paul Mattessich and Reuben Hill (1987), some of the original theorists in the area, family life stage was based on changes in family size, age composition, and the occupational status of the breadwinner(s). The stages of family development identified were: childless couples, childbearing families, families with infants and preschool children, childbearing families with grade-school children, families with teenagers, families with young adults still at home, families in the middle years, and aging families.

In the 1990s, researchers updated this theory to include families defined in other ways over the family careers (Rodgers and White 1993; Klein and White 1996; White 1991). These authors specify the significance of change that is related to other transitions, such as cohabitation, births in later stages, separation, divorce, remarriage, or death. Thus, how one defines one's own family is not static, but changes with the addition of family members through close relationships, birth, adoption, and foster relationships or the loss of family members because of death or departure.

Talcott Parsons (1943), a structural-functionalist, discussed the development of the family by using more generic family definitions that apply to all members of society. According to Parsons, one is born into the biological family, or one's family of origin. If the individual is raised in this family, it becomes their family of orientation. However, if the marriage dissolves, or the child is given up for adoption, the new family of which the individual is part becomes the family of orientation. However, by leaving this family to marry or cohabitate, for example, the individual becomes part of the family of procreation. This term is somewhat dated because in several types of relationships such as childless or gay and lesbian relationships, procreation may not be a part of the relationship.

With the move from the family of origin or orientation to family of procreation, the individual's original nuclear family, or their closest family members, become part of their kinship group or their extended family, while their new partner or child become part of their new nuclear family. The North American family changes and develops with new members being added (e.g., new partners, birth, adoption) or replaced (e.g., foster parents, nonbiological parents, partners) over their lifetime (McGoldrick and Carter 1982). Thus, this terminology was developed to describe these family changes. It should be noted, however, that this theoretical terminology is most appropriate for the North American population. As has been pointed out by several writers, the basic family unit in non-North American and non-European countries is the extended family rather than the nuclear family (Ingoldsby and Smith 1995; Murdock 1949).

Thus, although theoretical definitions are important for research purposes, conceptual approaches are not in themselves true or false but are rather a set of assumptions with which to examine social phenomena. They may not apply to all situations or cultures. Although useful in doing research, definitions other than theoretical definitions may be more suitable in other situations. For example, practical or situational definitions of the family may be more appropriate in specific situations and circumstances.

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