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Definition of Family

Normative Definitions

Within the 1990s and into the early twenty-first century, the definition of family was no longer confined to the traditional family, but also included the normative family. Normative is a sociological concept that, according to Abu-Laban and Abu-Laban, "are agreed upon societal rules and expectations specifying appropriate and inappropriate ways to behave in a particular society" (1994, p. 53). These are terms and family types that are normative across most modern and postmodern societies.

Families with at least one parent and one child are viewed as a normative definition of the family in most if not all societies (Angus Reid Group 1996; Bibby 1995; Reiss 1965; Levin and Trost 1992; Rothberg and Weinstein 1966). For example, in a Swedish study done by Levin and Trost (1992), a majority of those surveyed identified as families married couples with children, nonmarried, separated, or divorced couples with children and single parents and their children.

The child in these cases is not necessarily biologically related to those providing care and nurturance. They may, for example, be adopted, grandchildren, products of other relationships, or perhaps children conceived through artificial insemination or a surrogate mother. Despite the lack of biological relationship these relationships can still be included as part of the normative definition of the family. All of these families would be considered examples of the nuclear family.

Also part of the normative family would be all others who are closest to the individual. Not only is the parent-child relationship a normative nuclear family in most societies, the definition of a normal family and nuclear families also includes couples in close relationships that lead to common-law relationships or marriage relationships. However, expectations of a legitimate and thus a normative family union may vary among and within various cultures, based on formal rules related to law, religious orientation, and cultural norms, as well as to informal expectations of family, friends, and associates.

Taking this one step further, intergenerational bonds are also normal if based on lineage or biological parentage are known as one's kinship group or extended family. These terms do not specify the number of parents or children. However, in most societies, the kinship group or the extended family includes one or two partners, their children, and a variety of involved relatives such as grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins.

Information on the intricacy and the cultural diversity of the extended family is discussed in the writings of many authours (e.g., Murdock 1949; Stanton 1995). The reasons that families continue to live in an extended family situation vary greatly among cultures and generations. Some identified in the literature are for mutual assistance both for household work and income and also the inheritance of property or the perpetuation of kinship values viewed as important to the preservation of the family system.

Thus, these norms based on culture, religion, and ethnicity all influence the definition of the family. These norms may or may not be adhered to, and what is normative may change over the stages of the family.

Additional topics

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