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Definition of Family - Related Constructs, Inclusive Definitions, Theoretical Definitions, Situational Definitions, Normative Definitions, Conclusion

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaFamily Theory & Types of Families

Over the decades, social scientists have struggled in their efforts to define the multidimensional concept of family. Through her research Jan Trost (1990) confirmed this overwhelming definitionitional dilemma experienced not only by family researchers but also the general population. Specifically, she illustrated the difficulty and diversity with which people identify those who could or should be labeled family members. For some in her sample, family consisted of only closest family members, the nuclear family, while for others family included various other kin, friends, and even pets. This study highlights the difficulty in defining who is part of the family. However, the complexity of defining the family does not end with the determining of family membership. Family definitions are also linked to ideological differences.

For example, John Scanzoni and colleagues (1989, p. 27), in their attempt to expand the definition of the family in the 1980s, discussed the traditional family defined as two parents and a child or children as the prevailing paradigm of the family. They state, "All other family forms or sequencing tend to be labeled as deviant (as in research on minorities) or as 'alternatives' (when occurring among whites)." They challenged the view held by many early writers that the traditional family was the ideal family, the family type by which the success of other families may be evaluated. This statement illustrates how the definition of family is not only structurally focused but also oriented to both ideology and process. Katherine Allen (2000, p. 7) further defines the ideology and process when she states, "Our assumptions, values, feelings, and histories shape the scholarship we propose, the findings we generate, and the conclusions we draw. Our insights about family processes and structures are affected by our membership in particular families, by the lives of those we study, and by what we care about knowing and explaining." These inescapable ideological differences result in a definition of the family that is driven by theory, history, culture, and situation.

Is it possible to arrive at a definition of family that is universal? A universal definition would require that the definition be viable when applied to all situations and societies, historically, developmentally, and cross-culturally. Most argue that such a definition is either not possible (Settles 1987) or only possible to discuss in relation to categories of definitions (Trost 1990). The latter argues that the definition of family will vary based on situational requirements. Most experts in the field have concluded that "there is no single correct definition of what a family is" (Fine 1993, p. 235). Rather, the approaches that individuals have taken in attempting to define the family have ranged in meaning from very specific to very broad, from theoretical to practical, and from culturally specific to culturally diverse.

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