Family Structures Research Paper Starter

Family Structures

The study of family structures is important to a variety of disciplines and for myriad reasons. Social science researchers, demographers, public health policy-makers, mental health practitioners and market researchers are among the many paying close attention to the drastic changes in family structures that have taken place within our population over the course of the last half-century. The roles of extended family and fictive kin continue to expand, as do the number of single parent families. Adults are choosing to marry later in life, if at all, and the number of children per household continues to decline. Yet, the nuclear family remains as the core unit of society.



Family & Relationships > Family Structures


Family structures represent the various ways that cultures and societies define what family is. These structures can include parents, children, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and more distant relationships defined by blood, marriage, or friendship. The family serves as the central unit of society and as the primary financial and social support for children. Family is also where relationships between generations develop. Children are born into a family of orientation, where they are taught social norms. Adults may participate in a family of procreation, whose purpose is to have and raise children (Brownell & Resnick, 2005; Settersten, Furstenberg, & Rumbaut, 2005, as cited in Musick, Bumpass & Meir, 2006).

The nuclear, or conjugal, family is at the core of the family structure. A nuclear family consists of a mother and her children, and oftentimes, the mother's husband, who is the children's father. A nuclear family most often maintains close ties with extended, or consanguineal, family, which is composed of siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, while a conjugal family operates with relative independence from kin. Fictive kin are those considered relatives by the nuclear and/or extended family but who are not actually related by blood or marriage. For many generations, mother, father, and offspring represented the nuclear family, but in the past three decades, its composition has changed as more single-parent and matrifocal family households are identified.

While extended family has played a vital role in almost all cultures, participation in complex networks of extended family has been of particular importance among African Americans (Stewart, 2007). According to Stewart, African Americans still "exist within the context of extended family structure rather than as discrete units despite the influence of the larger society. The members are interdependent and may share the responsibilities of childrearing and household funding across or among nuclear family units" (2007, p. 165). The appearance of a single-parent family is sometimes deceptive, as it may be part of a larger extended family system. "It is not unusual for young mothers and their children to be incorporated without stigma into the kin network. In this way, both mother and child are cared for while the young mother matures" (Stewart, 2007, p. 165). Extended family systems remain a strong vital and viable aspect of the lives of African Americans, regardless of socioeconomic status or educational attainment (Stewart, 2007).

Often found within the extended family network of African Americans are fictive kin relationships that are important to both the incorporating family and the individual who is incorporated. Fictive kin can be defined as those individuals not related by blood or marriage but who regard each other as kin (Chatters, Taylor & Jayakody, 1994; Landrine & Klonoff, 1996, as cited in Stewart, 2007). Thus, family membership is not necessarily determined by blood or marriage; it is also defined by the nature of relationships between and among individual members of a family. Stewart (2007) points to the transformation of marital kin from consanguineal family to fictive kin within an extended family network after a divorce. The relatives of former spouses remain within the extended family as fictive kin. Fictive kin are treated as family members and are expected to behave as responsible members of the family. Another version of fictive kin, which is atypical, occurs when groups of unrelated individuals come together and interact among themselves and with the world as kin (Liebow, 1967, as cited in Stewart, 2007). According to Stewart, "This version of fictive kin is different than 'play kin' because the individuals are not incorporated into an existing family structure but are forming a structure among or between them" (2007, p. 166).

The inclusion of fictive kin into family and community relationships predates the enslavement of Africans in America; the West African tradition of community has always considered that all its members are part of an extended family network (Chatters et al., 1994; Scannapieco & Jackson, 1996, as cited in Stewart, 2007). One acknowledgment of fictive kin relationships within family was the practice of children addressing as aunt or uncle with fictive kin to identify the relationship and demonstrate respect. Stewart states: "This is a practice that continues today through the terms 'Miss/Mr.' followed by a first name may be used in place of aunt and uncle" (2007, p. 166).

The family unit is also the place in which intergenerational relationships/multigenerational relationships (IGR/MGR) are initially formed as children develop bonds with parents, grandparents, and, at times, great-grandparents. These relationships have assumed a new dimension in society and in the study of sociology. According to Brownell and Resnick, "IGR/MGRs can be viewed as a tool not only to enhance family understanding, but also to help develop stronger and healthier societies through significant community-based projects in which young and old persons participate together" (2005, p. 68).

While the two terms are used interchangeably in the literature, there are distinctions between intergenerational relationships and multigenerational relationships. Intergenerational relationships (IGR) refer to those things that take place between generations and are used to identify the bond between children, parents, and grandparents. Multigenerational relationships refer to those things that refer to several generations, such as the keeping of traditions from generation to generation. Mabry, Schmeeckle, and Bengston state: "Much research in aging focuses on the relationships and interactions among people of different ages or in different age groups. Intergenerational relationship are between family members in a lineage-parents and children, grandparents and grandchildren-interacting at the microsocial level" (as cited in Brownell & Resnick, 2005, p. 555). Multigenerational is a concept that refers to more than one generation without identifying specific relationships between or among the members of the generations (Martinez, 2002, as cited in Brownell & Resnick, 2005). In short, the term "intergenerational" identifies specific relationships among individuals of different generations, while multigenerational is used to discuss relationships among and between the generations as wholes.


Family structures have changed dramatically since the mid-twentieth century. Much of this change has centered on an overall decline in marriage and a redefinition of the nuclear family. US census data shows that in 2012, 34.4 percent of adults aged 30 to 34 had never been married compared to 6 percent in 1970 (Vespa, Lewis & Kreider, 2013; Clark & Davies Withers, 2007). Overall, women aged 15 and older are much less likely to marry; the number of marriages per woman dropped from 76.5 to 34.9 per 1,000 women between 1970 and 2010 (National Marriage Project, 2011). Among all family groups with children under age 18, the number of married-couple households raising children declined from 40 to 20 percent between 1970 and 2012 (Vespa, Lewis & Kreider, 2013).

Between 1965 and 1980, the rate of divorce increased from 2.5 to 5.2 per 1,000 population, tapering off to about 3.6 per 1,000 population in 2010 (US Census Bureau, 2002; National Vital Statistics System, 2010). . Not surprisingly, the increased number of those who never marry or marry and then divorce has been paralleled by increasing numbers of single head-of-households with children (Clark & Davies Withers, 2007). According to Clark and Davies Withers, in spite of the many "documented benefits of marriage, such as greater wealth, increased economic assets, greater likelihood of being healthy, and overall higher likelihood of satisfaction and happiness, the likelihood of marriage has decreased and the likelihood of divorce has increased" (2007, p. 7).

Table 1: Family Composition Over Time

All family groups Two-parent One-parent Year Total Married Unmarried* Total Single Mother Single Father 2012 26,304 24,445 1,859 12,278 10,322 1,956 2010 27,082 25,317 1,765 11,686 9,924 1,762 2005 26,482 26,482 (n/a) 12,835 10,366 2,469 2000 25,771 25,771 (n/a) 11,725 9,681 2,044 1995 25,640 25,640 (n/a) 11,527 9,833 1,694 1990 24,921 24,921 (n/a) 9,749 8,398 1,351 1985 24,573 24,573 (n/a) 8,779 7,737 1,042 1980 25,231 25,231 (n/a) 6,920 6,230 690 1970 25,823 25,823 (n/a) 3,803 3,410 393

The increased attainment of independence, education, and career achievement for women has risen even as the rate of marriage and the number of children each woman bears have decreased. Social role expectations for women and the human capital theory are at the center of the trend. According to Becker, social norms "regarding the household division of labor dictate that wives take on family- and housework, and married women, especially when they also have young children, will have limited time and effort to invest in education and in work, and will experience more labor force...

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