THE FAMILY IN HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE
The word "family" (from Latin famulus: domestic slave) originally referred to a group of slaves belonging to one man, then, by extension, to all persons ruled by one man or descended from one man, and finally to all persons living together in a man's household, such as servants, wives, children, parents, grandparents, other close and distant relatives, friends, and permanent guests. These various meanings were still very much alive in medieval English. Indeed, well through the Renaissance the word "family" was used to mean either a body of servants, or the retinue of a nobleman, or a group of people related by blood, or a group of people living together. It was not until the 17th and 18th centuries that the last two of these meanings were combined to describe a new social phenomenon: a small number of close relatives who lived by themselves under the same roof and who were also emotionally close to each other. By the early 19th century this usage had virtually replaced the others, and since then "family" has referred mostly to an intimate domestic group of parents and their children. Thus, we find that today the meaning of the word is both wider and narrower than it had been before. (The same semantic shifts at roughly the same time can be observed in the French famille and the German Familie.)
This means, among other things, that our present particular concept of family cannot simply be applied to other cultures or even to our own past. If we really want to understand the issue, we have to be more discriminate and, as our philological observations suggest, we should perhaps distinguish between at least three separate phenomena:
1. The kindred, i.e., people who are related, whether they live together or not,
2. the household, i.e., people who live together, whether they are related or not,
3. the family (something now often called "domestic family"), i.e., people who are related and who live together.
In our own present culture it is usually the third of these phenomena, the "domestic family", which dominates the discussion. Kindred systems and household patterns by themselves are now generally neglected as social issues. Instead, the main interest is focused on the one case where they happen to coincide. For example, for the purposes of a recent U.S. Census, "family" was officially defined as "two or more persons related by blood, marriage, or adoption and living together in a household".
Compared to its previous wide range of meanings, this current definition of "family" is, of course, very narrow. Still, upon closer examination, it covers a surprising variety of possible combinations. Even in the simplest case, where a family consists of only two persons, we may find any one of at least a dozen different relationships:
1. A childless married couple,
2. a woman and her natural child,
3. a woman and her adopted child,
4. a man and his natural child,
5. a man and his adopted child,
6. a woman and her natural grandchild,
7. a woman and her adopted grandchild,
8. a man and his natural grandchild,
9. a man and his adopted grandchild,
10. a brother and a sister,
11. two sisters, and
12. two brothers.
Actually, the list could easily be expanded by including great-grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, stepparents, stepsisters, stepbrothers, and still other persons "related by blood, marriage, or adoption". According to the U.S. Census, any and all of these social units, even if they comprise only two elements, must be considered families as long as some common living arrangement is involved.
As we can see, the government bureaucrats who use the word "family" in this fashion thereby express a restrictive and modern, but also a "neutral" view. They do not postulate a particular type or ideal of domestic family, but rather look for a practical way of describing present realities. After all, they want simple, descriptive statistics. Thus, for them, all of the above examples represent legitimate families in their own right, not fragments of other, larger families that have "broken up", or become "disorganized".
However, the average citizen may see the matter quite differently. To him, the "two-person family" may not appear as a "real" family at all. Instead, he may regard it as a regrettable exception, a mere vestige or relic of what a family should be. Therefore, he is likely to feel that a husband and his wife or a brother and his sister, for example, do not constitute a family, and that, at the very least, a family should include three persons of two generations: a father, a mother, and a child.
On the other hand, most people today would probably be reluctant to go very far beyond that basic constellation. They would, of course, include any additional number of children, but might begin to wonder whether grandparents, great-grandparents, cousins, uncles, aunts, nephews, and nieces really belong to the family proper. Here again, it will be remembered, the census takers think differently. They say nothing about the size of the family or the degree of relationship between its members. Their decisive criterion is the common household. Thus, the definition of the U.S. Census covers not only the smallest, but also the largest possible domestic family.
Still, in actual fact most modern American families fall somewhat between the extremes. They usually consist of more than two persons, but rarely of more than two generations. Both very large and very small families are now considered atypical. Instead, there seems to be a general trend to reduce or restore the family to a certain "natural" elementary group or "kernel" of a married couple and their offspring. Therefore it seems that the single term "domestic family" is inadequate for a more detailed discussion. If domestic families can come in different shapes and sizes, and if one particular combination is clearly favored today, some further distinction seems to be useful. Such a distinction has been provided by sociologists who commonly list two basic types of domestic family:
1. The nuclear family (from Latin nucleus: kernel) consisting only of two parents and their children, and
2. the extended family consisting of a nuclear family and various other relatives.
(Actually, the extended family, even where it forms a close social unit, is not always "domestic" in the sense that all of its members live under one roof. However, they normally live close together and cooperate in many important ways.)
Curiously enough, when this distinction was first proposed, it was often assumed to imply some historical evolution. Indeed, the evolution of the family was believed to have run parallel to that of marriage. Just as monogamy had supposedly evolved out of polygamy, so the nuclear family was said to have evolved out of the extended family. Needless to say, polygamous marriages had always produced extended families, but, according to this theory, even monogamous marriage had once taken place only within a larger context, until it became isolated and independent in the modern industrial world.
This attractive and simple notion went unquestioned for many years, and it must be admitted that it contains a good deal of truth. Nevertheless, like the evolutionary theory of monogamy, it has not stood up as a whole under closer examination. Historians were able to show that the nuclear family had been prevalent in the Western world long before industrialization, and that extended families continued to exist long after it. It was also found that both types of family can easily support the factory system, and that there is no straight evolutionary line leading from one to the other.
However, it is still true that the Modern Age has witnessed some dramatic changes in the European and American family structure, and that the extended family has become increasingly rare. Moreover, the nuclear family has now acquired a different meaning for its members, and thus we seem to be dealing with a new and unique phenomenon.
In this situation it seems appropriate to proceed carefully and to discuss both the traditional extended family and the modern nuclear family in greater detail. The following pages are therefore devoted to this discussion. A concluding section deals with possible future family patterns in our society.