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What Is Family? Definition, Features, Types, Function (Explained)

What is Family?

An intimate and relatively permanent domestic group connected by blood, marriage or adoption that live together and share social and economic responsibilities is called a family.

It is the smallest and most basic social unit and also the most important primary group found in any society. It is the most immediate group a child is exposed to. In fact, it is the most enduring group, which has a tremendous influence on an individual life from birth until death.

It is a basic social institution of social structure. Its evolution was thought to be at the ancient time, while family and kinship relationships were developed through marriage. It is the most basic of all social groupings. It is the first and the most immediate social environment to which a child is exposed.

It is an outstanding primary group because it is that the child develops its basic attitude. Every one of us grows up in a house and every one of us too will be a member of a family. We join other groups for longer or shorter periods of time for the satisfaction of different interests but family is with us always.

The family, in general, is a small group consisting ordinarily of a father, mother, one or more children, and sometimes near or distant relatives.

a happy family
A Happy Family

Literally, the English word family is made up of ‘famulus’ which means servant. Extending this word, what we understand is that when people act as servants to each other such relationship is defined as family, each of the members in the house has distinct status and roles, under which familial tasks are performed. Reproduction, nourishment, education, and socialization process happened through the family. It is an institution of interconnection between two or more people through which social behavior, customs, beliefs pass from generation to generation.

It is a primary social group, universally recognized to be the basis of all human endeavors and activities. Anthropologists and other social scientists have debated over its origin, functions, and other important aspects of this important social institution. It has been, however, believed that it would be impossible to conceive the progress of man without family organizations.


It has been defined by different social scientists. Some effective definitions are:

  • To Maclver, “Family is a group defined by sexual ralationship, sufficiently precise and enduring to provide for a procreation and upbringing of children.”
  • To M.F. Nimkoff, “Family is a more or less durable association of husband and wife, with or without child, or of a man and woman alone, with children.”

Characteristics or Features of Family

It is a universal group: It is found in one form or other, in all types of societies whether primitive or modern.

Marriage as the basis: A family is based on marriage, which results in a mating relationship between two adults of the opposite sex.

Source of nomenclature: Every house provides an individual with a name, and hence, it is a source of nomenclature.

Trace of ancestry: It is the group through which descent or ancestry can be traced.

The primary agent of socialization: It is the most basic group as it is the primary agent of socialization of an individual.

Various forms: It is generally limited in size such as nuclear, even large, joint, and extended families.

The nucleus of all institutions: It is the most important group in society; it is the nucleus of all institutions, organizations, and groups.

Emotional attachment: It is based on emotions and sentiments. Mating, procreation, love, and affection are the basis of family ties.

Unit of cooperation: It is a unit of emotional and economic cooperation.

Division of labor: Each member of the house has duties and responsibilities.

Social roles: Each family is made up of different social roles, like those of husband, wife, mother, father, children, brothers, or sisters.

Types of Family

On the basis of Structure and Size:

  • Nuclear FamilyIt is a small group consisting of a husband, a wife, and children, natural or adopted. It is more or less an autonomous unit that is not under the control of adults or elders of the house.
  • Joint FamilyIt is consists of three or more generation, living together under the same roof, sharing the same kitchen and economic expenses. It is a house consisting of three or more nuclear families living together.

On the basis of Birth:

Family of Orientation: It is in which an individual is born is his family of orientation.

Family of Procreation: It is where an individual sets up after his/her marriage is his/her family of procreation.

On the Basis of Marriage:

Monogamous Family: It consists of one husband and wife including children based on monogamous marriages.

Polygamous Family: It is also of two types as,

  • Polygynous– It is consisting of one husband, and more than one wife, and all the children born to all the wives or adopted by each of them. This type of family is based on polygynous marriage (polygyny).
  • Polyandrous– It consisting of one wife and more than one husband, and the children, either born or adopted with each one of them. This type of family is based on polyandrous marriage (polyandry).

On the basis of Residential Patterns:

  • Patrilocal family– in which the married couple lives with or near the husband’s house.
  • Matrilocal family– in which the married couple lives with or near the wife’s house.
  • Teo-local family– in which the married couple lives apart from the parents of both spouses.

On the basis of Ancestry or Descent:

  • Patrilineal family – It is where ancestry or descent is traced through the male line, or through the father’s side.
  • Matrilineal family– It is where ancestry or descent is traced through the female line, or through the mother’s side house.
  • Bilateral family- tracing kinship through both males and females.

On the basis of nature of Relations:

  • Conjugal Family– It is made up of adults among whom there is a sexual relationship and they may also have dependents with them. It also refers to partners, vibe have a long- term sexual relationship, but are not actually married.
  • Consanguine Family– It is made up of members among whom a blood relation exists, i.e., a family consisting of parent(s) and children, or siblings (brothers and sisters).

On the basis of Patterns of Authority:

On the basis of patterns of authority, there are three types of families patriarchal, matriarchal, and egalitarian family.

  • Patriarchal – It is in which men is the head of the house and authority is vested in him.
  • Matriarchal – It is in which women is the head of the house and authority is vested in her.
  • Egalitarian – It is in which men and women share authority.


As a social group and important social institution family performs various functions in human society. Different sociologists have viewed or classified the functions of the family into different forms but still, all of them emphasize the same aspects in a different manner. However, these different functions are described as below:

Essential Functions of Family:

Maclver has divided functions of the family into essential (primary functions) and nonessential (secondary functions) functions. Essential functions are those functions that are basic or fundamental in nature and no other institution can perform these functions as successfully as a family can.

MacIvor includes three functions; stable satisfaction of sex needs, production, and rearing of children, and a provision of the home under essential functions. But it may also perform some other functions as follows;

Stable satisfaction of Sexual needs: It is a well-known fact that sexual desire is the most important and powerful instinct and natural urge of human beings. It is the primary duty of the family to satisfy the sexual desire of its members in a stable and desirable way. Through the mechanism of marriage, it regulates the sexual behavior of its members. Because the satisfaction of sex instinct brings the desire for life long partnership between husband and wife.

Procreation (reproduction) and Rearing of Children: It legitimizes the act of reproduction. It institutionalizes the process of procreation. By performing this function of procreation family contributes to the continuity of families and ultimately the human race. Not only is the production of children but also child-rearing is done by the family. It takes care of the child at the time of need.

Provision of Home: It provides an individual with a home and establishes enduring social relationships. It is only in a home that children are born and brought up under the strict vigilance of all its members. It is the home where all the members live happily with comfort, peace, and protection. A home provides emotional and psychological support to all its members.

Socialization: It is one of the primary agents of socialization The primary socialization of any individual takes place within the family. The immediate house members teach all the basic norms, values, morals, and ideals of society to a child. He learns the culture and acquires character through the process of socialization. His personality develops in the course of his living in a family. It is said that man is not born human but made human. The newborn human baby became a human being after they are socialized.

Non-Essential or Secondary Functions of the Family:

Under non-essential functions, Maclver includes economic, religious, educational, health, and recreational functions. These functions are non-essential in the sense that these are also performed simultaneously by other social institutions in the family. These functions are as follows:

Economic functions: In ancient times house was both a production and consumption unit. It fulfills the economic needs of its members. This function has undergone a transformation, with families moving from being production and consumption units in ancient times to becoming more of consuming units rather than producing one. Nowadays, members of a family no longer produce things themselves; rather, they go out and work for some monetary remuneration or wages.

Educational functions: As a primary educational institution, the family used to teach letters, knowledge, skill, and trade secret to all its members. It looks after the primary education of its members and molds their career and character. Mother act as the first and best teacher of a child. Besides, he learns all sorts of informal education such as discipline, obedience, manners, etc. from home.

Religious functions: All the members believe in a particular religion and observe religious ceremonies, rites, rituals, and practices at home. Children learn different religious values from their parents. It transmits religious beliefs and practices from one generation to another.

Health-related functions: It is a primary social group performs several health-related functions for its members. It looks after the health and vigor of its members. It takes care of the sick, old-aged persons of the family. By providing necessary nutritive food to its Members it takes care of the health of all.

Recreational function: It also has a recreational function. In ancient times, the home was the only center of recreation. Gatherings during festivals, functions, families reunion, marriages, brought entire families together. Nowadays taking family members out on holidays or for movies plays, dinners, or parties, etc. perform the same function.

Cultural functions: It is an important agent of cultural transmission. Culture is transmitted from one generation to another through the house members. It preserves different cultural traits. All the aspects of culture are learned within the family structure.

Social functions: It performs a number of social functions. It teaches about social customs, mores, traditions, norms, etiquette to the new generations. It exercises social control over its members and brings them into conformity with accepted social standards. Senior members of the house directly control the behavior of children and thereby they become good citizens.

Labor division: It is the basis of the division of labor, where all members have their duties and obligations towards each other.

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