There are many family types in sociology and they get confusing very quickly. The sometimes-intricate differences between each family type alongside the way in which the terms are sometimes conflated leads to a complex and difficult landscape. Here, I try to clarify each family type individually.
Nuclear Families and Elementary Family Types
The nuclear family, sometimes called an elementary family, is often considered to be the idealised image of family: woman as mum and wife, man as husband and father, and two children. In this sense, the nuclear family is presented as the natural or commonsense interpretation of family. However, what constitutes a nuclear family is a source of contention. In general, it remains seen as that idealised image but others such as Golding (2006: 36) have redefined the meaning of nuclear family to include:
single parents, mixed families, stepfamilies, families with biological children, adoptive children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, [and] foster children.
Although this seems to confuse things from the start, what Golding is trying to say is that the idealised image of the nuclear family can still be formed from the differing family types. For example, if two adults have two adopted children, is this a nuclear family? Regardless, the nuclear family as a family type is still generally considered to be the mother, father, and their direct offspring. Murdock (1949: 2) and Parsons (in parsons & Bales, 1955: 157) saw the nuclear family as a universal component of society meaning that the nuclear family is something that exists in all societies.
A simple way of thinking about extended family is the nuclear family + relatives + same household = extended family. However, it does not always necessarily include two heteronormative parents with children. It can include aunts, uncles, cousins, grandchildren, or grandparents for example. Extended families can sometimes be described as vertically extended families or horizontally extended families. Vertically extended families (see below) refer to an extended family which consists of three generations of the family e.g., children, parents, and grandparents. Horizontally extended families refer to extended families where there are people of the same generation that are outside the typical nuclear family e.g., parents with children in the same household as aunts and uncles.
Vertically Extended or ‘Beanpole’ Family Types
The term ‘beanpole’ family term is rarely used but it essentially means a vertically extended family. The vertically extended family is characterised by numerous generations living together with few children. The ‘vertical’ element refers to these multiple generations, usually 3 or more generations such as children, parents, and grandparents without any horizontal extension (aunts, uncles, cousins etc.). Kenna (2012: 534) states that there is often a lack of a supportive function in vertically extended families due the relatively small number of people in the family. We often think of each generation meaning more people. For example, the eldest generation having children who then bring in their spouses and subsequently each have their own children; each generation therefore grows. In the vertically extended family, there is an absence of this.
Reputedly coined by Frédéric Le Play (1982), the stem family is two or more generations of the same family in the same household. It is intergenerational with inheritance passed down through a single selected heir or heiress or with one child expected to carry on the family lineage. These types of families are often found in agrarian societies. A selected child is expected to maintain the agrarian property and support the rest of the family both within the household and any children who have become independent. The independent children will be paid a dowry and the retirees within the property should receive a life annuity. Those outside of the household who fall on hard times are expected to be able to rely on the heir(ess) for support. Douglass (1988), as example, notes the presence of stem families in rural Basque society. There are more examples in our stem family bibliography.
Stepfamilies, Reconstituted Families, and Blended Family Types
Stepfamilies, reconstituted families, and blended families are generally considered to be the same thing. They refer to families whereby a biological parent marries or cohabits with a new partner who is not the biological parent of that child or children. This blending may also involve the amalgamation of two sets of children; where each parent comes together to form a new relationship whilst bringing their own children from previous relationships. These types of families are often marked by both their complexities and instabilities relating to the predictable family politics that arise from integrating what were once two separate families. These can include antagonism between children or financial difficulties. You may find that these types of families are a prime focus within literature on family therapies. This does not mean that they are universally problematic, rather, they have a tendency to be. Further, these types of family can also be same-sex parents where either one or both partners have children from previous relationships (Hutchison, 2017: 210).
Lone-Parent Families and Single-Parent Family Types
Lone-parent and single-parent families are as their namesake describes, a family where there is only one parent of a child or multiple children. They are mostly, but by no means universally, single parent mothers. They may include a parent of biological, adopted, or foster children, or they may be LGBT. Often demonised by right-wing commentators, there are different ways in which a parent can be single.
This means that an individual was married and their spouse has died leaving them as a single parent. The term widowed usually refers to those who were married and not to unmarried couples where a partner has died.
This usually refers to a single parent who conceived a child through a brief or unstable short relationship. This categorisation is often the one chosen by right-wing commentators to be demonised as immoral and as the cause of criminality, benefit dependency, or other social ill. It may also include those who purposely chose to be a single parent.
Relationship Breakdown or Divorce
Where a once stable two-parent relationship has broken down leading to separation or divorce. Often viewed as the resulting situation of a failed nuclear family unit and traditionally stereotyped as the ‘broken home’.
Where having being raped, the result is the birth of a child.
Same-sex families are families where a couple are of the same sex, as in gay or lesbian couples. Manning et al. (2013: 4) argue that same-sex families with children are similar to stepfamilies as typically children are from a prior heterosexual relationship. Robinson (2013: 29) notes that knowledges around same-sex families with children are considered subjugated knowledges. Subjugated knowledges is a Foucauldian term which describe how some forms of knowledge are repressed in face of dominant knowledges, usually that of ruling powers. In this case argues Robinson, it is often due to conservative myths around those who are LGBT being paedophiles or out to recruit children for the LGBT community. Same-sex families are also often excluded from rights available to other citizens and can be overlooked for many types of benefit globally. One typical example is the right to get married.
The symmetrical family is mostly associated with Young & Wilmott (1974). Their vision of this type of family comprises families of the nuclear variety but nuclear families where the household chores, household incomes, and household decision making is largely equal. However, Young & Wilmott still claimed that there remains some women’s work and some men’s work despite most else being generally equal. As such, it is important to remember that this does not necessarily mean that women indulge in car maintenance and men indulge in ironing. It is more aligned to the idea that the amount of household duty is shared equally but is still divided according to traditional gender norms. The symmetrical family is sometimes referred to as the ‘egalitarian family’; egalitarian meaning a family in which equality is a core feature. The idea of an egalitarian or symmetrical family is, of course, contested.
Matrifocal families (not to be confused with matriarchal) are families where a mother is the head of the family. This can include lone-parent or single parent households, households where the male had died, or households seen as a result of poverty. The key term here is ‘-focal’, meaning that the overarching focus is on the interests of the mother or female. Smith (2014) emphasises this when they reject the idea of matrifocal meaning ‘female-headed’ family. Rather, for Smith (2014: 90), it means as mentioned before, that the focus is on the mother, and they demonstrate this by noting the marginal status of men relative to the family unit in West Indian society. Matrifocal families are often common in Black communities, especially in the Caribbean and the West Indies. They were also prevalent during periods of slavery (Smith, 1962). Matrifocal families may also be characterised by matrilineal descent, or matrilineal inheritance. Matrilineal means a focus on female line of ancestral descent. Something I have not seen mentioned before is that there seems to be a tendency to view matrifocal families as a symptom of the failure of traditional heteronormative institutions of family such as through the failure of a male to be breadwinner, or of poverty in general.
The primary difference between matrifocal and matriarchal families is that, in matriarchal families, the mother is the authority figure. Mabry et al. (2004: 92) describe how in some ethnic groups, older women share households with daughters and grandchildren. Older women then take an assisting role in the raising of children and as givers of advice. Their experience and position in the household thus gives them a position of authority. Russell (2013: 130) argues that, as the nuclear family begins to disappear, matriarchal families such as divorced mothers, stepfamilies, and never-married mothers are replacing it. These family types then, can constitute matriarchal arrangements. Like single-parent families however, they can be seen as a problem. For example, Raz (2013: 160) quotes a Delaware Republican as saying welfare causes an increase in “hopeless matriarchal families”. One thing that stands out is that textbooks seem to be insistent on emphasising that ‘true’ matriarchies have never existed. However, this is a conflation between matriarchal society, that is, women holding the positions of power in society rather than men, and the self-contained matriarchal family unit. There are no grounds whatsoever to make this conflated claim.
This is essentially the inverse of matrifocal families. The father or male is considered the primary focus of the family. Therefore, the interests of the father or male is at the forefront. This may include an emphasis on patrilineal descent perhaps stereotyped by the ‘male heir’, and inheritance passed down the male ancestral line. Sometimes this system is reflected in the everyday when you might hear a boy being told that they will be ‘man of the house’ or will in someway have to take over from the older male. The patrifocal family is often referred to in relation to Indian society and is perhaps best described by Gupta & Sharma (2003: 279-280):
[patrifocal] refers to kinship and family structures and ideology that gives precedence to men over women, and includes the following: subordination of individual to family; patrilineal inheritance, patrilocal descent and residence that reinforce the centrality of males; gender-differentiated family roles (woman’s nurturing and domestic roles versus man’s economic roles); patriarchal authority structures; regulation of female behaviour; marriage system, including dowry; and an ideology emphasising women’s chastity and subservience.
The patriarchal family is represented by the authority of the male or father. Patriarchal families are often extended families with the eldest male exercising authority over the rest of the family. They are often patrilineal with inheritance being transferred along the male bloodline. Strong religious affiliation can also be a supporting function in terms of maintaining the structure of the patriarchal family with this family type being seen as ‘godly’ and in the best interests of society. The nuclear family is also generally considered to be patriarchal but not universally. In short, the patriarchal family is the family by which all others are judged and is a site of feminist contestation. Feminists such as Lerna (1986: 209) argue that this institution is the:
cell out of which the larger body of patriarchal dominance arises
Egalitarian families are families where both partners have equal shares of power, authority, and domestic tasks. This family structure is often considered as an ‘ideal type’ which means that it is a thing that exists only as an idea and not something that happens in practice. One of the fundamental problems with this type of family is in the notion of ‘equal’. This is a problem which exists in any debate over equality; what do we class as ‘equal’? In reality, an absolute equal family is impossible to achieve because life itself cannot manifest exactly equal and proportional events for each partner. What are the chances of both partners getting equal hours of work, equal hours of child rearing, equal wage, equal tasks? The existence of an egalitarian family then, is dependent on how the definition of egalitarian is to be interpreted. If two partners both spend an hour doing household tasks, would the man doing an hour of fixing the car and a woman doing an hour of washing mean that it is equal or unequal as they are both conforming to traditional, patriarchal gender roles? In general, the idea of the egalitarian family is used as a benchmark in determining progress towards more equal distribution of domestic duties, power, and decision-making in families.
The compound family is perhaps more closely linked to the idea of polygamous households, where a man (polygynous compound family) or woman (polyandrous compound family) has two or more spouses. Turner (1969: 8) sums compound families as:
The polygynous compound family consists of a husband, each of his wives and such children as they have between them. The polyandrous compound family consists of a wife, each of her husbands and all their children
Mahale (1987: 2-3) also claims that a compound family can consist of:
nuclear family units or parts of them such as polygynous household consisting of one man, his two or more wives, and their respective children or a family group constituted by remarried widows or divorcees with children from previous marriage
Further, there is also the claim that compound families do not necessarily live within the same household. Living in the same household however perhaps explains why the compound family is sometimes conflated with extended families. They are, however, not the same thing.
Ruggles (2010: 1) frames joint families as families in which:
all sons remained with or near their parents upon reaching adulthood.
Steiner (2016: 50) says:
The joint family contains at least three units, two of which are of the same generation and descendant from the third.
And Jalan (n.d.):
A joint family means two or more elementary families joined together.
The joint family then, can consist of two or more nuclear families or a patrilineal or matrilineal descent group. For example, a man and his wife, their three children such as two males and a female, and the wives and children of the two males. The literature seems to indicate that the joint family is particularly important in rural farming life and are found in India and Pakistan. Gupta (2005) found that, in the context of rural farming, joint families are often beneficial for women and children, in a traditional gender role sense, when compared to nuclear families. The joint family meant children who worked often incorporated play into their work as opposed to the nuclear family where children experienced repetition, drudgery, and extremely restricted lives in terms of education and play. Women in joint families were also able to share caring roles whilst men performed the heavy-duty farming tasks.
Douglass, W.A. (1988). The Basque Stem Family Household: Myth or Reality? Journal of Family History, 13(1), pp.75–89.
Golding, A. C. (2006). Redefining the nuclear family: An exploration of resiliency in lesbian parents. Journal of Feminist Family Therapy, 18(1-2), 35-65.
Gupta, N., & Sharma, A. K. (2003). Patrifocal concerns in the lives of women in academic science: Continuity of tradition and emerging challenges. Indian Journal of Gender Studies, 10(2), 279-305.
Gupta, P.K. (2005). India. In: Unequal Childhoods: Young children’s lives in poor countries. Abingdon: Routledge.
Hutchison, E. D. (2017). Essentials of human behavior: integrating person, environment, and the life course (2nd ed.). Los Angeles: Sage.
Kenna, M. E. (2012). The ‘Beanpole family’: Cultural aspects of ‘the demographic crisis’ in Greece. South European Society and Politics, 17(4), 533-551.
Le Play, F. (1982). On family, work, and social change. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press.
Lerner, G. (1986). The creation of patriarchy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Mabry, J. B., Giarrusso, R., & Bengtson, V. L. (2004). Generations, the life course, and family change. The Blackwell companion to the sociology of families, 85-108.
Mahale, M.N. (1987). The adolescents, their family situations and the education. Delhi, India: Mittal Publications.
Manning, W. D., Brown, S. L., & Stykes, J. B. (2016). Same-sex and different-sex cohabiting couple relationship stability. Demography, 53(4), 937-953.
Murdock, G.P. (1949) Social Structure. New York: Macmillan
Parsons, T. & Bales, R. F. (1955). Family, Socialization and Interaction Process. Illinois: The Free Press.
Raz, M. (2013). What’s Wrong with the Poor? UNC Press Books.
Robinson, K. H. (2013). Innocence, Knowledge and the Construction of Childhood. Routledge.
Ruggles, S. (2010). Stem Families and Joint Families in Comparative Historical Perspective. Population and Development Review, 36(3), pp.563–577.
Russell, C. (2013). The Master Trend. Springer.
Smith, M.G. (1962) West Indian Family Structure, University of Washington Press, Seattle.
Smith, R.T. (2014). The Matrifocal Family. Routledge.
Steiner, F. (2016). Human Ecology : How Nature and Culture Shape Our World. Washington, Dc: Island Press/Center For Resource Economics.
Turner, C. (1969). Family and Kinship in Modern Britain. New York: London : Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Young, M.D. and Willmott, P. (1974). The Symmetrical Family. Pantheon.