How we define any concept, person, thing impacts our understandings and responses to that item. The concept of family is no exception. As we communicate together about family, and in families, we develop ways of understanding, or defining family. Those definitions of family then impact how we enact and respond to families, both our own and those of other individuals.
It might seem like defining family should be pretty easy; after all, we all have one. But, it isn’t so simple. It’s sort of similar to that idea that porn is hard to define but “I know it when I see it.” Family can be defined in many ways, and those definitions have real impacts on our life experiences.
Probably the most clear, but restrictive/narrow way to define family is to use solely “blood” connections. Biological definitions of family are principally used in genetic tracing or other medical issues.
A positive aspect of using a biological definition to define family is the clarity that it has. From this view, it doesn’t matter whether individuals perceive themselves, or others, as part of the family. The sole criterion is the blood relationship of the family members and therefore it is easy to define who is “in” a family and who is “out.” However, such a definition results in omission from “the family” of adoptees, stepparents, and even marital partners who did not procreate within that family line.
Another way to define family is through legal connections. Legal definitions of family are diverse and complex and have serious implications for important family issues like custody of children, inheritance, public services, insurance, etc. In the U.S., the most common way of defining family legally is to utilize a combination of biological and formalized legal connection. For example, the census defines family as “A group of two or more people who reside together and who are related by birth, marriage, or adoption” (http://www.census.gov/dmd/www/glossary/glossary_f.html).
Formal legal definitions of family are relatively clear and can be applied with ease across cases and time periods. Additionally, this type of definition places a strong emphasis on the value of marriage, adoption, and blood relation, which is consistent with the moral and ethical beliefs of large segments of the U.S. population. But, these definitions marginalize those who participate in non-traditional family groupings and prioritize the morals and ethics of one segment of society over others. By such definitions, if a man lives with a woman and her children for many years, he would still not be considered a part of the children’s family, because there is no legal bond. If the couple decides to separate, the “parent” without legal or blood ties to the child may lose all opportunity to interact with those children again.
A third way to define family is to consider the functions that families perform. George P. Murdock, and other scholars, have argued that families perform certain primary functions in a culture. In functional definitions, typical functions mentioned are to socialize or nurture the young, provide for economic cooperation of members, fulfill the sexual needs of the adults, and result in the reproduction of the species.
Functional views attempt to define the primary functions that all families perform. This allows the definitions to be more easily applied across different cultures, household types, etc. However, to designate which functions of family are the most crucial is quite difficult. Additionally, functional definitions often place a large emphasis on child rearing, leaving out couples that do not have children or non-parenting-focused family groups.
Family can also be looked at from a more person-centered definition. Individuals may consider their families to be composed of others who are or are not related by blood or legal means. Research has revealed that creation of voluntary families or “fictive kin” is a common feature in the lives of homeless populations, for elderly adults, in GLBT communities, in immigrant populations, and so on. Most of us also have godparents or other “aunts” or “uncles” who are given honorary family titles as a marker of their importance, even though they are not related by blood or law.
Personal definitions of family are complex because each individual will have a slightly different constellation of members. Some will focus on parent/child relationships and others will not. Some will include non-human animals, and others will not. Some will span many generations and others will not. The list can go on and on. However, the big benefit of understanding family through personal definition is that it is so inclusive. Your family is whoever you say it is.
Defining family clearly isn’t easy, but it’s worth thinking about because our understandings of family are so deeply imbedded in our political, legal, educational, and social systems. These definitions then impact how we understand, evaluated, and behave in and about family. Even here, on elephant journal, the way family is framed will have an influence over who will see family articles as relevant to their lives, and who will feel marginalized or silenced by discussion of family.
It’s hard to know what kind of definition is best, but I would have to say that my vote goes for inclusion. Perhaps in the end, family is a group of people who consider themselves to be family and are somehow bound together by that belief.