So What Is a Family?

The UN has declared 2004 to be the 10th Anniversary of the 1994 International Year of the Family. If the ruling elites in 1994 could not manage to come up with a definition of family, things have not gotten any better this year.

Our intelligentsia are happy to tell us that a family is anything you want it to be. I once heard a politician say a family is any group of people living together with a common purpose. Of course a gang of bank robbers would qualify as a family under that definition.

Is it true that families are so varied and diverse that basically any living arrangement can be called family? The standard dictionary definition of family is mum, dad and children. In a more extended sense, most Australians would agree that a family is any group of people related by blood, heterosexual marriage or adoption. And even from a strictly evolutionary point of view, nature itself knows of only one kind of human family: biological pair bondings.

Contrary to much modern thinking on the subject, the family is a remarkably durable and recognisable institution, spanning across centuries and cultures. Indeed, even a cursory reading of the historical, anthropological and sociological record gives a pretty clear picture: the family unit, cemented by marriage, has been the predominant form of family life in most cultures throughout history. I present just a small sampling of the evidence.

Bronislaw Malinowski was the first great anthropologist to live among primitive peoples. After years of research and painstaking observations of the daily habits of primitive peoples, he came to see that the family was a universal institution:

“Indeed, at first sight, the typical savage family, as it is found among the vast majority of native tribes . . . seems hardly to differ at all from its civilized counterpart. Mother, father, and children share the camp, the home, the food, and the life. . . . Attached to each other, sharing life and most of its interests, exchanging counsel and help, company and cheer, and reciprocating in economic cooperation . . . the individual, undivided family stands out conspicuous, a definite social unit marked off from the rest of society by a clear line of division.”

Another anthropologist, George Murdock, conducted an exhaustive investigation into 250 human societies. This is what he discovered: “The nuclear family is a universal human social grouping. Either as the sole prevailing form of the family or as the basic unit from which more complex familial forms are compounded, it exists as a distinct and strongly functional group in every known society. No exception, at least, has come to light in the 250 representative cultures surveyed for the present study. . . In no case have we found a reliable ethnographer denying either the existence or the importance of this elemental social group. . . The nuclear family is always recognizable and always has its distinctive and vital functions.”

More recent research by Peter Laslett of Cambridge University has confirmed Murdock’s claims. And as the Times Literary Supplement Editor, Ferdinand Mount has commented, “The family is not an historical freak. If the evidence we have put together is correctly interpreted, the family as we know it today – small, two-generation, nuclear, based on choice and affection…is neither a novelty nor the product of unique historical forces. The way most people live today is the way most people have preferred to live when they had the chance.”

Marriage also seems to be a universal and historical given. Anthropologist Margaret Mead said this about marriage: “No matter how free divorce, how frequently marriages break up, in most societies there is the assumption of permanent mating, of the idea that the marriage should last as long as both live. . . . No known society has ever invented a form of marriage strong enough to stick that did not contain the ’till death us do part’ assumption.”

In an important article written by J D Unwin of Cambridge University, marriage is seen as the crucial element in the development and maintenance of healthy societies: “Marriage as a life-long association has been an attendant circumstance of all human achievement, and its adoption has preceded all manifestations of social energy. . . . Indissoluble monogamy must be regarded as the mainspring of all social activity, a necessary condition of human development.”

Or as Brandeis University anthropologist David Murray put it: “Cultures differ in many ways, but all societies that survive are built on marriage. Marriage is a society’s cultural infrastructure, its bridges of social connectedness. The history of human society shows that when people stop marrying, their continuity as a culture is in jeopardy.”

The importance of marriage as an historical and cultural anchor is also made clear by Harvard University’s James Q. Wilson:

“In virtually every society, the family is defined by marriage; that is, by a publicly announced contract that makes legitimate the sexual union of a man and a woman. Even in societies where men and women have relatively unrestricted sexual access to one another beginning at an early age, marriage is still the basis for family formation. It is desired by the partners and expected by society. Marriage, in short, is not simply a way of legitimizing sex, and so it cannot be dispensed with just because sexual activity need not be made legitimate. Marriage exists because people must take responsibilities for child care and assume economic obligations. Marriage, and thus the family that it defines, is a commitment.”

Mind you, the marriage spoken of here is not same sex-marriage, as some are now pushing, but the traditional male-female form. Even the evolutionary biologists, like C. Owen Lovejoy have acknowledged that the paleo-anthropological evidence makes clear that male-female bonding in lasting pairs was the critical step in human evolution.

The role of both the mother and the father is of great importance. Says Margaret Mead, “When we survey all known societies, we find everywhere some form of the family, some set of permanent arrangements by which males assist females in caring for children while they are young.”

Or as Malinowski put it: “Through all societies there runs the rule that the father is indispensable for the full sociological status of the child [and] that the group consisting of a woman and her offspring is sociologically incomplete and illegitimate. . . . The most important moral and legal rule [in primitive societies] is that no child should be brought into the world without a man – and one man at that – assuming the role of sociological father, that is guardian and protector, the male link between the child and the rest of the community.”

Malinowski emphasises this point: “I know of no single instance in anthropological literature of a community where illegitimate children, that is children of unmarried girls, would enjoy the same social treatment and have the same social status as legitimate ones. The universal postulate of legitimacy has a great sociological significance … It means that in all human societies moral tradition and the law decree that the group consisting of a woman and her offspring is not a socially complete unit. The ruling of culture runs here … it declares that the human family must consist of a male as well as a female.”

In sum, the attempt to redefine the family to include various “alternative lifestyles” ignores the historical and social record. The natural family remains an historical and social reality, which will not easily succumb to the revisionists.

[1254 words]

2 Replies to “So What Is a Family?”

  1. I don’t think all societies since the dawn of time have been monogamous. Polygamy is pretty traditional, and is even documented in the Old Testament. I’ll accept the assertion that most societies have some process for recognizing legal & permanent marriage to at least a #1 Wife; however, the writer ignores the myriad quasi-legal arrangements for concubines and such. I used to be amazed that co-wives could ever get along, but sometimes they do.
    Farhad Diaz

  2. Thanks Farhad

    While not every culture has been exclusively committed to monogamous marriage, that has been the overwhelming pattern throughout most cultures in human history. While other variations have occurred, they have always been minority positions, and usually associated with many problems. Indeed, most often, co-wives definitely do not get along.

    The Old Testament describes polygamy, but warns against it. It was not the ideal of Yahweh by any means.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

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