A family is a group of people related to one another by kinship. More precisely, kinship is a set of socially recognized ties between persons that exist because of their connection by birth or marriage (Firth et al., 1970/2006, p. 3).
Sociologists generally identify the following types of families:
- Nuclear or conjugal (a wife, a husband, and their children),
- matrifocal (a mother and her children),
- patrifocal (a father and his children), and
- extended families (parents, grandparents, children, aunts, uncles, and so on).
In addition to these, there are also:
- patriarchal (male-led),
- matriarchal (female-led),
- blended (mixed parent),
- egalitarian (equal),
- compound (three or more spouses and their children),
- stem, and
- joint families.
This article will focus on the eight most common types of families. These are the nuclear, extended, blended compound, patriarchal, matriarchal, egalitarian, and single-parent families.
Family Structures in Sociology
Historically, most human societies are built around family structures, which are believed to be the building blocks of a society.
One of the most important studies of the sociology of the family, Family: Socialization, and Interaction Process (Bales & Parsons, 1955/2014), claims that a sociological approach to families should construe them not simply as natural entities but as social systems.
In sociology and anthropology, it is common to classify family organizations into different categories.
8 Types of Family in Sociology
A conjugal or nuclear family is one of the most common in society. It comprises a married heterosexual couple and their young children living by themselves.
Some sociologists, such as George P. Murdock, consider this type of structure a universal one (Murdock, 1949). He attributes this to the efficiency of the nuclear family. According to Murdock, such families are very good at regulating sexual relationships, reproducing, and socializing children.
The advantages of a nuclear family structure might be mobility and economic independence. Some have even claimed that nuclear families are becoming more and more egalitarian.
This thesis is often rejected by feminist authors who claim that the main disadvantage of such a structure is its oppressive nature (Barthel, 1994, p. 174).
A famous example of a nuclear family would be the pastor’s family from Michael Haneke’s 2009 movie The White Ribbon. The family consists of a father, a mother, and their children.
Extended families consist of parents, children, and other relatives such as grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles, and so on.
This was the most widespread family structure in preindustrial societies and continues to be as common in contemporary ones (Murdock & White, 1969). Particular forms of an extended family include stem and joint families.
A greater sense of security and belonging might be the main advantage of an extended family. Extended family members tend to gather for family events and provide support for each other. The main disadvantage of such a structure is that membership entails greater responsibilities toward a larger number of people.
A famous example of an extended family would be the fictional Compson family from William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. The family consists of grandparents, parents, children, and their children.
A reconstructed or blended family, also known as a stepfamily, is a family where at least one parent has children that are not biologically related to the other parent.
Both parents can also have children from previous relationships. These types of families, therefore, can be further divided into two types:
- Simple reconstituted families and
- Complex reconstituted families.
Families in which only one parent has a prior child or children belong to the former category, while those in which both parents have prior children belong to the latter category.
Such families involve some serious challenges. Parents who constantly fight their ex-spouse tend to put mental and emotional stress on their children, while parents who do not tend to make their current spouse insecure and anxious (DeAngelis, 2005).
A famous example of a blended or reconstructed family would be the family from Wes Anderson’s 2001 movie The Royal Tenenbaums.
A compound family is a type of structure that consists of three or more spouses and their children. It is, of course, characteristic of polygamous societies, but it can also arise in monogamous ones through a second marriage.
In the latter case, a compound family is a form of a reconstituted or a blended family and can be either simple or complex.
A famous example of a compound family is the one from the 2009 movie A Serious Man by the Cohen brothers. The family consists of a husband, a wife, their children, and the wife’s soon-to-be new husband.
A patriarchal family is one in which the father or a male has absolute authority over the family.
Patriarchal societies and families have historically been very common, but contemporary anthropologists and sociologists believe that it is not the cultural universal as it was once thought to be (Britannica, 2022).
Shulamith Firestone, for example, believed that the family contained within itself all the antagonisms that later develop on a wider scale in society, which is why she believed that patriarchal family structures should be uprooted (Firestone, 1970).
A famous example of a patriarchal family in a contemporary setting is the family from Terrence Malick’s 2011 movie The Tree of Life.
A matriarchal family is one in which the mother or a female has absolute authority over the family.
These kinds of structures are rarer than patriarchal ones, but they have existed across history and continue to exist today. Others classify some egalitarian families as matriarchal (Lepowsky, 1993).
A famous example of a matriarchal family is the family from Federico García Lorca’s 1936 play The House of Bernarda Alba. The family consists of a matriarchal widow and her five children.
Although it is debatable whether or not strictly egalitarian families exist, they are defined as those families in which fathers and mothers share authority equally.
They are more typical of post-industrial Western societies, but relatively egalitarian families exist outside of those countries as well. This type of family structure is becoming more and more common across the globe.
An example of a relatively egalitarian family might be the family from the 2021 TV series Scenes from a Marriage.
Single-parent or one-parent families differ from nuclear families in that they consist only of one parent and their child or children.
Rising divorce rates contribute to the growth of this type of family structure, but single-parent families have been quite common throughout most of human history (Murdock & White, 1969).
A famous example of a single-parent family is the one from the 2001 movie I Am Sam. In the movie, a man has to raise his daughter alone.
The role that family structures play in society can hardly be overstated. Émile Durkheim, one of the most important theorists concerning the sociology of the family and sociology in general, thought that family structures served several vital functions in societies (Durkheim, 1888/2002).
Functionalists stress how the family as a social institution sustains societies (Turner, 2006, pp. 189-195). These functions include the socialization of children, regulation of sexual activity, provision of social identities, provision of support, and intergenerational reproduction of cultural values.
A family is one of the most fundamental structures in society. Some form of the family has existed in virtually every society we know about (Starbuck, 2010).
Nevertheless, not all families are alike. Many different types of families have existed and continue to exist today. All types of families can more or less successfully fulfill their functions. In this article, we began with a general definition and then discussed the eight most common types of family structures.
Bales, R. F., & Parsons, T. (2014). Family: Socialization and Interaction Process. Routledge. (Original work published 1955)
Barthel, D. L. (1994). The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Sociology. Oxford University Press.
Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia (2022, September 7). patriarchy. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/patriarchy
DeAngelis, T. (2005, December 1). Stepfamily success depends on ingredients. Monitor on Psychology, 36(11). https://www.apa.org/monitor/dec05/stepfamily
Durkheim, É. (2002). Introduction à la sociologie de la famille: Fonctions sociales et institutions. J.-M. Tremblay. (Original work published 1888)
Firestone, S. (1970). The Dialectic of Sex. Quill.
Firth, H., Forge, A., & Hubert, J. (2006). Families and their Relatives. Routledge. (Original work published 1970)
Lepowsky, M. A. (1993). Fruit of the Motherland: Gender in an Egalitarian Society. Columbia University Press.
Murdock, G. P. (1949). Social Structure. Macmillan Company.
Murdock, G. P., & White, D. R. (1969). Standard cross-cultural sample. Ethnology, 8, 329–369.
Starbuck, G. H. (2010). Families in context (2nd ed.). Paradigm.
Turner, B. S. (2006). The Cambridge Dictionary of Sociology. Cambridge University Press.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]