The Changing Definition Of Family: Results From A Multiyear Survey

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Is there a natural, universal definition of what makes a family? Nope. A new study finds that the definition of "family" varies and changes over time.

Family

Photo: Drab Makyo

The changing definition of "family."

Is there a natural, universal definition of what makes a family?  Nope.  Enter the sociologists… “Family,” like many aspects of social world of humans, is defined by humans themselves.  Historically in the United States, humans have defined being related “by blood” is the only way other than marrying one’s spouse to be counted as family.  As something that is defined by humans, that definition can and has changed drastically over time.  (If you want more of a lesson on this perspective of sociology, check out the theory of social constructionism.)  Just as the definition of “having sex” is not natural or universal, a new study finds that the definition of “family” varies and changes over time.

The Multi-Year Study

In their book, Counted Out: Same-Sex Relations and Americans’ Definitions of Family, sociologists Brian Powell, Catherine Bolzendahl, Claudia Geist, and Lala Carr Steelman use data in 2003, 2006, and 2010 from samples that are representative of the United States.  The most recent survey, 2010, contained 830 respondents and, in all the surveys contained over 2,300 participants.  In each survey, respondents were asked whether they considered various family structures to count as “family”: married heterosexual couples, unmarried cohabiting heterosexual couples, unmarried cohabiting same-sex couples, couples with and without children, families with and without pets.

The Findings: What Makes A Family Among Heterosexuals?

Last year, with another sociologists, Laura Hamilton, the researchers released one set of findings: 70% of Americans think that its better if women take their husbands’ last names when they get married, with about 50% suggesting it should be a legal requirement.  One definition of family that is just about everyone endorsed is a married heterosexual couple with children, while 92% counted married heterosexual couples without children as “family.”

Eighty-three percent of Americans count an unmarried cohabiting heterosexual couple with children as a family, but that number drops below 40% if they do not have children.  So, according to the majority of Americans, two criteria are required for defining a family: marriage and children.

The Findings: What Makes A Family Among Same-Sex Couples?

The views of Americans regarding the families of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people show changes toward a more inclusive definition of family.  Now, the country is evenly split on whether same-sex marriage should be legal, with 52% agreeing.  In the 2010 survey, 68% of respondents said they counted a same-sex couple with children as a family, up from 54% in 2003; but, only one-third count same-sex couples without children as a “family.”

The researchers found that this increasing acceptance of same-sex couples as families is partly due to an increase in the number of Americans who report having an LGBT friend or family member.  Also, more and more Americans report believing that genetics, rather than god’s will, peers, or parenting, are determine sexual orientation.  However, based on the 2006 survey, 30% of Americans would count pets as families but not same-sex couples.  In general, however, the majority of Americans believe that a family that defines itself as “family” is indeed a family.

You can see ABC News coverage, including a brief interview with Professor Brian Powell, here.

Dr. Eric Anthony Grollman

received his PhD in sociology at Indiana University. He is an Assistant Professor at the University of Richmond. Dr. Grollman's research interests lie in medical sociology, social psychology, sexualities, and race/gender/class. You can see his personal blog at http://egrollman.com.
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