The adequacy of the dictionary definition of the term – Family

The concept of the term family varies from person and person, is changeable and not fixed. The term family is construed differently depending on the context in which it is being referred – culture, history, geography and biology. The perception of the term family also differs from a child to an adult. Since the beginning of time, it was widely considered by society that the family is society’s main and most important institution. It is socially constructed as it purposes is to enable people to be productive members of society as individuals within a family look to their family members for guidance, support and a sense of belonging. The term “Family” has within its boundaries certain norms, values, statues, roles and expectations from members of the relevant unit. (Young A.R).

Family is considered to be a social system. This system forms part of a larger system namely society. This essay will endeavour to indicate that a the definition of a family ‘a group of people living under 1 roof or [especially] a set of 2 or more adults living together and rearing their children’ is rigid and no longer adequate. The essay will do this by examples from the OU materials, some definitions from the dictionary of Social sciences and social studies carried out.

Families come in a range of varieties. There are polygamous families, a man living together in one house with several wives and all of his children, extended families where several generations live under one roof, nuclear families – two parents and their children. The intermingle of families has changed over a period of time where parents no longer necessarily have to be one of each gender a father and mother. Parents can be gay or lesbian. Families can consist in combinations of parents or step parents, siblings, half siblings living together. According to the online dictionary of social sciences, there are several types of family:

Bourgeois Family – A family system first emerging in the 16th and 17th centuries in Europe in the upper class families and later as a result of the industrial revolution spread through the working class

Conjugal Family – A nuclear family of a couple and their children (by birth or adoption) where the family relationship is mainly fixed within the unit and any relationship to external or extended kin is voluntary and is as a result of a emotional bond rather than obligations.

Consanguine Family – A family system of nuclear families linked through shared maternal or paternal ancestry.

Egalitarian Family – A system based on equality of the members. This is a fairly contemporary system and can be found in younger couples. Rather than an authoritarian method of parent child relationship it can be permissive.

Nuclear Family – This is almost the same type as the conjugal family, but extended, or consanguineal (based on shared blood descent), families can be thought of as part of the family linked to the nuclear families

In order to investigate the meaning of the term family, Heather Montgomery an OU representative interviewed people in South Africa. Fatima Dike a playwright from Cape town describes the African Xhosa family as two structure, a household and a family. A household means people living in the same house as any one particular time. A family on the other hand means parents, grandparents, uncles, aunties and all their families, what brings them together is their blood line. Women raised children and looked after the homes and men were the bread earners. Children are raised differently where all females in the household have a share in the upbringing of a child. They have shared responsibilities.

The belief is that a child bought up in this type of society has a broader family perspective and it creates warmth and closeness within the extended family structure. Family in the context of this example does not fit in with the definition of the dictionary as family also means extended family i.e. grand parents, parents, uncles, aunts etc. Although, such a family structure would seem strange in the Western culture, it is an intrinsic culture for the Xhosa people. However there were changes in the dynamics of the Xhosa family structure that was bought about by Apartheid. Apartheid bought about a change in the female roles. As a result of fighting, lack of jobs men moved away from their families.

They had to live in male hostels where women were not allowed to live as a result many marriages ended in divorces resulting in women having to go out to work to maintain the family. By the end of Apartheid there was a fluid cultural mix bought in by the western culture and the media had an impact. As in the rest of the world the lives of the Xhosa people were affected as a result of political and social changes but the significance of family is paramount and the sharing of the upbringing of children’s responsibility still remains a positive way of socializing and contributing resources in the household. (OU Audio 3, Band 2)

The term family can mean altogether something different through children’s perception dependant on the social and cultural background. Again, the following examples that extracted from OU studies in Chittagong – Bangladesh, Oakland – California and Cape Town – South Africa will indicate that the dictionary definition of the term “family” is not adequate. Children from the above countries were interviewed about their families. Moni who lives in a shanty town described her family as not only her parents and siblings but also her relatives i.e. uncles, aunties. Although all of them don’t live under one roof they live close by. On the other hand twins Yasir and Yamin described their family as parents, sisters and themselves. Although they have relatives i.e. grandparents, uncles and aunts living nearby, they described them as relatives as they did not live with them.

Lets us go now to Oakland, Sean and Sophie. Sean lives with his mother, step-dad and younger siblings. Although Sean sees his dad at weekends, he considers Greg his step-dad to be part of his family and his dad almost like a relative who he visits. Sophie is an adopted child and spends her time between her two mothers who are lesbian parents. Carolyn her mother who adopted her and her ex partner Catherine. Her mothers now live separate lives and her adopted mother Carolyn has a new partner. Sophie considers her family to be both her mothers, her close friends and her pets.

She goes to a camp for alternative families where lots of children had same gender parents, so to Sophie coming from a family where both parents were of the same gender was normal. When Sophie was asked what a family means her response was people who are really close to you, they do not have to be biological related or living together or even different genders they just needed to be people who were close to her and loved her. (OU Video2, Band 2).

The last in the examples of children’s perception of the meaning of the term family is Asanda who lives with her family in a black township and Shane and his friends Wilfred and Steven who live on the streets in South Africa. Asanda’s family live in a two bedroom house and is a large extended family spanning across three. Although there are two separate families living together, Asanda considers her cousins, uncles and aunties to be part of her family. Asanda’s mother treats her nieces and nephews like they were her children and vice-versa.

They extended family unit helps support each other both emotionally and financially. On the other hand Shane and his friends live most days on the streets and sometimes with his adoptive family. About eighteen members live in his house, his uncles, grandmother, cousins, sister, brothers and Aunty. To Shane and his friends family forms a less stable institution. His aunt adopted him as his mother did not want to look after him. When Shane’s friends come over, there are also considered part of the family as they are Shane’s friends. To Shane and his friends they all live as a big family.

They consider family to be people to stand by you and people you can depend on. Shane tends to live sometimes on the streets, he know that he could go home to his adoptive family at any time as he is always welcome there.

The examples indicate that children from different cultures conceptualise the term family differently. The views differ even within the same country and culture. It could mean just the parents and children living under one roof or all individuals of the family living in the same household as well as extended family not living in the same house. It is nor necessary that the person who is biologically responsible for an individual automatically is considered family. The only indicator for family does not have to be blood relations. The composition of Family has changed over a period of time.

Reconstituted and single parent families are quite the norm, gay and lesbian families are becoming more acceptable in today’s society. In some cultures, extended families are considered part of the family. For people who are unable to conceive adoption, fostering and IVF (in vitro fertilisation) is more available.

In Conclusion, although there is no unique understanding or universal view of what is a family or an ideal family? There is no single view to what makes a family. In society, through the perceptions of children and adults several constructions of families exist at any one time. The following definitions may be used to define family instead of the dictionary definitions.

1. “Family refers to a collection of people, related to each other by marriage, ancestry, adoption or having a commitment to each other and a unique identity with each other. (Bidwell and Vander Mey)

2. “The family is…a group of persons united by ties of marriage, blood, or adoption; constituting a household; interacting and communicating with each other in their respective social roles of husband and wife, mother and father, son and daughter, bother and sister, and creating and maintaining a common culture” (Burgess et al. 1971).

3. “a group of persons directly linked by kin connections, with the adult members assuming responsibility and care for the children” (Giddens. A)

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