WHAT IS A FAMILY?
The word family means different things to people. Meanings may include biological and kinship ties, people sharing residence, intimate relationships, extended families, blended families, people of emotional significance, patterns of obligation and dependence. Family cannot be categorised by a specific set of criteria and our ideas of what a family is will differ depending on our experiences, values and beliefs. This essay makes no definitive decision on what a family is but will explore theoretical concepts of functionalism, feminism and individualism to conceptualise what a family does. The first section outlines the problems associated with defining family including diversification of families in Australian society, inaccuracy of both data collation and historical accounts of the family. The second section of this essay conceptualises the family from the aforementioned theories concluding that aspects of all three theories are still relevant to Australian families. Problems with defining family
The functions, roles, and structure of family stem from our experiences as children and we assume these are normal and the same (Poole 2011, 126, Saggers & Sims 2004, 66). Family however, is conceptualised differently by each person for reasons such as ethnic background and socioeconomic status. Governments and policy makers define families in terms of obligation and dependence patterns in order to apply blanket taxation laws and eligibility criteria for welfare don’t always apply to everyone (Gilding 1995, 4). For instance, Saggers and Sims (2004, 68-80), Briggs (1994, 2) and Baker (2001, 6) point out that different migrant cultures in Australia are more likely to live in multi-family households with their extended families, as do many indigenous families (Baker 2001,7). Within these families financial resources are shared, joint decisions are made and child rearing is not just the responsibility of a biological parent in contrast to taxation laws that take into account the income of a spouse only. In western cultures the most persistent concept of family is the nuclear family consisting of male and female parents and biological children. Traditional gendered roles of a breadwinner father and mother as the primary carer and domestic servant are intrinsic to this unit. The nuclear family is a normative framework of the ideal family in Australia however the reality of divorce rates, declining fertility, blended families, same sex couples and lone parent families is not represented within this idea and are seen as undesirable and threat to the social order (Bittman and Pixley 1994, 14-15). There is perception that nuclear family is declining usually based on analysis of household census data which can be highly illusive. Families change and reform in several ways throughout the our life cycles, but data is collected at a single point in time and is often assumed representative of changes in society’s choices (Saggers and Sims 2004,67). Bittman and Pixley (1997,5-7) demonstrate this point though the example of an increase in empty nesters who once lived as nuclear families. Taking this data out of context may lead us to believe that this group of families has rejected the nuclear family when in fact this was an integral part of their past. The nuclear family is recognized historically as the most common form of unit in the 20th century, yet Gilding (1995, 13-14) and Baker (2001, 9) citing work of Feminist Margrit Eichler and Anthropologist George Murdock point out overrepresentation of the experiences of white middle-class men in previous studies and historical documents, clouding the evidence that different cultural groups have always had varying concepts on family and marriages. George Murdock estimated by the 1940s only 20% of families by definition were nuclear families. Same-sex couples, for example, appear relatively new (Saggers and Sims 2004, 81) however, Baker (2004, 9) suggests...
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