5.3.2 The Universality of the Family

George Peter Murdock (1949) who has studies 250 societies across the world, both traditional and industrialised, has defined the family as follows:

"The family is a social group characterised by common residence, economic co-operation and reproduction. It includes adults of both sexes, at least two of whom maintain a socially approved sexual relationship, and one or more children, own or adopted, of the sexually cohabiting adults."

[Cited by Haralambos & Holborn, 2000, p.504]

Murdock has also claimed, based on his findings, that the family is a universal institution, that is, the family exists in every society worldwide in one form or another. He acknowledged the variations in family structure, but he also asserted that the nuclear family, as described above, forms the basis of every other form of family structures.

As an initial definition, we can note three points that derive from the above:

a) The concept of family is not necessarily linked to the concept of marriage.
In the above view, it is the social relationship between individuals that is important, not the legal framework to their relationship.

b) Family groups can involve any number of adults who maintain socially-approved sexual relationships.

This means that families may involve a number of men related to a single woman (or vice versa) and the "sexual relationship" does not necessarily have to be heterosexual (between people of the opposite sex), since children may be adopted into the family group.

c) The family group involves both adults and children. This means, presumably, that a husband and wife, for example, who do not produce children are not considered to be a family.

 

Many sociologists have questioned this notion of universality, in particular the definition of the family provided by Murdock.

Nowadays and in the past, there have been households with only one parent raising the children. This is what we now commonly term a ‘single-parent family'. Yet, Murdock's definition does not include such types of families. Single parenthood can be a result of separation, divorce, the death of a partner or pregnancy out of marriage (for example, teenage pregnancy).

Another type of household that is excluded from Murdock's definition of the family is a gay or lesbian household. Such households contain adults of only one sex that may be raising children and their sexual relationship may not be socially approved in all cultures. Yet, we find that the number of gay and lesbian households is on the increase, with some countries now legally accepting a marriage between adults of the same sex. The children of the couple may be from a previous heterosexual relationship, they may have been conceived through new reproductive technologies or they may be adopted (even though it is still hard for homosexual couples to be given adopted children).

Kathleen Gough (1959) has also described the Nayar society as contradicting Murdock's perception of the family. In her research, she found that the Nayar women did not have a husband who met the criteria of "common residence, economic co-operation and reproduction." Nayar girls are ritually married very early but have no duty towards their husband apart from that of attending his funeral. But the woman later has a number of ‘visiting husbands' who do not live with her, do not participate in the economic life of the household and need not assume responsibility for any child born.

We have seen some of the existing types of households that do not fit into Murdock's definition of the family and may be tempted to conclude that the family is not a universal institution. On the other hand, relationships are universal and if the definition provided by Murdock is broadened, we may well decide that the family can, after all, be considered as universal. This implies that the universality of the family depends upon how it is defined.