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family types

  Families are units of kinsfolk within which many decisions of everyday life are made. In almost all human societies, families form significant units of social recognition and social interaction, but the composition of \'the family\' varies widely. Different family types vary in the number and proximity of kin involved in prevailing definitions of \'family\' (Wall et al., 1983; Plakans, 1984).

An important distinction separates simple \'nuclear\' families (those consisting of one or more parents with their children) from various \'extended\' family types (where a nuclear family unit may be extended upwards or downwards to include three generations, or laterally to include the families of more than one sibling). Besides natural (i.e. biological) kinship, family types vary in respect of the senses in, and degree to, which family members are created: by affinity (through marriage or illegitimate carnal unions); by legal kinship (adoption); or by spiritual kinship (through godparenthood). Debates on family types overlap with debates on household composition, but these debates are not equivalent because family and household unit need not be synonymous (in part depending on inheritance systems), and because household composition may vary through the family life-cycle (Flandrin, 1979).

The family also has an important symbolic role in cultural and political systems. Some claim that \'the family is best understood as a moral system\' (Casey, 1989), although the household remains central to most conceptions of the family. Some claim that variations in family structure and kinship structure condition geographical variations in social ideology and belief (Todd, 1985), while others hold that the emotional or cultural significance of family ideals may not be directly related to prevailing patterns of family or household behaviour (Anderson, 1980). There is no unanimity amongst contemporary demographers, for example, as to whether distinctive family structures in sub-Saharan Africa assist in accounting for the much later reduction of fertility there than in many other less developed countries (Caldwell, 1987; Lesthaeghe, 1989; Ahlberg, 1994). (PDG)

References Ahlberg, B. 1994: Is there a distinctive African sexuality? A critical response to Caldwell. Africa 64: 220-42. Anderson, M. 1980: Approaches to the history of the Western family. London: Macmillan. Caldwell, J.C. 1987: The cultural context of high fertility in sub-Saharan Africa. Population and Development Review 13: 409-37. Casey, J. 1989: The history of the family. Oxford: Basil Blackwell. Flandrin, J.-L. 1979: Families in former times: kinship, household and sexuality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Lesthaeghe, R. 1989: Reproduction and social organisation in sub-Saharan Africa. Berkeley: University of California Press. Plakans, A. 1984: Kinship in the past: an anthropology of European family life 1500-1900. Oxford: Basil Blackwell. Todd, E. 1985: The explanation of ideology: family structures and social systems. Oxford: Basil Blackwell. Wall, R. et al., ed., 1983: Family forms in historic Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.



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