The institution of family has three important functions:

  1. To provide for the rearing of children
  2. To provide a sense of identity or belonging among its members
  3. To transmit culture between generations

In Western societies, we tend to think of a family as consisting of a mother, father, and children living under one roof: a nuclear family. Before societies modernize, families usually consist of several generations and branches of extended family living in the same dwelling, or in the same village. As modernization occurs, young people tend to move away from the villages in which they were raised in search of jobs, leaving the older generations behind. They relocate to cities and meet people they probably never would have met had they stayed home. People in modernized, urbanized societies meet spouses on their own, rather than being introduced by family members, and marry and settle down in locations that are often far from their original communities.


Marriage, a foundation of family life, exists in all cultures, with some variations:

  • Endogamy: Marriage between members of the same category, class, or group
  • Exogamy: Marriage between members of different categories, classes, or groups
  • Monogamy: Marriage between one man and one woman
  • Polygamy: Marriage between one man and more than one woman
  • Polyandry: Marriage between one woman and more than one man

In some cultures, after marriage, a couple lives in the wife’s family’s household—a practice called matrilocality. When couples live in the husband’s family’s household, the practice is called patriolocality. If they go out and get their own place to live, they practice neolocality.


Rearing children is a primary function of a family. Being in a family provides children with a sense of identity. They learn the norms and values of their societies, as well as the norms and values of the smaller groups to which they belong. By learning about their cultural heritages, children gain a sense of belonging to something larger than themselves. By teaching children about their heritage, families insure their culture will live on.

Despite the many demands of child-rearing, most adults describe raising children as an important and fulfilling duty. Nevertheless, the number of children in the households of industrialized countries has been dwindling for generations. Economic pressures have led the average U.S. family to have only one or two children. Because both parents must often work outside the home to support the family, parents and children spend less and less time together.

Alternative Families

Not all families are centered on a married couple with children. To an increasing degree, U.S. households feature alternative types of families, such as the following:

  • Single-parent household
  • Cohabitating, unmarried couples
  • Gay and lesbian couples
  • Single adults

Popular pages: Social Institutions