by Evelyn Nakano Glenn
In popular usage, the ideal family unit is a nuclear household consisting of a mother, father, and children residing together. However, the U.S. Census Bureau defines the family more broadly as “two or more people (one of whom is the householder) related by birth, marriage, or adoption residing in the same housing unit.” In other contexts, “family” may refer to (all) those related by blood or marriage, regardless of whether or not they live under the same roof. Societies differ in how they reckon blood relationships. They may recognize kinship through only the male line (patrilineal), only the female line (matrilineal), or both male and female lines (bilateral). Moreover, the question of “what is family?” can be considered via its functions, namely, producing and reproducing persons as biological and social beings. These functions are accomplished through a gender and generational division of labor. Alternatively, family relations can be imagined; sociologists and anthropologists have used the term “fictive kin” to refer to those who are considered to be family members even if they are not formally related. As Alvin Gouldner (1960) observes, families also encompass “status obligations”—duties that are attached to one’s kinship position in the family. For example, in many cultures, mothers are expected to care for young children; fathers to contribute economically; and children to obey parents. Importantly, status obligations have moral relevance. Others (both within the family and in the larger community) may judge whether a woman is a “good” or “bad” mother/daughter/wife/etc. based on whether or not she performs her familial duties. Status obligations are also internalized in that members feel that they should perform them, and if they do not, they feel guilty.