Marriage and Family

Learning outcomes

  • Describe family as a social institution
  • Describe changes and trends in courtship, marriage and family patterns
  • Differentiate between lines of decent and residence

The Pew Research Center reports that the number of unmarried couples who live together, has grown from fewer than one million in the 1970s to 8.1 million in 2011 to 18 million in 2016. Of the 18 million, 8.9 million are ages 18-34, 4.7 million are ages 35-49, and 4.0 million are 50+. [1]. Cohabiters ages 50 and older comprise one quarter (23%) of all cohabiting adults in 2016, which grew by 75% since 2007 and although this seems high, only 4% of U.S. adults 50 and older were cohabiting.[2]

A family of two adults and two children are walking by a big body of water.

In this section, you’ll learn how family is defined and how family dynamics are changing and evolving. For example, between 2006 and 2010, nearly half of heterosexual women (48 percent) ages fifteen to forty-four said they were not married to their spouse or partner when they first lived with them. That’s up from 43 percent in 2002, and 34 percent in 1995 (Rettner, 2013).

Let’s back up, though! Before we talk about cohabitation and/or marriage, take a look at the video below for perceptions on modern dating and consider how you might respond to these same questions about relationships. In what ways are our responses shaped by society, culture, and socialization?

Defining Family

Family is a key social institution in all societies, which makes it a cultural universal. Similarly, values and norms surrounding marriage are found all over the world in every culture, so marriage and family are both cultural universals. Statuses (i.e. wife, husband, partner, mom, dad, brother, sister, etc.) are created and sanctioned by societies. While marriage and family have historically been closely linked in U.S. culture with marriages creating new families, their connection is becoming more complex, as illustrated in the the opening vignette and the subsequent discussion of cohabitation.

Sociologists are interested in the relationship between the institution of marriage and the institution of family because families are the most basic social unit upon which society is built but also because marriage and family are linked to other social institutions such as the economy, government, and religion. So what is a family? Family is a socially recognized group (usually joined by blood, marriage, cohabitation, or adoption) that forms an emotional connection and serves as an economic unit of society. Sociologists identify different types of families based on how one enters into them. A family of orientation refers to the family into which a person is born. A family of procreation describes one that is formed through marriage. These distinctions have cultural significance related to issues of lineage.

Marriage is a legally recognized social contract between two people, traditionally based on a sexual relationship and implying a permanence of the union. Marriage is a cultural universal, and like family, it takes many forms. Who gets married, what the marriage means to the couple and to the society, why people get married (i.e. economic, political, or for love), and how it occurs (i.e. wedding or other ceremony) vary widely within societies and between societies. In practicing cultural relativism, we should also consider variations, such as whether a legal union is required (think of “common law” marriage and its equivalents), or whether more than two people can be involved (consider polygamy). Other variations on the definition of marriage might include whether spouses are of opposite sexes or the same sex and how one of the traditional expectations of marriage (to produce children) is understood today.

Photo (a) shows a family walking with a dog on a beach. Photo (b) shows a child in a stroller with stuffed animals, balloons, and an LGBTQ flag being pushed by two men.

Figure 1. The modern concept of family is far more encompassing than in past decades, which is evidenced in both laws (formal norms) and social control (both formal and informal). (Photo (a) courtesy Gareth Williams/flickr; photo (b) courtesy Guillaume Paumier/ Wikimedia Commons)

The sociological understanding of what constitutes a family can be explained by the sociological paradigms of symbolic interactionism as well as functionalism. These two theories indicate that families are groups in which participants view themselves as family members and act accordingly. In other words, families are groups in which people come together to form a strong primary group connection and maintain emotional ties to one another. Such families may include groups of close friends or teammates.

Chart "For children, growing diversity in family living arrangements." It compares the years 1960, 1980, and 2014, showing a decrease in family living arrangements to 46% (down from 73%) in the percentage of children living in a home with two parents in their first marriage. In 2014, 15% live with two parents in a remarriage, 7% with cohabiting parents (up from zero in 1960), 26% with a single parent (up from 9% in 1960), and 5% with no parent (up from 4% in 1960).

Figure 2. Family dynamics have shifted significantly in the past sixty years, with fewer children living in two-parent households.

In addition, the functionalist perspective views families as groups that perform vital roles for society—both internally (for the family itself) and externally (for society as a whole). Families provide for one another’s physical, emotional, and social well-being. Parents care for and socialize children. Later in life, adult children often care for elderly parents. While interactionism helps us understand the subjective experience of belonging to a “family,” functionalism illuminates the many purposes of families and their roles in the maintenance of a balanced society (Parsons and Bales, 1956).

Diverse Family Units

Irrespective of what form a family takes, it forms a basic social unit upon which societies are based, and can reflect other societal changes. For example, the bar graph shows how much the family structure has changed in a relatively short period of time. What trends do you see in the bar graph? What variables might help explain the increase in single parents between 1960 and 1980 and 2014? What variables might help explain the decrease in children living in two parent/ first marriage families? Which theoretical perspectives can help explain this phenomenon?

The study also revealed that 60 percent of U.S. respondents agreed that if you consider yourself a family, you are a family (a concept that reinforces an interactionist perspective) (Powell, 2010). The government, however, is not so flexible in its definition of “family.” The U.S. Census Bureau defines a family as “a group of two people or more (one of whom is the householder) related by birth, marriage, or adoption and residing together” (U.S. Census Bureau, 2019). While this definition can be used as a means to consistently track family-related patterns over several years, it excludes individuals such as cohabiting unmarried heterosexual and homosexual couples.

Family is, indeed, a subjective concept, but it is a fairly objective fact that family (whatever one’s concept of it may be) is very important to people in the United States. In a 2010 survey by Pew Research Center in Washington, DC, 76 percent of adults surveyed stated that family is “the most important” element of their life—just one percent said it was “not important” (Pew Research Center, 2010). It is also very important to society. President Ronald Reagan notably stated, “The family has always been the cornerstone of American society. Our families nurture, preserve, and pass on to each succeeding generation the values we share and cherish, values that are the foundation of our freedoms” (Lee, 2009). While the design of the family may have changed in recent years, the fundamentals of emotional closeness and support are still present. Most respondents to the Pew survey stated that their family today is at least as close (45 percent) or closer (40 percent) than the family with which they grew up (Pew Research Center).

First Families

Photos of President Trump with his family at his inauguration and of President Obama with his family in the White House.

Figure 3. First families. (a) President Trump with his wife, Melania, and five kids. (b) President Obama with his wife, Michelle, and kids Malia and Sasha.


When a political candidate runs for office in the United States, there is a lot of attention paid to the candidate’s family because it is a reflection of the candidate and the candidate’s values.

When former United States President Barack ran for office, many questioned his Kenyan lineage through his father’s side, as well as his upbringing in Hawaii and in Indonesia, where his mother was doing anthropological work. His parents separated when he was young and he was raised by his white mother. Michelle Obama, originally from the south side of Chicago, was educated at Princeton and Harvard, then held a prestigious position at the University of Chicago, which she left once her husband was elected President of the United States. The former first coupled married in 1992 and have two children who were born in 1998 and 2001.

President Donald Trump grew up in New York City (in Queens) to Fred, a real estate developer, and Mary Anne Trump. He was married and divorced twice and had four children (three with Ivanka Trump and one with Marla Maples) before marrying current First Lady Melania Trump and having a fourth child, Barron Trump. Both Ivana and Melania were models and were both born in Eastern Europe (Czechoslovakia and Slovenia respectively). Three marriages and five children make the First Family quite unique in U.S. Presidential history.

Think It Over

  • Think about family composition or make up from 1960 to 2014 using the bar graph depicted above. Can you predict what the family structure will be like in 2030? What variables might influence family structure?
  • According to research, what are people’s general thoughts on family in the United States? How do they view nontraditional family structures? How do you think these views might change in twenty years?

Marriage and Courtship Patterns

Marriage Patterns

As discussed in the previous section, single parenting and cohabitation, which is when a couple shares a residence but not a marriage, are becoming more prevalent and socially acceptable. We also see declining rates of marriage and individuals marrying much later in life with 30 years old as the median age for men and 28 years old for women in 2018, according to the United States Census Bureau.

People may be less motivated to get married. Historically, marriage has served a variety of functions—financial, political, biological (i.e. sex), and social. The top reasons Americans cite for getting married today are love, lifelong commitment, and companionship; only 49% of survey respondents listed “children” as a reason to get married [3]

The institution of marriage is likely to continue, but some previous patterns of marriage will become outdated as new patterns emerge. In this context, cohabitation contributes to the phenomenon of people getting married for the first time at a later age than was typical in earlier generations (Glezer, 1991). Furthermore, marriage will continue to be delayed as more people place education and career ahead of “settling down.”

One Partner or Many?

People in the United States typically equate marriage with monogamy, when someone is married to only one person at a time. In many countries and cultures around the world, however, having one spouse is not the only form of marriage.

A recent article by Thobejane and Flora (2014)[4] provides an updated view on polygamy, or being married to more than one person at a time. Polygamy is more common that one would think, with 83% of human societies permitting the practice, but it is most common in Africa as a reflection of tribal and religious customs and economic and social structures. Instances of polygamy are almost exclusively in the form of polygyny. Polygyny refers to a man being married to more than one woman at the same time. The reverse, when a woman is married to more than one man at the same time, is called polyandry. It is far less common and only occurs in about 1 percent of the world’s cultures (Altman and Ginat, 1996). The reasons for the overwhelming prevalence of polygamous societies are varied but they often include issues of population growth, religious ideologies, and social status.

While the majority of societies accept polygyny, the majority of people do not practice it. Often fewer than 10 percent (and no more than 25–35 percent) of men in polygamous cultures have more than one wife; these husbands are often older, wealthy, high-status men (Altman and Ginat, 1996). The average plural marriage involves no more than three wives. Negev Bedouin men in Israel, for example, typically have two wives, although it is acceptable to have up to four (Griver, 2008). As urbanization increases in these cultures, polygamy is likely to decrease as a result of greater access to mass media, technology, and education (Altman and Ginat, 1996).

In the United States, polygamy is considered by most to be socially unacceptable and it is illegal. The act of entering into marriage while still married to another person is referred to as bigamy and is considered a felony in most states. Polygamy in the United States is often associated with those of the Mormon faith, although that designation is erroneous as the “Mormon Church” (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints) officially renounced polygamy in 1890. The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), on the other hand, still hold tightly to the historic religious beliefs and practices and allow polygamy in their sect. The prevalence of polygamy is often overestimated due shows such as HBO’s Big Love and TLC’s Sister Wives, (2010-present) which has brought issues surrounding a white, polygamous family residing in Utah, Nevada, and Arizona into mainstream American discourse and whether prohibiting polygamy is constitutional in the United States. The patriarch in Sister Wives, Kody Brown, is legally married to one wife but has three other “spiritual wives” and eighteen children among the four wives.

The most extreme FLDS sect has an estimated up to 10,000 followers in the United States, so the number of polygamous marriages or “spiritual unions” is extremely small, but there may be up to 40,000 others in Utah and nearby states who practice polygamy illegally in addition to excommunicated Mormons in polygamous marriages [5]

No one knows how many Muslims in the U.S. live in polygamous families, but best estimates from academics range from 50,000 to 100,000 people [6]. A man might marry a woman under civil law, and similar to the spiritual unions found in FLDS, an additional two or three marriages might occur in religious ceremonies unrecognized by the state and/or in other countries. While some women consent to polygamous unions, others keep quiet for fear of retribution or deportation and live “invisible lives” (Hagerty, 2018).


Courtship is the traditional dating period before engagement and marriage (or long term commitment if marriage is not allowed). It is an alternative to arranged marriages in which the couple or group doesn’t meet before the wedding. During a courtship, a couple or group gets to know each other and decides if there will be an engagement. Courting includes activities such as dating where couples or groups go together for some activity (e.g., a meal or movie). Courting can also take place without personal contact, especially with modern technology. Virtual dating, chatting on-line, sending text messages, conversing over the telephone, instant messaging, writing letters, and sending gifts are all modern forms of courting.

Courtship varies both by time period and by region of the world. One way courtship varies is in the duration; courting can take days or years.

Medieval painting of a man presenting flowers to a lady.

Figure 4. Courting, Tacuinum Sanitatis (XIV century).

While the date is fairly casual in most European-influenced cultures, in some traditional societies, courtship is a highly structured activity, with very specific formal rules. In some societies, the parents or community propose potential partners, and then allow limited dating to determine whether the parties are suited (in fact, this was common in the U.S. throughout the 1800s). In Japan, some parents hire a matchmaker to provide pictures and resumes of potential mates, and if the couple or group agrees, there will be a formal meeting with the matchmaker and often parents in attendance; this is called Omiai. In more closed societies, courtship is virtually eliminated altogether by the practice of arranged marriages, where partners are chosen for young people, typically by their parents or (in the absence of parents) local authorities. Forbidding experimental and serial courtship and sanctioning only arranged matches is partly a means of guarding the chastity of young people and partly a matter of furthering family interests, which in such cultures may be considered more important than individual romantic preferences. Another variation of courtship is the bundling tradition, which likely originated in Scandinavia and was carried to the U.S. by immigrants. Bundling involved potential mates spending the night together in the same bed, though the couple was not supposed to engage in sexual relations. This practice ceased in the late 19th Century.

In earlier centuries, young adults were expected to court with the intention of finding marriage partners, rather than for social reasons. However, by the 1920s, dating for fun was becoming an expectation, and by the 1930s, it was assumed that any popular young person would have lots of dates. This form of dating, though, was usually more chaste than is seen today, since premarital sex was not considered the norm even though it was widespread. As a result of social changes spurred by the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, the taboo of sex during dating began to wane. Couples today are more likely to “hook up” or “hang out” with large groups rather than go on old-fashioned, paired dates. In recent years, a number of college newspapers have featured editorials where students decry the lack of “dating” on their campuses. This may be a result of a highly-publicized 2001 study and campaign sponsored by the conservative American women’s group Independent Women’s Forum, which promotes “traditional” dating. Also, in recent years dating has evolved and taken on the metamorphic properties necessary to sustain itself in today’s world. This can be seen in the rise in internet dating, speed dating or gradual exclusivity dating (a.k.a. slow dating). Some theorize that courtship as it was known to prior generations has seen its last days and the next closest thing is gradual exclusivity, where the partners respect and value each other’s individual lives but still maintain the ultimate goal of being together even if time or space does not permit it now.

Courtship is used by a number of theorists to explain gendering processes and sexual identity. Despite occasional studies as early as the 1910s, systematic scientific research into courtship began in the 1980s after which time academic researchers started to generate theories about modern dating practices and norms. Both Moore and Perper argued that, contrary to popular beliefs, courtship is normally triggered and controlled by women, driven mainly by non-verbal behaviors to which men respond. This is generally supported by other theorists who specialize in the study of body language, but ignores the ways females are socialized to “gain status” by learning to appear attractive to and demonstrate desire for males.

Feminist scholars, however, continue to regard courtship as a socially constructed (and male-focused) process organized to subjugate women. While some criticize feminist interpretations of courtship by pointing to women’s support of courtship and attraction to magazines about marital and romantic experience, such criticisms generally ignore the emphasis on marital and romantic relationships (in many cases as the sole element of women’s value in male-dominated societies) embedded within feminine socialization norms, and the widespread empirical demonstration that (especially heterosexual) courtship patterns almost universally privilege masculine interests and privilege.

Systematic research into courtship processes inside the workplace as well two 10-year studies examining norms in different international settings  continue to support a view that courtship is a social process that socializes all sexes into accepting forms of relationship that maximize the chances of successfully raising children. This may negatively impact women, particularly those seeking independence and equality at work.

A Hook-up Culture?

Since the sexual revolution in the 1960s, non-marital sexual relationships have become increasingly acceptable in the United States. The prevalence of one-night stands and non-committal relationships contribute to what sociologists call a hookup culture. A hookup culture is one that accepts and encourages casual sexual encounters, including one-night stands and other related activity, which focus on physical pleasure without necessarily including emotional bonding or long-term commitment.It is generally associated with Western late adolescent behavior and, in particular, American college culture.The term hookup has an ambiguous definition because it can indicate kissing or any form of physical sexual activity between sexual partners. Sociologist Lisa Wade talks more about hook-up culture and sexual activity on college campuses at this link: Sociology and the Culture of Sex on Campus.

According to one study the vast majority, more than 90%, of American college students say their campus is characterized by a hookup culture, and students believe that about 85% of their classmates have hooked up. Studies show that most students (most recent data suggest between 60% and 80%) do have some sort of casual sex experience. Of those students who have hooked up, between 30% and 50% report that their hookups included sexual intercourse. Nationally, women now outnumber men in college enrollment by 4 to 3, leading some researchers to argue that the gender imbalance fosters a culture of hooking up because men, as the minority and limiting factor, hold more power in the sexual marketplace and use it to pursue their preference of casual sex over long-term relationships.

However, most students overestimate the amount of hookups in which their peers engage. Only 20% of students regularly hookup. Roughly one half will occasionally hookup, and one-third of students do not hook up at all.The median number of hookups for a graduating senior on a college campus is seven, and the typical college student acquires two new sexual partners during their college career. Half of all hookups are repeats, and 20% of students will graduate from college a virgin, according to the Online College Social Life Survey.

The following video examines the evolving stages of family life—courtship, marriage, child-rearing, and family life in your later years.

Lines of Descent and Family Stages

Residency and Lines of Descent

Descent refers to the socially recognized links between ancestors and descendants or one’s traceable ancestry and can be bilateral, or traced through either parents, or unilateral, or traced through parents and ancestors of only one sex. The former occurs in the United States because both paternal and maternal ancestors are considered part of one’s family. The latter, unilateral descent, is practiced in the other 40 percent of the world’s societies (O’Neal, 2006).

There are three types of unilateral descent: patrilineal, which follows the father’s line only; matrilineal, which follows the mother’s side only; and ambilineal, which follows either the father’s only or the mother’s side only, depending on the situation. In patrilineal societies, such as those in rural China and India, only males carry on the family surname. This gives males the prestige of permanent family membership while females are seen as only temporary members. U.S. society assumes some aspects of patrilineal decent. For instance, most children assume their father’s last name even if the mother retains her birth name.

In matrilineal societies, inheritance and family ties are traced to women. Matrilineal descent is common in Native American societies, notably the Crow and Cherokee tribes. In these societies, children are seen as belonging to the women and, therefore, one’s kinship is traced to one’s mother, grandmother, great grandmother, and so on (Mails, 1996). In ambilineal societies, which are most common in Southeast Asian countries, parents may choose to associate their children with the kinship of either the mother or the father. This choice maybe based on the desire to follow stronger or more prestigious kinship lines or on cultural customs such as men following their father’s side and women following their mother’s side (Lambert, 2009).

Tracing one’s line of descent to one parent rather than the other can be relevant to the issue of residence. In many cultures, newly married couples move in with, or near to, family members. In a patrilocal residence system it is customary for the wife to live with (or near) her husband’s blood relatives (or family or orientation). Patrilocal systems can be traced back thousands of years. In a DNA analysis of 4,600-year-old bones found in Germany, scientists found indicators of patrilocal living arrangements (Haak et al., 2008). Patrilocal residence is thought to be disadvantageous to women because it makes them outsiders in the home and community; it also keeps them disconnected from their own blood relatives. In China, where patrilocal and patrilineal customs are common, the written symbols for maternal grandmother (wáipá) are separately translated to mean “outsider” and “women” (Cohen, 2011).

Similarly, in matrilocal residence systems, where it is customary for the husband to live with his wife’s blood relatives (or her family of orientation), the husband can feel disconnected and can be labeled as an outsider. The Minangkabau people, a matrilocal society that is indigenous to the highlands of West Sumatra in Indonesia, believe that home is the place of women and they give men little power in issues relating to the home or family (Joseph and Najmabadi, 2003). Most societies that use patrilocal and patrilineal systems are patriarchal, but very few societies that use matrilocal and matrilineal systems are matriarchal, as family life is often considered an important part of the culture for women, regardless of their power relative to men.

Watch this video for an overview of family through a sociological lens:

Stages of Family Life

The concept of family has changed greatly in recent decades. Historically, it was often thought that many families evolved through a series of predictable stages. Developmental or “stage” theories used to play a prominent role in family sociology (Strong and DeVault, 1992). Today, however, these models have been criticized for their linear and conventional assumptions as well as for their failure to capture the diversity of family forms. While reviewing some of these once-popular theories, it is important to identify their strengths and weaknesses.

The set of predictable steps and patterns families experience over time is referred to as the family life cycle. One of the first designs of the family life cycle was developed by Paul Glick in 1955. In Glick’s original design, he asserted that most people will grow up, establish families, rear and launch their children, experience an “empty nest” period, and come to the end of their lives. This cycle will then continue with each subsequent generation (Glick, 1989). Glick’s colleague, Evelyn Duvall, elaborated on the family life cycle by developing these classic stages of family (Strong and DeVault, 1992):

Stage Theory. This table shows one example of how a “stage” theory might categorize the phases a family goes through.
Stage Family Type Children
1 Marriage Family Childless
2 Procreation Family Children ages 0 to 2.5
3 Preschooler Family Children ages 2.5 to 6
4 School-age Family Children ages 6–13
5 Teenage Family Children ages 13–20
6 Launching Family Children begin to leave home
7 Empty Nest Family “Empty nest”; adult children have left home

The family life cycle was used to explain the different processes that occur in families over time. Sociologists view each stage as having its own structure with different challenges, achievements, and accomplishments that transition the family from one stage to the next. For example, the problems and challenges that a family experiences in Stage 1 as a married couple with no children are likely much different than those experienced in Stage 5 as a married couple with teenagers. The success of a family can be measured by how well they adapt to these challenges and transition into each stage. While sociologists use the family life cycle to study the dynamics of family overtime, consumer and marketing researchers have used it to determine what goods and services families need as they progress through each stage (Murphy and Staples, 1979).

As early “stage” theories have been criticized for generalizing family life and not accounting for differences in gender, ethnicity, culture, and lifestyle, less rigid models of the family life cycle have been developed. One example is the family life course, which recognizes the events that occur in the lives of families but views them as parting terms of a fluid course rather than in consecutive stages (Strong and DeVault, 1992). This type of model accounts for changes in family development, such as the fact that in today’s society, childbearing does not always occur with marriage. It also sheds light on other shifts in the way family life is practiced. Society’s modern understanding of family rejects rigid “stage” theories and is more accepting of new, fluid models.

The Evolution of Television Families

Contemporary family sitcoms on television or streaming services such as Netflix or Hulu depict the changing family structure in the larger society, but how much have depictions of the “typical” American family evolved? Wildly popular shows like The Simpsons (1989-present), Family Guy (1999-present), and American Dad (2005-present) are all satirical animated sitcoms that depict a white, blue collar (The Simpsons and Family Guy) and upper middle class (American Dad) with a stay-at-home mom, a working dad, and children. This sounds pretty similar to the Cleavers and the Waltons, popular sitcom families from the 1950s and 1960s. Most of the iconic families you saw in television sitcoms included a father, a mother, and children cavorting under the same roof while comedy ensued. The 1960s was the height of the suburban U.S. nuclear family on television with shows such as The Donna Reed Show and Father Knows Best. While some shows of this era portrayed single parents (My Three Sons and Bonanza, for instance), the single status almost always resulted from being widowed—not divorced or unwed.

There were some notable exceptions in the 1980s including shows such as Diff’rent Strokes (1978-1986) (a widowed man with two adopted African American sons) and One Day at a Time (1975-1984 and a reboot with the same title on Netflix from 2017-2019) (a divorced woman with two teenage daughters and a divorced Cuban veteran mom with a son and a daughter). Still, traditional families such as those in Family Ties (1982-1989) and The Cosby Show (1984-1992) dominated the ratings. The late 1980s and the 1990s saw the introduction of the dysfunctional family with shows such as Roseanne (1988-1997 and 2018), and Married with Children (1986-1997), which portrayed traditional nuclear families, but in a much less flattering light than those from the 1960s did (Museum of Broadcast Communications 2011).

Although family dynamics in real U.S. homes were changing, the expectations for families portrayed on television were not. The United States’ first reality show, An American Family (which aired on PBS in 1973) chronicled Bill and Pat Loud and their children as a “typical” U.S. family. During the series, the oldest son, Lance, announced to the family that he was gay, and at the series’ conclusion, Bill and Pat decided to divorce. Although the Loud’s union was among the 30 percent of marriages that ended in divorce in 1973, the family was featured on the cover of the March 12 issue of Newsweek with the title “The Broken Family” (Ruoff, 2002).

Over the past ten years, the nontraditional family has become somewhat of a tradition in television. While most situation comedies focus on single men and women without children, those that do portray families often stray from the classic structure: they include unmarried and divorced parents, adopted children, gay couples, and multi-generational households. Even those that do feature traditional family structures may show less-traditional characters in supporting roles, such as the brothers in the highly rated shows Everybody Loves Raymond and Two and Half Men. Even wildly popular children’s programs as Disney’s Hannah Montana and The Suite Life of Zack & Cody feature single parents.

In 2009, ABC premiered an intensely nontraditional family with the broadcast of Modern Family. The show follows an extended family that includes a divorced and remarried father with one stepchild, and his biological adult children—one of who is in a traditional two-parent household, and the other who is a gay man in a committed relationship raising an adopted daughter. While this dynamic may be more complicated than the typical “modern” family, its elements may resonate with many of today’s viewers. “The families on the shows aren’t as idealistic, but they remain relatable,” states television critic Maureen Ryan. “The most successful shows, comedies especially, have families that you can look at and see parts of your family in them” (Respers, 2010). Do the shows you select allow you to better understand (and perhaps laugh) at some of the dynamics within your own family?

Many Americans consume shows through different modalities than “television,” so the modality itself has also evolved. Netflix was founded in 1997, but it did not enter the creative realm with “Netflix Originals” until 2012. Today, Netflix and other streaming sites like Amazon Prime and Hulu are taking a more active role in shaping media representations of the American family.

Think It Over

  • Explain the difference between bilateral and unilateral descent. Using your own association with kinship, explain which type of descent applies to you?
  • What shows do you watch that depict American families? Using your sociological imagination, situate those shows within this context by describing the family structure, the racial/ ethnic background and any other minority groups, and other sociological variables like class, religion, and gender.
  • How do you think viewing patterns have changed with the advent of streaming services based on your own viewing habits? Where, when, how (and what device/s), and with whom do you watch these shows? Are they similar or different to that of your parents and grandparents?


a type of unilateral descent that follows either the father’s or the mother’s side exclusively
the act of entering into marriage while still married to another person
bilateral descent:
the tracing of kinship through both parents’ ancestral lines
the act of a couple sharing a residence while they are not married
the traditional dating period before engagement and marriage
the socially recognized links between ancestors and descendants or one’s traceable ancestry
socially recognized groups of individuals who may be joined by blood, marriage, or adoption and who form an emotional connection and an economic unit of society
family life course:
a sociological model of family that sees the progression of events as fluid rather than as occurring in strict stages
family life cycle:
a set of predictable steps and patterns families experience over time
family of orientation:
the family into which one is born
family of procreation:
a family that is formed through marriage
a person’s traceable ancestry (by blood, marriage, and/or adoption)
a legally recognized contract between two or more people in a sexual relationship who have an expectation of permanence about their relationship
matrilineal descent:
a type of unilateral descent that follows the mother’s side only
matrilocal residence:
a system in which it is customary for a husband to live with the his wife’s family
the act of being married to only one person at a time
patrilineal descent:
a type of unilateral descent that follows the father’s line only
patrilocal residence:
a system in which it is customary for the a wife to live with (or near) the her husband’s family
a form of marriage in which one woman is married to more than one man at one time
the state of being committed or married to more than one person at a time
a form of marriage in which one man is married to more than one woman at one time
unilateral descent:
the tracing of kinship through one parent only

  1. Stepler, R. 2017. "Number of U.S. Adults Cohabiting With a Partner Continues to Rise." Pew Research Center.
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