Lines of Descent and Family Stages

Learning Outcomes

  • Differentiate between lines of decent and residence

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 partrilineal 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 partrilineal 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 may be 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 of 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.

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The selected clip from this video explains how to view family through a sociological lens, then examines both marriage and residential patterns in different societies.

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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 over time, 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 newer, more fluid models.

The Evolution of Television Families

Whether you grew up watching the Huxtables, the Simpsons, the Kardashians, or the Johnsons, most of the drama or comedy you saw involved the relationships, tensions, challenges, and sometimes ridiculousness of family life. You may have also seen a great deal of change. 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.

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 aired on PBS in 1973. The show chronicled Bill and Pat Loud and their children. 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).

Less traditional family structures in sitcoms gained popularity in the 1980s with shows such as Diff’rent Strokes (a widowed man with two adopted African American sons) and One Day at a Time (a divorced woman with two teenage daughters). Still, traditional families such as those in Family Ties and The Cosby Show dominated the ratings. The late 1980s and the 1990s saw the introduction of the dysfunctional family. Shows such as RoseanneMarried with Children, and The Simpsons portrayed traditional nuclear families, but in a much less flattering light than those from the 1960s did (Museum of Broadcast Communications 2011).

In the early 2000s, the nontraditional family has become somewhat of a tradition in television. While many 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 or lesbian couples, and multigenerational households.

In 2009, ABC emphasized the changes in family dynamics with their choice of title for 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 whom is in a traditional two-parent household, and the other who is a gay man in a committed relationship raising an adopted daughter. Black-ish, which portrays an extended family of African Americans, has at many times dealt with the issue implied by its name: That sometimes what it means to be Black can bring issues of interpretation conflict, especially across generations. For example, the children of the central family have shown interest in “blending in” with their White friends, which brings negative reactions from their grandparents.

Other shows, such as Shameless, interweave family diversity with complex and painful issues such as addiction. The series has a large cast of characters representing different groups, and central to the series are the roles of children, rather than parents, as family leaders. “The families on shows like this one 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 France 2010).

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?

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a type of unilateral descent that follows either the father’s or the mother’s side exclusively
the socially recognized links between ancestors and descendants or one’s traceable ancestry
bilateral descent:
the tracing of kinship through both parents’ ancestral lines
the act of entering into marriage while still married to another person
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
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
unilateral descent:
the tracing of kinship through one parent only


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