This article was published in the Spring 1997 issue of Formulations
by the Free Nation Foundation
 
The Definition of "Family" in a Free Society
 
by Gordon Neal Diem, D.A.

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 Outline
Social Scientists' Definition of Family
The State's Definition of Family
The Definition of Family in a Conservative Free Society
The Definition of Family in a Libertarian Free Society
Conclusion
Readings
 
 
 

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What is "family"? The definition of family depends on who answers the question.

Social Scientists' Definition of Family

Anthropologists say a culture's biological and marital kinship rules and patterns of reciprocal obligations define family. Each culture defines who is biological and marital kin, and who is not kin, and defines the obligations kin have to one another. In one culture, kinship is based on the father's biological line; in another, kinship is based on the mother's biological line; in another, kinship is based on a combination of both the father's and mother's biological line, but kinship obligations may quickly end about the level of uncles, aunts and first cousins. American culture maintains a distinction between brothers, sisters and cousins, but some early African societies made no distinction between brothers, sisters and cousins and used a single word to designate these kin. The rules for kinship and marital family relationships are virtually unlimited.

Structure-functionalists say the patterns of reciprocal obligations among people and between structures of people and the greater society define family. The greater society has needs that must be met; in order to meet those needs, society creates subsets of people structured to help meet the needs of society. The family is one of those structures. The definition of "family" changes as the needs of the greater society change. When the greater society needs rapid population growth after a time of war, for example society's definition of family emphasizes heterosexual bonding, procreation and child rearing; but when the greater society is faced with over-population and the need to limit population growth, society's definition of family may be modified to include homosexual bonding and may be more supportive of childless couples.

Institutionalists define family as a "traditional," biological, procreative and child-rearing structure and emphasize the biological relationship among family members. Interactionists, on the other hand, define family based on the voluntary assumption of family-related role behaviors. Institutionalists focus on the presence of a biological mother and father and biological offspring to define family. Interactionists merely require the presence of persons assuming mother, father and child roles to define a group as a family. Interactionists would, for example, define a group of orphaned siblings living together without an adult presence as a family if one or more of the siblings took mother or father roles in the group. For interactionists, it is performance of family roles that is important, not the biological or marital relationship.

Situationalists focus on social, cultural and physical forces beyond the individual's control which compel individuals to assume family-related role behaviors. Family may be either a relatively permanent or temporary phenomenon. For example, in the midst of war, natural disaster, or even foreign travel, individual adults and/or children may be thrown together into temporary "family" structures with individuals in the group assuming family role behaviors, especially parental and sibling roles, as the group seeks to endure or survive an ordeal. Temporary "families" may also develop in orphanages boarding schools or military units. The American system of serial monogamy creates and dissolves temporary sequential families and step-families as the adults marry, divorce, and remarry.

Psychoanalysts focus on the individual's stage of development and unconscious needs in defining family. Social-psychologists focus on the self's need to belong and to achieve. The two separate approaches are similar since the individual's sense of attachment or estrangement is important in defining family. Thus, abused or estranged biological offspring may sever their psychological association with the family and effectively dissolve the family. Others, who are not biological kin, may consider themselves to be "family" and effectively create a family or join an existing family.

Developmentalists focus on physical growth and maturity and the imposition of societal definitions on individuals based on the individual's chronological age. Developmentalists would be reluctant, for example, to define an infant born to a nine-year-old child and the nine-year-old child who is its mother as a family, largely because the nine-year-old mother is not mature enough, or of sufficient chronological age, to be a proper parent. The anthropologist and the institutionalist, on the other hand, would probably define this pair as a family based on the biological kinship relationship.

Economists focus on production and consumption activities; the family is a production and consumption unit. Historical economists may define the household slave in an African or Arabian household or the indentured servant in an early-American household as part of the family since the slave or servant works and subsists as a member of the family, living in the family household, eating at the family table and participating in family activities.

 
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The State's Definition of Family

The state tends to define family in structure-functional terms. From all the various alternative definitions of family, the state selects portions from each to create authoritative and legal definitions of family. The definitions of family are based on the needs of the state. Instead of creating one single all-encompassing definition of family, various governments, and various agencies of the various governments, each have slightly different needs and objectives, so each creates its own individual definition of family. It is the state's needs and objectives that determine the definition, not the society's, the individual's or the family's needs and objectives.

Since one of the state's historic functions is accounting for numbers of people (the census), the state needs to be informed on the whereabouts and living arrangements of all people under its jurisdiction. One way to maintain accountability is to license and register couplings, cohabitations and procreations. Only licensed and registered couplings create a "legitimate" family. To protect its definition of family, the state enacts laws against fornication and adultery, insuring only licensed and registered couples cohabit and copulate, and discourages "illegitimate" births. Zoning codes prevent two unlicensed people from cohabiting as a "family," prevent anyone other than a legally defined child or parent from cohabiting with a family, and prevent residential occupancy by non-traditional "families," including fraternities and sororities. These and a host of other government-enacted and government-enforced laws and regulations insure the state's ability to account for the physical location of people under its jurisdiction.

Throughout most of history, states sought to expand their populations by various means, including the procreation of its citizens. Marriage legalizes and legitimizes the offspring and creates a "family." In many nations, and in many American states, the failure to procreate is grounds for divorce or annulment of the marriage and dissolution of the family.

In state-enacted marital and divorce law, the economic obligations among family members insure that children and women are prevented from becoming the financial responsibility of the state. Again, the needs of the state define family and family obligations.

 
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The Definition of Family in a Conservative Free Society

In a Conservative "free society," such as one envisioned by sociologist Robert Nisbet, with a severely reduced role for the state and an enhanced role for alternative social institutions church, economy, educational system the state's needs no longer prevail in the definition of family. Instead, the needs of the alternative social institutions are paramount.

Throughout history, the Church has been especially vocal and rigid in its definition of family. For example, the Church often refuses to recognize a coupling as a family if the couple is not married in Church, if one of the partners in the coupling had been in a previous coupling, or if one of the partners in the coupling does not adhere to the teachings and practices of the Church. Through its power to define family, the Church meets its own needs to insure member loyalty and continued submission to the teachings and practices of the Church.

The economic system also creates and applies its own definitions of family. For example, the economic system distinguishes between child labor in industrial production within the wage labor system and child labor for agricultural production on the family farm. The economic system markets goods and services produced by the economy to the family consumption unit and defines family with as few members as possible to discourage the sharing of goods and services within an extended family. The economic system also establishes a system of financial accountability so debts owed by one family member become an obligation on other family members.

In a Conservative free society, individuals and couples merely exchange the state's definitions of family for definitions imposed by other social institutions.

 
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The Definition of Family in a Libertarian Free Society

In a Libertarian "free society," with severely reduced roles for all social institutions, the needs and interests of the individual are paramount in defining family. Rather than being defined in structure-functional terms, family is defined in interactional, situational, psychoanalytical and social-psychological terms. Persons define family for themselves.

In a post-authoritarian, post-institutional world, family is defined according to the needs of those who voluntarily consider themselves to be family. Bloodlines and marital ties give way to psychological attachment and reciprocal need satisfaction as the primary basis for the formation of a family and for insuring the long-term survival of the family. The needs and interests of the greater society the state, Church, economy give way to the needs and interests of the individuals who voluntarily create, or dissolve, families.

Family in a Libertarian free society is a voluntary union for the mutual personal gratification, mutual personal and group need fulfillment, and personal self-actualization. This voluntary union may be limited to two adults, or extended to include several adults; it may or may not include children, biological or otherwise. This voluntary union may have rigid boundaries, if that is what the members of the union desire, or may have relatively open permeable boundaries, with members entering or exiting the union at their will.

With family defined in interactional, situational, and psychological terms and each family of individuals free to define family for themselves, the variations in family are limitless. Even without institutional authorities to create, defend and enforce some common framework for the definition of family, and even with the number of competing definitions approaching the infinite, the concept of "family" will still have meaning.

Consider, for example, the concepts of "beauty," "sensuality," and "love." While government, artists, poets, the Church and other "authorities" may attempt to establish definitions for these concepts, they are defined, for the most part, by each individual according to each individual's unique criteria. "Beauty" is in the eye of the beholder; "love" is in the heart of the lover. Yet, there is a general response from all humanity to anything labeled "a thing of beauty," or to two persons who consider themselves to be "in love." The two persons are considered differently, treated differently, and responded to differently than

when they were two persons, separate, and not "in love." When persons in a free society declare themselves to be "in a family," regardless of the definition of family they choose, general humanity will respond to them as a family, just as humanity responds to today's couple "in love." Today's couples know that being "in love" is no particular identifiable or discernible state, yet they still seek to have others recognize and acknowledge their state of "in love-ness." Even when being "family" is no longer a particular identifiable or discernible state, persons will still seek to have others recognize and acknowledge their state of bonding and "family-ness."

Even without institutional authorities defining the legal, contractual marital state, defining kinship and lineage, and defining family roles, individuals choosing to create a family will assume a set of mutually-agreed-upon reciprocal obligations, responsibilities and commitments toward each other when they choose to create family. Even without institutional authorities requiring parental responsibility for off-spring, family will serve as a vehicle for procreating, nurturing, and rearing children. This does not mean that family will always have a biological component. Today's often dysfunctional biological family may be replaced by a functional nurturing family in which parental adults nurture and rear children that may or may not be biologically related to them, while the biological "parents" pursue family relationships of another sort. In the free society, children may be reared by child-rearing families or extended families or reared by the human village even if the biological "parents" choose not to provide rearing.

 
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Conclusion

Family in a Libertarian free society will be an open, voluntary relationship based on the mutual and reciprocal benefits family participants receive from family membership. Family status will be recognized by general humanity, although general humanity will share little or no common agreement concerning the definition of family. Family will function to meet the needs of offspring created through the family, if not in the biological unit of conception, then in some other family created for the nurturing and rearing of children.

Family will live on, even without authoritarian or institutional definition! D

 
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Readings

Caprico, Frank and Donald Brenner. Sexual Behavior: Psycho-Legal Aspects. Citadel Press, 1961.

Gordon, Michael, ed. The American Family in Social-Historical Perspective. St. Martin's Press, 1973.

Nisbet, Robert. The Quest for Community. Oxford University Press, 1953.

 

Dr. Diem is Assistant Professor of Political Science, North Carolina Central University, and a former member of the North Carolina Marriage and Family Therapy Certification Board.

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