The Family

Date: 1953

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Social Institutions


The Analysis Institutions

E.W.Burgessn/an/an/an/a and H.J.Locken/an/an/an/a

The Family: From Institution to Companionship1

… [Our] basic thesis … is that the family in historical times has been in transition from an institution with family behavior controlled by the mores, public opinion, and law to a companionship with family behavior arising from the mutual affection and consensus of its members. The companionship form of the family is not to be conceived as having already been realized but as emerging. In fact, the conceptions of the family as an institution and as a companionship may perhaps best be defined and put to use for the understanding of the family by the ideal-construction method. The procedure for this method consists: (1) in ascertaining the most significant element in a conception; (2) in accentuating this element so as to arrive at its most extreme formulation; (3) in applying imaginatively the ideal construction thus obtained to actual situations; and (4) in determining how far this actual situation approximates the ideal construction.

From the standpoint of the ideal-construction method, the family as an institution and as a companionship would represent two polar conceptions. The most extreme theoretical formulation of the institutional family would be one in which its unity would be determined entirely by the social pressure impinging on family members. The ideal construction of the family as a companionship would focus upon the unity which develops out of mutual affection and intimate association of husband and wife and parents and children. Nowhere in time or space are these ideal constructions to be found actually in existence.

Of the historical and existing types of families the large-patriarchal type most closely approximates the ideal construction of the institutional family with its combination of the powerful sanctions of the mores, religion, and law, and the practically complete subordination of the individual members of the family to the authority of the patriarch. The modern American family residing in the apartment-house areas of the city approximates most nearly the ideal type of companionship family, in which the members enjoy a high degree of self-expression and at the same time are united by the bonds of affection, congeniality, and common interests.

A summary comparison of the historical approximations of these two ideal types will indicate the point-by-point outstanding differences between the small demo-cratic-family unit of husband, wife, and children and the extended-patriarchal family.

The patriarchal family is authoritarian and autocratic with power vested in the head of the family and with the subordination of his wife, sons, and their wives and children, and his unmarried daughters to his authority. The modern family is democratic, based on equality of husband and wife, with consensus in making decisions and with increasing participation by children as they grow older. Marriage is arranged by parents in the patriarchal family with emphasis upon prudence, upon economic and social status, and upon adjustment of the son-in-law or daughter-in-law to the family group. In the modern family, marriage is in the hands of young people, and selection is on the basis of romance, affection, and personality adjustment to each other. Compliance with duty and the following of tradition are guiding principles of the patriarchal family. The achievement of personal happiness and the desire for innovation are watchwords of the modern family. The chief historical functions of the family—economic, educational, recreational, health, protective, and religious—are found in their fullest development in the extended-patriarchal family. These historic functions have largely departed from the modern urban family.

For decades the American family has been evolving from a small-patriarchal type revolving around the father and husband as head and authority to the democratic type. Accompanying this evolution has been the decreasing size of the family, the diminishing control of the kinship group and of the community over the family unit, and a growing sense of its independence. The external factors making for family stability, such as control by custom and community opinion, have been greatly weakened. The permanence of marriage is more and more dependent upon the tenuous bonds of affection, temperamental compatibility, and mutual interests.

The Trend to Companionship. The American family is moving toward the companionship type of family with its emphasis on affection and consensus. It is accepted by many young people in principle, although difficult to realize in practice. In the majority of families the control is still moderately paternal, in a considerable proportion more or less maternal, and in only a small but increasing percentage by consensus of husband and wife. The proportion that includes full participation of children in the family councils is also small. The discrepancy between theory and practice is illustrated in the following instance:2

It is not easy, for example, for men to adjust themselves to their new status, to renounce their traditional claims as lord and master in the household. Sometimes this new status results in surprise and utterly unexpected decisions. In one educated and cultured family [with two daughters] the wife startled her husband one day when she said to him: … "I think that the four of us should discuss all important matters that arise and then take a vote, just as an experiment."

So this family of four arranged to discuss all important matters in conference and to take a vote at the conclusion. To the surprise of the man the vote usually ran three to one and that he was the one.

Spencer, writing in 1876, makes an interesting comment on the contrast between the relative roles of law and of affection in relation to the development of monogamy:3 "While permanent monogamy was being evolved, the union by law (originally the act of purchase) was regarded as the essential part of marriage and the union by affection as nonessential; and whereas at present the union by law is thought the more important and the union by affection the less important, there will come a time when the union by affection will be held of primary moment." Eighty years after these words were written Spencer’s prophecy appears to be on the way to realization. Mutual affection is becoming the essential basis of marriage and the family.

Summary and Research

Family life of apes and of human beings is similar in that there is selection of a mate, interaction between the male and the female, levels of authority among father, mother, and children, and care of the child by the mother; it differs in that the family life of apes, being biologically determined, is more or less alike within a species, whereas the family life of man is culturally determined and manifests great variations. Co-operative research by biologists and social scientists may determine the relative role and interaction of biological and cultural factors in human family life.

In preliterate societies the family is of the "extended" type, being composed of several generations. Preliterate families have been classified as patrilineal and matrilineal, according to whether descent is traced on the male or female line; and as patrilocal and matrilocal, according to whether the new family resides with or near the husband’s or wife’s parents.

Variations among preliterate families, divergencies between the extended-family organization of ancient societies, the small-patriarchal family of medieval times, and the modern democratic family ushered in by the Industrial Revolution, and differences among families in the United States indicate that family behavior is relative to the social life and culture of a given time and place. Studies of family behavior should be within the context of the economic and social organization of the period under consideration. For instance, it would be valuable to compare a group of lower-class matriarchal families in a given city with a group of lower-class patriarchal families in the same city, in terms of resistance to social change, personality development of the members, and special problems which arise in the different family types.

Family relations have always involved an intimate interplay between the familial and the wider social life. Economic and social conditions, the prevailing philosophies embodied in the mores, the trends of public opinion, have had in all times and places an impact upon the family and an influence upon the sentiments and attitudes of its members. Therefore an understanding of family relations in our own time must be concerned with an analysis, first, of the impact of changing conditions and culture upon the economic and social basis of the modern family, and, second, of the interaction of the members of the family as affected by this changed situation.

The form of the family which apparently is emerging under the economic and cultural conditions of American life appears to be a companionship of husband and wife and of parents and children. The fact that affection and consensus are the outstanding attributes of many American families does not mean that these are characteristic of all homes in the United States nor that they were entirely lacking in other times and places. For example, the Chinese family will be viewed … as representing approximations both to the institutional family in its traditional form and to the companionship family in its present trends.

It is in the framework of the family as a unity of interacting personalities and as adapting to changing economic and social situations that studies of the variety of family forms in time and space should be undertaken.

1 From , 2nd ed., pp. 22–26. New York: American Book Co., 1953. By permission.

2 Sidney E. Goldstein, The Meaning of Marriage and Foundations of the Family, New York, Bloch Publishing Co., 1942, pp. 133–34.

3 Herbert Spencer, Principles of Sociology, New York, D. Appleton-Century Company, 1897 (first edition, London, 1876), I, p. 765.

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Chicago: The Family in Principles of Sociology: A Reader in Theory and Research, ed. Young, Kimball, and Mack, Raymond W. (New York: American Book Company, 1962), Original Sources, accessed October 1, 2023,

MLA: . The Family, in Principles of Sociology: A Reader in Theory and Research, edited by Young, Kimball, and Mack, Raymond W., New York, American Book Company, 1962, Original Sources. 1 Oct. 2023.

Harvard: , The Family. cited in 1962, Principles of Sociology: A Reader in Theory and Research, ed. , American Book Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 1 October 2023, from