Explain why it is problematic to come up with a universal definition of family. Refer to the problems that universal definitions of family have found and use cross-cultural examples in your answer.
There is complexity in providing a universal definition of family
There is complexity in providing a universal definition of family (Sharma, 2013; Purdue University, 2015). On one hand, the dynamism of progress molds even the concept and structure of the family; in essence, what may be considered as a family now, may not have been considered as a family ten years ago. On the other hand, there are also cultural, socio-demographic, and biological factors to consider in the conceptualization of the family. The advent and era of globalization that is also being heavily experienced at the present adds significantly to the ever-growing definition and perceptions of the family. These reasons cannot be easily addressed by research or societal change as they are dynamic and ever-changing.
Creating a universal definition of the family had been a goal of many family researchers
It is essential to note that creating a universal definition of the family had been a goal of many family researchers since a few decades back. Creating a universal definition of the family enables researches and practitioners (in fields related to family studies) to create a standard by which a family could be evaluated. It would enable researchers to ascertain whether or not a group of people could be considered as a family, and if so, create a means to determine the salient features, activities, and social relationships occurring within the group. However, as previously stated, this goal had been limited by many factors. In as early as the 20th century, researchers have considered families to be traditionalistic; that is, composed of a mother, father, and biological children (Hussung, 2016). The era also gave rise to a more expansive definition of family that includes adoptive parents and single parents. Nevertheless, the notion about the family at the time was much less complex than it is today.
With the promotion and legal acceptance of same sex marriage in many areas around the world, the LGBTQ community is now able to start a family of their own. It has now become common to meet same-sex parents with kids—a phenomenon that would not clearly have happened a few decades ago. In addition, the continuous promulgation of technology have also given rise to more expansive approaches in child-bearing. In vitro fertilization or artificial insemination had enabled older parents or parents finding difficulty in conceiving a chance to have a child that is biologically theirs. Meanwhile, in terms of socio-demographic characteristics, there have been evidences to show that the rate of teenage pregnancy continues to rise, emphasizing a new form of a family—with much younger parents—that is limitedly evident in the past decades.
These situations and examples provide a context on how dynamic families are at the present. Researchers and academicians, more than ever, are facing numerous challenges in providing a universal definition of a family because of this; nevertheless, it is salient to point out that there have been many efforts in the past to create such definition (Weigel, 2008). Some family researchers argue that Sharma (2013) and Shadler (2016) recognized the diversity behind the structure of the family but each proposed their own take on the definitions of the term. Meanwhile, a study by Yam, Findlay, and Cohen (2017) opted to create a definition of the family that is inclusive of indigenous populations. These varying researches and efforts to provide a salient definition of the family actually provides more complexity and variation in creating a singular, universal definition. Therefore, it could be easily pointed out that researches aiming to generalize the concept of the family are ironically doing the opposite.
Purdue University (2015) also emphasized that providing a definition of the family not only affects conceptual issues but also practical ones as it enables some groups to suffer consequences in their family life. As a result, governments are just given the responsibility to come up with the definition of the family based on their own terms, culture, and conditions—one that may be considered at the macro-level but still not universal. An example of this is the case of Brunei Darussalam which recently announced that LGBTQ sex shall be executed by stoning (Magra, 2019). This seemingly backwards approach to the human person affects family life in the country because it would only limit family life, and therefore government benefits or programs, to heterosexual couples. In comparison, its neighboring country, the Philippines may not yet legalize same-sex marriage but the LGBTQ community is highly accepted in society, and the government does not discriminate against providing programs and opportunities for any family member based on their sex and gender (Daniels, 2015). These two examples provide an idea of how complex the conceptualization of family is even in the aspect of macro-level institutions.
While there is general acceptability that the definition of the family is difficult to define, and there are key researches which would dare to come up with a universal definition of the family, I think the question about it should be this: Is it really possible to come up with such general definition when there is fast-paced change and dynamism? The role of researchers in family studies should not be limited on creating a singular definition, but should also expand into including relevant and salient challenges that hinder the goal to be met.
Daniels, M. (2015). The Gender Gap: What Asia Can Learn From The Philippines. HQ Asia, 9.
Hussung, T. (2015). “The Evolution of American Family Structure.” Concordia University – St. Paul. Retrieved from https://online.csp.edu/blog/family-science/the-evolution-of-american-family-structure.
Magra, I. (2019). “Brunei Stoning Punishment for Gay Sex and Adultery Takes Effect Despite International Outcry.” The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/03/world/asia/brunei-stoning-gay-sex.html.
Purdue University (2015). “What is a Family?” Retrieved from https://www.purdue.edu/hhs/hdfs/fii/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/s_wifis01c02.pdf.
Schadler, C. (2016). How to Define Situated and Ever‐Transforming Family Configurations? A New Materialist Approach. Journal of Family & Theory Review, 8(4), 503-514.
Sharma R. (2013). The Family and Family Structure Classification Redefined for the Current Times. Journal of family medicine and primary care, 2(4), 306–310.
Weigel, D.J. (2008). The Concept of Family: An Analysis of Laypeople’s Views of Family. Journal of Family Issues, 29(11), 1426-1447.
Yam et al. (2017). Conceptualization of family: complexities of defining an Indigenous family. Indigenous Policy Journal, 28(1).