Friday, 23 May 2014

Concept of Family and Marriage

Family is considered the bastion of human civilization. It
forms an essential part of human evolution, without which
existence of societies would have not been possible in the
present formtoday. Philosophers and social scientists have
noted that society is a structure made up of families and
characteristics of a given society can be studied by looking
at the pattern, functioning and structure of family. One of
the primary reasons for evolution of the institution of family
is to provide protection and nurturance to infant and
children who are perhaps the most helpless creatures at
the time of birth.
The family as a social institution is formally developed in
all societies. It is taken as the primary unit of socialization.
It forms the considerable part of an individual’s identity.
It shapes the personality of itsmembers especially children
and inculcates skills to deal with social environment. It
provides safety, security, love and affection to itsmembers.
The institution of family is a universal phenomenon,
though with varying patterns, types, composition and
functions. Over the years societies, globally, have witnessed
change in family patterns. The recent phenomena of
globalization and consumerism have created new and
diverse forms of family and household. There is emergence
of a gradual trend from extended families to nuclear
families due to growing urbanization and industrialization.
We have greater proportion of single parent families than
ever before. The family system is taking newer forms to
adapt to the growing demands of changing social
situations. Before going into the details of concept,
composition and typology of families, let us take a look at
another related and quite significant social institution —
marriage — that is taken as the beginning of a family life
Marriage between a man and a woman is considered as
the basis of formation of family from time immemorial.
With the birth of a child a family is considered fully
constituted. Nature has given the capability to reproduce
asexually to only a few organisms like amoebae and most
species including homosapions (humans) reproduce
sexually.Marriage is the social sanction to establish sexual
relations with spouse and reproduce tomaintain continuity
of the family lineage and, in turn, society.
Thus, marriage is a social sanction for procreation, which
is an important function of family. There are many rituals
and ceremonies associated with marriage that differ from
religion to religion and culture to culture. It may be noted
that marriage as a social contract puts many roles and
responsibilities in front of the couple, which in larger
context are controlled by the patriarchal or matriarchal
social structures.Marriage is not an integral part of human
nature, but it is a man made custom or institution which
was present even in pre-historic times. It is not a natural
relationship but an obligation between a man and a
woman. With the advancement of civilization, marriage
became a social function with religious and legal sanctions.
Therefore,marriage is a systemin which human sexuality
is socialized. This hasmade social life possible, by creating
a base for smaller units of society — the family. Human
beings derive a lot fromtheir families and are socialized to
perform various roles in the larger social environment. To
begin a family life, a woman and a man marry each other.
The purpose of marriage ceremonies in any society is to
let the community and society know about the alliance
and protect it. Family and marriage, as social institutions
are meant to fulfill many needs of the human being like
providing security, affection, love, care, belongingness,
identity and worth.
Family: Meaning and Functions
Let us look at some of the characteristic features of ‘family’.
The family is not merely a biological group; it is primarily
a social institution. Its members are governed by rules
and regulations. The behaviour of its members is not
motivated by instincts but by customs, which prescribe
the standards of family behaviour.
The family is composed of persons united by ties of
marriage, blood or adoption. The bond between husband
and wife is that of marriage and the relationship between
parents and children is generally that of blood, though
sometimes of adoption.
The members of a family typically live together under one
roof and constitute a single household. If they stay apart
they consider the household their ‘home’. The definition
of a household is a group of persons residing in the same
place and constituting a single housekeeping unit.
The family is composed of persons who interact and
communicate with each other in their social roles such as
husband and wife, mother and father, son and daughter,
brother and sister. The roles are defined by social
expectations but in each family they are powerfully
reinforced by feelings arising out of experiences within the
family itself and fromone’s parental family. It is considered
the basic unit of society, to meet the needs of individuals
and those of other societal institutions.
The family maintains a common culture. It is derived
mainly fromthe general culture, but each family has some
distinctive features.
Types of family: families may be classified based on
descent, location of residence and authority. On the basis
of descent, families are classified as patrilineal and
matrilineal. The place of residence of couple aftermarriage
— either with or near the husband’s or the wife’s parents
— classifies families as patrilocal or matrilocal. In neolocal
families, husband and wife live separately fromtheir
respective families and start their ‘new’ household unit. A
more significant classification is the patriarchal or
matriarchal family. In the patriarchal family the members
are under the authority of the father and trace descent
through him. In matriarchal family, members of the
extended family live together under the authority of the
mother and trace descent through the mother.
The familymay have different configurations like conjugal
nuclear, joint, which are commonly called ‘normative’
family patterns. The conjugal family denotes the husbandwife
unit. The nuclear family is defined as the husband
and wife with unmarried children. The joint family includes
three generations living together — husband, wife with
married children, their spouse, unmarried children,
grandparents, etc.
It may be noted that with time the definition of family also
kept on changing. Stated otherwise, family as an institution
has changed itself in terms of typology, composition, roles
and functions. In ancient times, only joint family groups
would qualify to be called as ‘family’ and then with forces
of social change like urbanization, industrialization, joint
family groups gave way to nuclear family system. At present
various ‘alternate’ family groups (other than normative
family patterns) are also emerging with different roles and
functions. These may be single parent families, women
headed families, childless families, adoptive families, dual
earner families, to mention a few. In the light of changing
structure and functions of the families, the United Nations
in 1994, defines this social institution as —
The family may be broadly perceived as a unit of two or
more persons united by the ties of marriage, blood,
adoption or consensual unions. Thus, ‘consensual unions’
also have been included to fit in all emerging alternate
family forms like single parent families, adoptive families,
only grandparent-grandchild family, live-in relationships,
same sex families along with various normative family
Thus, family is a highly dynamic concept. As a social
institution, family has consisted of more or less formal
rules and regulations, organized around the fulfillment of
societal needs. It has historically been an integral part of
the ethnic community, which has promoted patriarchy in
the family.
Marriage: Meaning and Purpose
Marriage may be defined as a socially sanctioned union of
man with woman to perform the roles of husband and
wife. The term marriage has different meanings and
connotations for different people. To some, marriage is a
relationship between man and woman for propagation of
human species. Some people take it as license for sex. Yet
another group considersmarriage as companionship, love
and intimacy.
Marriage is development of one of the most unique and
versatile relationships of human life. It offers an
opportunity for life-long companionship, belongingness
and support. It fulfills need for sex, intimacy, love and
affection. From society’s perspective, it is division of roles
and responsibilities for procreation and socialization of
children and running a family.
Indian views on marriage have all the more dimensions.
Marriage is a sacrament, with religious and moral
obligations on one hand and social and economic on the
other. Hindu concept of marriage is that it is a sanskar or
dharma — a holy union of the two souls and not simply of
two bodies. It is considered an indissoluble bond that could
be broken only by death. Marriage has been taken as a
ceremonial gift of the bride by her father, or other
appropriate relative, to the bride groom in order that both
may together fulfill their duties which is necessary for
human existence. Further, Islam says that marriage is an
institution ordained for the protection of the society and
in order that human beings may guard themselves from
foulness and unchastity. In Islam, marriage is more often
a civil contract, the objectives of which are the promotion
of normal family life and the legalization of children. Among
Christians,marriage has been viewed as a voluntary union
for life of one man and one woman to the exclusion of
others, thus, stressing on monogamy.
Marriage has legal aspects also. Legal sanction ofmarriage
is based on prevailing social norms and customs. It varies
from one society to another. In India, legal minimum age
for marriage is 18 years for girls and 21 years for boys.
Thus, marriage, according to religious and sociological
literature, is a union of two persons of different sexes to
life long reciprocal possession of their sexual qualities,
which aims at fulfilling the individual’s biological,
emotional, social and spiritual needs.Most oftenmarriage
as a bond begins with accomplishment of different rituals
and ceremonies.
Some practical purposes or utilitarian aspects ofmarriage
may well be delineated. It ensures security to women who
have to undergo long periods of pregnancy and to the
newborn offspring. It keeps family roles and functions
intact. It ensures stability to society and simplifies blood
According to Koos, a sociologist, marriage is a dividing
line between the family of orientation and family of
procreation in terms of the nature of roles one performs in
the two families. The roles in the family of orientation vary
in infancy, childhood and adolescence and carry no
responsibilities and obligations. However, the roles one
performs in the family of procreation after marriage as a
husband/wife, a father/mother, a bread-earner, a
grandfather/grandmother, a retired person, etc., have
different expectations and obligations.
In India, marriages are usually classified as: marriage by
free choice of the partners or love marriage, arranged
marriage and forced/arranged marriage. They can further
be classified asmonogamous or polygamous; civil, religious
or customary.
Based on the number of partners,marriage may be mainly
categorized into
two— monogamy and polygamy. Monogamy is marriage
between one man and one woman. This form has high
social, legal and religious appreciation. Polygamy, which
means plurality of husband/wife, includes polygyny,
polyandry, Levirate and Sorrorate. Polygyny is marrying
more than one female. Religious and civic sets of rules
and laws have sanctioned conditioned polygamous
marriages like wife not being able to produce sons,
maladjusted nature of wife, etc. Polyandry is a marriage
in which one woman marries more than one man. This is
more common practice among Todas and Kotas of Nilgiris
in South India. Polyandrymay be fraternal or non-fraternal.
In fraternal polyandry, the husbands are all brothers or
cousins fromthe father’s side. In the case of non-fraternal
polyandry, they are not related as seen among Nairs of
Kerala. Levirate is a formof polygamousmarriage in which
man marries wife of late elder brother or even during the
lifetime of elder brother. This form has been seen among
the Ahirs of Haryana, Jats and Gujars and some other
castes in Uttar Pradesh. In Sorrorate form of marriage,
wives of a man are invariably the sisters. It is generally
observed among Nagas, Gonds and Baigas of India. This
form is also practiced when wife is unable to procreate or
Family and Marriage: Implications for Social
Work Professionals
Family has a historical-idealistic connotation. It is
visualized as a link between continuity and change. It is a
major source of nurturance, emotional bonding and
socialization. It provides security and care to its members,
socializes the child from a physical being to social being
and meets the basic and developmental needs of family
members. It has the major potential to provide stability
and support when there are problems from the
Family in India is often understood as an ideal homogenous
unit with strong coping mechanisms. However, it is
important to recognize that theremay be inherent problems
within the family. Moreover, families in a large and
culturally diverse country like India, have plurality of forms
that vary with class, ethnicity and individual choices.
Sociologists and social scientists, of late, have begun to
question romanticizing of family as merely an idealistic,
universal, everlasting source of nurturance, emotional
bonding and support. In juxtaposition, family may also be
a source of inequality, exploitation and violence. There
may be inherent and perpetual discriminations and
exploitation against some of the family members. Often
democratic values, equality and equity are not found
consistently with most families.
In the patriarchal structure of the family, roles and
responsibilities and control and distribution of resources
are strictly determined by age and gender. Control over
resources and assumptions of superiority give the man
the authority to make decisions about his dependents,
which would mainly include women and children.
Subordination of women and thereby gender
discrimination has remained an integral reality of most
family practices — child marriage, dowry demands, sati,
celebration of a birth of a boy child, female foeticide,
infanticide, father as a natural guardian and so on.
Individuals and families who deviate fromthe ethnic norms
of their community often face ostracism.
Patriarchy generally leads to patriliny and patrilocality,
which separate the women from their natal family home
after marriage. Women often do not have the title to the
matrimonial home in which she concentrates all her time
and energy. In case of death of her husband or desertion
or divorce, she is often rendered destitute as she neither
has a home in her family ofmarriage nor in her natal family,
which has given her away.
Even in matrilineal and matrilocal cultures, patriarchy
seems to be prevalent in the form of power held by the
brother and not by the woman herself.
The institution of marriage and the event of child bearing
are considered so essential for family life, that couple
staying together without marriage, the single parent
families are not accepted as complete or normal families.
Thus, the family has not been a cradle for nurturing
democratic values. In fact, the child gets socialized into
the concepts of inequality by gender and age in the name
of familism. Even women ingest the patriarchal values to
be timid, submissive, docile, and dependent since early
Besides the familymembers, patriarchy is also internalized
by the community, the society and the state. It, therefore,
affects all the spheres of our life and not just the family
life. The need for a democratic family structure is a major
challenge for the families and not just for the women.
For social work professionals, there is a need to look at
these institutions of family and marriage not only in
idealistic terms, but critically evaluate their roles, functions
in the context of democratic values and human rights
perspective. The social workers should realize that family
and marriage have great potential for ensuring well-being
of individual members. At the same time, they may
perpetuate discrimination and oppression for some family
Social work professionals should accept the diversity of
forms, composition and types of family thereby avoiding
biases and discriminations that may arise on account of
rigid beliefs about ‘family’. They may, first of all, aim at a
family for every individual, unless an adult leaves it by
choice. Second, they may aim at a democratic family with
scope for the development of individual members and
enriched family relationships. Third, they need a
democratic environment for the family with scope for the
development of the families with harmonious family
ecology. Achievement of these goals would strengthen the
family unit and prevent exploitation, disintegration and
destitution of families and their members.
Family Assessment and Intervention
It is an undisputed assumption that dysfunctional or
maladjusted family processes adversely affect mental
health and social functioning of individuals. Social work
professionals are,more often than not, required to interact
with the family during their interventions for helping the
clients to resolve conflicts, be it case work, group situation
or other methods of social work practice as family is
universally present and assessment as well as intervention
are hardly complete without involvement of clients’ family.
There have been several models of studying family but the
most widely used one is ‘system’s approach’.
The general System paradigm is the most popular and
important theoretical framework that provides a
comprehensive structure for understanding functioning
of the family. According to Systems Theory, family is a
system, comprised of various sub-systems, which basically,
are the dyads (husband-wife, parent-child, siblings,
grandparent-grandchild). Family is also a part of larger
systemthat is social environment and includes work place,
health care and education system, ethnic community, legal
system, geographicalecology, political system, etc. It is
assumed that any change in one part of the system has
effects on other sub-systems or systems. This is applicable
both within the family and with respect to outside
The following schema represents the conceptual framework
for family as a social system. It depicts that family is a
dynamic system and interacts with other systems in the
social environment such as economic system, political
system, ethnic community, neighbourhood, etc. The dotted
lines represent that systems are not closed rather
information can pass through the semi-permeable
membrane of the system. It may be noted that family in
the social environment do not passively receive
information, rather its presence may influence other
systems also.