Family as Social Structure
The family is the oldest and most fundamental of all human institutions. It is also a universal experience found in every culture. The family is the basic unit of society and is at the heart of its survival (Kim, 2001). “Without the family, human society as we know it could not exist.” Since much of our communication learning’s are with families, it is essential to understand as it serves a component of nourishment in developing self-concept and identity. Families are important in our lives because they are our first relationship; there is a sense of belonging, unconditional love and support in relationships and mental models. What makes a family a family? The family is a group of intimates who generate a sense of home and group identity with strong ties of loyalty and emotion and an experience of history and a future. Experts argue that people have standards for family communication, and importantly, these standards may affect how satisfied we are in our families. Families have genetic ties, legal obligations, and role behaviors. Family communication standards encourage behaviors that are associated with satisfying relationships, such as being open or supportive and holding such standards with greater relationship satisfaction.
As the first community to which a person is attached and the first authority under which a person learns to live, the family establishes society’s most basic values. It prepares its members for the various roles they will perform in society. The significance of family is highlighted by the fact that “We are born into family, mature in a family, form new families, and leave them at our death.” The family is charged with transforming a biological organism into a human being who must spend the rest of his or her life around other human beings.
Forms of Family
In the last few decades, families throughout the world have undergone numerous changes that have altered the standard forms of family. The two types of families found in most cultures are nuclear and extended. The nuclear family, like all of the deep structure institutions, manifests many of the values of a culture. The nuclear family is typically identified as a parent, or parents and a child or children. The extended families typically include grandparents and other relatives. Extended families are commonly found in developing and underdeveloped nations and consist of more than just parents and children. They often include children, cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents. Historically, these collections of relatives have gathered for economic reasons and usually share the workload and the raising of children.
Functions of Family
Families, regardless of type or form, have a similar list of important functions that they carry out. The first and most important function is that of reproduction. “Families are in charge of reproduction to keep the society going. Without the infusion of new life, the culture would soon disappear.” An important task given to all families is the teaching of economic sharing and responsibility. While the methods of generating goods and services, and even the means of disruption, vary from culture to culture, “Virtually every family engages in activities aimed at providing for such practical needs as food, clothing, and shelter” (Lamana and Reidman, 2006).
The family is one of the “teachers” that passes on the culture from generation to generation. Society depends on the parents to love and nurture their children, to toilet train them and to teach them to speak and otherwise act in what would be considered a civilized manner (Lamana and Reidman, 2006). A culture’s core values and worldview come from a variety of sources; yet it is the family, as the first and primary caretaker, that initially exposes the child to these important ideas. Parents begin to teach their children the norms and communication rules that guide behavior in their cultures. Not only are norms and values passed along by families to the child, but families also give them their initial exposure to questions of faith.”
Children are not born into a world that automatically disposes them to believe in one god, many gods, or no god. Devotion to a “higher power,” is it Christ, Allah, Buddha, or the forces of nature must be learned, and the teaching process begins in the home. Families train in obedience, responsibility, nurturance, achievement, self-reliance, and general independence. The family provides the environment within which human values and morals develop and grow in the new generation; these values and morals cannot exist apart from the family unit. People have multiple identities—individual, national, cultural, sexual, ethnic, and social class, as well as familial. The family is perhaps the most important of all identities. Family is the first institution that sends messages about identity. Families also tell us how to use language. By observation, imitation and practice, we are introduced to the topic of communication. It is in the family that we first learn how to create, maintain, and end relationships, how to express ourselves, how to argue, how to display affection, and how to choose topics. Families are influenced by environment: open system, and family members are interdependent.
Improving Communication in families involves excitement and positively, confirming messages—value another person, handle conflict constructively: open, constructive manner, have realistic expectations, appreciate each relationship individually, manage dialectical tensions, deal with opposing needs by learning how to manage tensions. Identity formation involves understanding concepts of who we are, self and membership, cultural background, individualized identity, familial identity and spiritual identity.
Galvin, K. M. and Brommel, B. J. (1991). Family communication: Cohesion and change, (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Harper Collins, p. 1.
Kim, E. Y. (2001) The yin and yang of American culture. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press, p. 159.
Lamana, M. A. and Reidman (2006). Marriages and families: Making choices in a diverse society (9th ed.). Belmont, CA: Thompson Wadsworth, p. 4.
Nye, F. I. and Berardo, F. M. (1973). The family: Its structures and interaction. New York, NY: McMillan, p. 3.
Paden, W. E. (1994). Religious worlds: The comparative study of religion. Boston, MA: Beacon, p. 170.