Skip to main content Accessibility help
  • Get access
    Check if you have access via personal or institutional login
  • Cited by 26
  • Print publication year: 1972
  • Online publication date: November 2009

3 - The evolution of the family



Text books in the social sciences are full of statements about the general trend in human societies from patterns of extended kinship to conjugal families. On a more general level the change has been seen as one connected with the general move from kinship to territoriality, from status to contract, from mechanical to organic solidarity, from gemeinschaft to gesellschaft, from ascription to achievement. There is no need to lengthen the list of vague polarities.

With the general trend that this list implies few would disagree. But when we come to deal more specifically with the movements in family structure, difficulties arise. The main problem for the evolution of the family is to understand just what is evolving. The English term ‘family’ is a polysemic word used to describe a conjugal pair and their young (‘starting a family’), the members of a household (‘one of the family’), a range of bilateral kin (‘relatives’) or a patronymic group, usually associated with a title (‘The Churchill family’). And there are wider semantic usages, extending to the human (‘the family of man’) and non-human (‘the family of sweet peas’) species.

Discussions of the evolution of the family and changes in household composition centre upon the emergence of the kind of family (referred to as elementary, nuclear or conjugal) that is supposed to be a concomitant of industrialisation, either as cause or effect.