The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

A Natural Understanding of the Family

Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson

As much as they want to expand the definition of what constitutes a family, scholars find themselves up against public sentiment that agrees with the U.S. Census Bureau, which defines a family as “a group of two people or more related by marriage, birth, or adoption and residing together.” Indeed, a team of communication-studies scholars, who build upon studies conducted in Sweden in 1990 and the United States in 1994, finds that American college students—much to its dismay—continue to conceive of the family along traditional lines.

Their study asked 181 students, predominantly white coeds from a large Midwestern university, to judge to what degree twenty three “social constellations”—representing various living arrangements of people—constitute a family. The scenario that described a natural family (a married couple who lived together and have a child) received the highest ranking on the seven-point scale, followed closely by the scenario that described three siblings who live together. The lowest ratings were given to three scenarios involving divorced couples and the scenario of a male homosexual couple with no children.

To identify common patterns that shaped student perceptions, the researchers conducted a “principal components analysis” of the student ratings. They found that social constellations reflecting normative arrangements—the presence of children, intactness, shared residential status, natural sexual relations (not homosexual relations), marriage (not cohabitation), and the presence of blood relations—contributed to higher ratings of family status. Perhaps further distressing the researchers, their use of the more adjectival term “family”—instead of the nominative phrase, “a family”—with one half of the sample yielded no difference in the rankings.

The researchers find encouragement, however, when in comparisons of two selected scenarios, natural sexual relations were found less important a factor in judging family status when children are present: no difference was found between a cohabiting man and woman with a child and two lesbian cohabitants with a child (although neither situation is defined by marriage, which trumped cohabiting arrangements in every other pair-wise comparison). They also were encouraged by the “robust finding” that emerged from a feature of the study that measured whether frequent or limited communication between members characterized the various scenarios affected student ratings. As might be expected, students were more likely to judge a scenario as a family when members had frequent communication. Yet these two findings offer little warrant for suggesting, as the researchers think they do, that “subtle shifts in conceptualizing family may be underway.”

As the bulk of their findings attests, conventional views of the family continue to be widely held. Do such views, as the authors lament, “marginalize our understanding of alternative family forms”? If they mean that a normative or natural understanding of the family marginalizes scholars who think family should mean whatever their imaginations allow, they are right on the money.

(Leslie A. Baxter et al., “Lay Conceptions of ‘Family’: A Replication and Extension,” Journal of Family Communication 9 [September 2009]: 170–89.)