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Many Sociologists have regarded the family as the cornerstone of society. It forms the basic unit of social organisation and it is difficult to imagine how human society could function without it. Although the composition of the family varies for example, in many societies two or more wives are regarded as the ideal arrangement -such differences can be seen as variations on a basic theme. In general, therefore, the family has been seen as a universal social institution, an inevitable part of human society. On balance, it has been regarded as a good thing, both for the individual and society as a whole. For some time, it has been thought natural and normal for households to be based around families.


At the end of this unit, you should be able to:

  1.  describe a family 
  2.  describe the types of family 
  3.  explain the activities with in family 
  4.  describe the functions of the family. 


3.1 Definition of Family

In a study entitled social structure, George Peter Murdock examined the institution of the family in a wide range of societies. Murdock (1949) took a sample of 250 societies ranging from/small hunting and gathering bands to large scale industrial societies. He claimed that some form of family existed in every society and concluded, on the evidence of this sample, that the family is universal.
Murdock (1949) defines the family as follows:

The family is a social group characterised by common   residence, economic co-operation and reproduction.  It includes adults of both sexes, at least two of whom
maintain a socially approved sexual relationship, and one or more children, own or adopted, of the sexually cohabiting adults.

Thus the family lives together, pools its resources and works together, and produces offspring. At least, two of the adult members conduct a sexual relationship according to the norms of their particular society. Such norms vary from society to society. For example, among the Banaro of New Guinea, the husband does not have sexual relations with his wife until she has born a child by a friend of his father. The parent-child relationship, therefore, is not necessarily a biological one. Its importance is primarily social, children being recognised as members of a particular family whether or not the adult spouses have biologically produced them.

3.2 Types of Family

3.2.1 Nuclear Family

The concept of family refers to different levels of social organisation in different cultures. For example, in Euro-American societies, a family consists of a man, his wife, and children. This type of family is called the nuclear family. It is also known as the Elementary family. There is also the conjugal family or the family of procreation where one is a father or mother, or husband or wife. In these societies (i.e. Euro- American societies) the father’s or mother’s natal family (sometimes referred to as family of orientation) that is, the family where a man or woman was born, is regarded as a different family. The nuclear family appears to be as a result of industrialization and modem development. In Nigeria, today, this type of family is now a common practice.

3.2.2 Extended Family

This is a type of family that have been in existence for a number of years for now. An extended family consists of two or more nuclear families. For example, a man’s family (conjugal family) is joined to his father’s family through him to form one extended family. Hence, a man and his wife and children together with his father and mother and their other children (if any) form one extended family.

3.2.3 Polygamous Family

This is a type of family practice where a man is married to more than one wife. In this type of family, a man may be married to two, three, four or even more than that. This is a type of practice that has been in existence for a very long time and it is still seen among us today, particularly among the rich people, kings, etc.

3.2.4 Monogamous Family

This type of family is referred to as one man one wife, that is, a man is said to have only one wife as a legal wife and no other one. These days in Nigeria, monogamous family practice is a common sight everywhere. Majority of men prefer to be involved in this than polygamous family.


  1.  Differentiate between nuclear and extended family. 
  2.  What do you understand by conjugal family? 
  3.  Explain the terms ‘Monogamous family’ and ‘Polygamous family’. 

3.3 Activities in Family

Every member of a family has some functions to perform in maintaining the unit. The father is seen as the leader who directs the affairs of the unit, but usually takes vital decisions after consultation with the wife and children. It is the role of the father to ensure that the family is protected from danger, the father ensures that the physical well-being of his family is assured and maintained. The physical well-being has to do with food, clothes and shelter. He is not only the provider of all these, he also ensures that he provides and maintains moral and philosophical training of the children.

Apart from the father, the mother also is involved in some vital activities. It is the woman who performs the role of a house-wife and sexual consort and bears and suckles children. She sees to the daily feeding of the family members. In this line, the children are made to observe the division of labour within the family and of the mutual role dependence and they also contribute whatever they can in order to see to the daily maintenance of the family.

As seen from above, the activities in the family has been to regard men as superior to his wife. This can easily be observed in many African societies where a man expects respect and obedience from his wife and children.


Explain the activities in a family.

3.4 Functions of the Family

George Peter Murdock gives the universal functions of the family as stated below:

1. Functions for Society From his analysis of 250 societies, Murdock argues that the family performs four basic functions in all societies, which he terms the sexual, reproductive, economic and educational.
They are essential for social life since without the sexual and reproductive functions there would be no members of society, without the economic function (for example, the provision and preparation of food), life would cease, and without education (a term Murdock uses for socialisation) there would be no culture. Human society without culture could not function.

Clearly, the family does not perform these functions exclusively. However, it makes important contributions to them all and no other institution has yet been devised to match its efficiency in this respect.

2. Functions for Individuals and Society The family’s functions for society are inseparable from its functions for its individual members. It serves both at one and the same time and in much the same way. The sexual function provides a good example of this. Husband and wife have the right of sexual access to each other and in most societies there are rules forbidden or limiting sexual activities outside marriage. This provides sexual gratification for the spouses. It also strengthens the family since the powerful and often binding emotions which accompany sexual activities limit husband and wife.

The sexual function also helps to stabilize society. The rules which largely contain sexual activity within the family preventing the probable disruptive effects on the social order that would result if the sex drive were allowed “free play”. The family thus provides both control and expression of sexual drives and in doing so perform important functions not only for its individual members, but also for the family as an institution and for society as a whole.


There are shared assumptions that relationship between family members is prototype for all other social relations, that the family unit is the fundamental building block for all societies, and that the family is society’s shock-absorber of social change. One cannot, for instance, expect a person to do more for a stranger or an acquaintance than what he/she would do for a family member.


In this unit, we have been able to deal with the word ‘family’ in detail. We have dealt with the definition of family, the types of family, activities in the family and functions of the family. The concept of family has been expressed to mean a social group characterised by common residence, economic co-operation and reproduction. Family has been said to perform different and important functions which include economic functions, educational functions, reproductive functions, sexual function, socialisation functions, etc.

  1.  What do you understand by the term “family”? Explain activities in family. 
  2.  Explain the functions of family. 


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