Family scholars have developed several different definitions of the term family. We discuss five:
1. Family is a set of people with whom you live and with whom you share biological and/or legal ties (Burton and Jayakody 2001).
This definition focuses on what many of us refer to as the nuclear family. This definition restricts family primarily to parents (who are married) and their biological and/or adopted children. This is the definition of family that is used by the census, and it is the most common definition of family in use by both scholars and the average American.
2. Family is a set of people you may or may not live with but with whom you share biological and/or legal ties (Cherlin 1999).
This definition of family is often referred to as the “extended family.” As such, it is used to acknowledge that both in the past and continuing today, many households include extended family members such as grandparents. It also recognizes the continued importance of family once children have permanently moved out of the house.
3. Family is a set of people you live with but with whom you may or may not share biological or legal ties (Landale and Fennelly 1992).
This is a much more contemporary definition of family that is designed to acknowledge several changes in family life, specifically the rise of cohabiting couples, who in the twenty-first century are increasingly likely to be raising children together. Specifically with regards to the African American family, this definition recognizes both higher rates of cohabitation and the practice of sharing child-rearing with nonrelatives in response to a variety of forces, such as incarceration. This definition was developed, in part, to recognize same-gender couples as “families” long before the law did. And, though we will devote an entire chapter to LGBTQ families, it is important to note here that the law has been applied in various and often confusing ways to LGBTQ families. Although some stability has been brought to the discussion of same-gender families by the US Supreme Court decision in 2015, which ruled that prohibitions against gay and lesbian marriages are unconstitutional and marriage equality—the legal marriage between two members of the same gender—is the law of the land, there continue to be many areas of the law, especially as it relates to trans-identified people, that do not guarantee civil rights, including the right to marry, to all, and thus this definition of the family remains necessary.
4. Family is a set of people with whom you share social, physical, or financial support or a combination thereof (Sarkisian and Gerstel 2008).
This definition is very inclusive and was developed, as noted above, primarily to acknowledge the existence of gay and lesbian households, which at the time were not legally recognized (which was, of course, reversed by the 2015 US Supreme Court decision). Furthermore, this definition is designed to emphasize a key feature of families: the fact that members are interdependent. Families generally provide support of various sorts for their members. The flow and direction of this support may change over time—for example, from parent to child during the period of child-rearing and from child to parent during later years. For the purposes of our discussion in this book, family can also characterize one’s involvement in a variety of social institutions, including the military, fraternities—where members refer to themselves as brothers—elite sports teams, and the Catholic priesthood, whose members work, play, and live together.
5. Family is a set of people whom you love (Neff and Karney 2005).
The most inclusive of all definitions, this one recognizes that, increasingly, people create their own “families” that may or may not be based on formal ties (biological or legal), and that these important people may or may not live together. The classic example used to illustrate this concept is the popular television program Friends. Friends depicts a group of young men and women who provide support for each other and love each other but do not necessarily share any biological or legal ties (of course, there are two exceptions to this rule: Ross and Monica are siblings and Chandler and Monica eventually marry). Some of the “friends” lived together, but others did not. Yet they provided for each other most of the very things that have historically been provided by people with formal family ties. Family scholars often refer to this form of family as fictive kin, and this is especially common when referring to African American family relationships. Some may find the term fictive kin offensive because it assumes that some relationships (those based on biology or law) are real and that others (those not based on biology or law) are “fictive”—that is, not real. Thus, we refrain from this kind of distinction and suggest that the initial development of the term carried no such qualifier.
The final two definitions are critical to the focus and discussion of this book because they both highlight what is perhaps the most devastating aspect of family violence: that whatever form it takes, family violence shatters notions of love, respect, interdependence, and mutual support. Whether the violence involves a man beating to death the woman he claims to love, an adult daughter emotionally and financially blackmailing her elderly parents, or an uncle engaging in incest with a young niece or nephew, family violence always hijacks safety and security, the very notions on which family is built. Thus, regardless of who is the victim and who is the perpetrator in any specific example, this shattering of the safety and interdependency is universal.