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'Innovative' definitions of 'family' flout history

By Bill Muehlenberg - posted Monday, 6 December 2004

The UN has declared 2004 to be the tenth anniversary of the 1994 International Year of the Family. If the ruling elites in 1994 could not manage to come up with a definition of family, things have not got any better this year.

Our intelligentsia is happy to tell us that a family is anything you want it to be. I once heard a politician say a family is any group of people living together with a common purpose. Of course a gang of bank robbers would qualify as a family under that definition.

Is it true that families are so varied and diverse that basically any living arrangement can be called family? The standard dictionary definition of family is mum, dad and children. In a more extended sense, most Australians would agree that a family is any group of people related by blood, heterosexual marriage or adoption. And even from a strictly evolutionary point of view, nature itself knows of only one kind of human family: biological pair bonding.


Contrary to much modern thinking on the subject, the family is a remarkably durable and recognisable institution, spanning across centuries and cultures. Indeed, even a cursory reading of the historical, anthropological and sociological record gives a pretty clear picture: The family unit, cemented by marriage, has been the predominant form of family life in most cultures throughout history. I present just a small sampling of the evidence.

Bronislaw Malinowski was the first great anthropologist to live among primitive peoples. After years of research and painstaking observations of the daily habits of primitive peoples, he came to see that the family was a universal institution:

Indeed, at first sight, the typical savage family, as it is found among the vast majority of native tribes ... seems hardly to differ at all from its civilized counterpart. Mother, father, and children share the camp, the home, the food, and the life … Attached to each other, sharing life and most of its interests, exchanging counsel and help, company and cheer, and reciprocating in economic cooperation ... the individual, undivided family stands out conspicuous, a definite social unit marked off from the rest of society by a clear line of division.

Another anthropologist, George Murdock, conducted an exhaustive investigation into 250 human societies. This is what he discovered.

The nuclear family is a universal human social grouping. Either as the sole prevailing form of the family or as the basic unit from which more complex familial forms are compounded, it exists as a distinct and strongly functional group in every known society. No exception, at least, has come to light in the 250 representative cultures surveyed for the present study … In no case have we found a reliable ethnographer denying either the existence or the importance of this elemental social group … The nuclear family is always recognisable and always has its distinctive and vital functions.

More recent research by Peter Laslett of Cambridge University has confirmed Murdock's claims. And as The Times Literary Supplement Editor, Ferdinand Mount has commented, “The family is not an historical freak. If the evidence we have put together is correctly interpreted, the family, as we know it today - small, two-generation, nuclear, based on choice and affection ... is neither a novelty nor the product of unique historical forces. The way most people live today is the way most people have preferred to live when they had the chance”.


Marriage also seems to be a universal and historical given. Anthropologist Margaret Mead said this about marriage: “No matter how free divorce, how frequently marriages break up, in most societies there is the assumption of permanent mating, of the idea that the marriage should last as long as both live … No known society has ever invented a form of marriage strong enough to stick that did not contain the ‘till death us do part' assumption”.

In an important article written by J D Unwin of Cambridge University, marriage is seen as the crucial element in the development and maintenance of healthy societies: “Marriage as a life-long association has been an attendant circumstance of all human achievement, and its adoption has preceded all manifestations of social energy … Indissoluble monogamy must be regarded as the mainspring of all social activity, a necessary condition of human development.”

Or as Brandeis University anthropologist David Murray put it, “Cultures differ in many ways, but all societies that survive are built on marriage. Marriage is a society's cultural infrastructure, its bridges of social connectedness. The history of human society shows that when people stop marrying, their continuity as a culture is in jeopardy”.

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About the Author

Bill Muehlenberg is Secretary of the Family Council of Victoria, and lectures in ethics and philosophy at various Melbourne theological colleges.

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