Family living arrangements in the US and throughout much of the world are consider ably more diverse, pluralistic, and fluid than they were just a few decades ago. We have witnessed profound demographic changes, including longer life expectancy, postponed marriage and childbearing, dramatic increases in both childbearing and childrearing outside of marriage, and substantial growth of single hood, cohabitation, divorce, and remarriage (Teachman et al. 2000). As a result, there has been a sharp increase in the visibility of diverse family forms such as single parent (mostly single mother) families, stepfamilies, households headed by gays and lesbians, and families living in poverty (Rank 2000). These changes have stirred considerable debate surrounding the definition of family. For example, do two cohabiting adults and their dependent children constitute a family? Are they still a family without the presence of children in the household? What if the two adults are gay or lesbian?
Beginning in the middle of the twentieth century, a strong value was attached to a ‘‘benchmark’’ family type in the United States, or what is commonly termed the ‘‘traditional’’ nuclear family. Following World War II, rapid social changes including men returning to the labor force, a post war economic boom, an increasing standard of living, increases in marriage and birth rates, and a decline in the divorce rate supported a set of values and beliefs that privileged the two biological parent, male breadwinner, female homemaker family. Although families of the 1950s often are viewed with nostalgia, evidence shows that many traditional families were characterized by severe inequities, male dominance, men’s over involvement in work and under involvement in family activities, wife abuse, and alcoholism (Coontz 1992). Since then, changing historical contexts and powerful social movements (e.g., civil rights, women’s rights, gay and lesbian liberation, and men’s movements) have been associated with the establishment of a wide variety of family forms, making the diversity of families more visible and normative, and spur ring debates over the future of marriage and whether there is one best type of family.
There are many issues and complexities inherent in studying and defining families. Our purpose here is to provide an overview of family diversity by (1) defining the study of family diversity and its historical context; (2) defining family; (3) discussing the major structural dimensions of diversity (e.g., ethnicity, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation); and (4) illustrating the diversity characterizing family processes.
Defining Family Diversity as a Field of Study
Historically, the term family diversity referred to variations from a traditional family. This implied that there was one best type of family, and that all other family types were dysfunctional and deviant. In a more contemporary view, family diversity refers to a broad range of characteristics or dimensions on which families vary, along with a recognition that there are a multitude of different family types that function effectively. Family diversity thus refers to variations along structural or demo graphic dimensions (e.g., race/ethnicity, socio economic status), as well as in family processes (e.g., communication and parenting behaviors).
We caution readers to be particularly mindful of comparisons in which one family is upheld as a ‘‘better’’ family than that to which it is compared. In this, we do not take a purely relativistic view by assuming that all families function effectively, nor do we believe there is one best type of family. Our view is that families are diverse and there are many ways that families can function effectively regardless of family type. As stated earlier, historical accounts of family diversity were concerned with pathological views that perpetuated marginalization of many family types. However, social movements and demographic changes have increased the visibility of diverse families, thus facilitating a shift away from pathological views to a recognition of family strengths and resilience (Walsh 1998). Thus, the study of family diversity is embedded within historical and social contexts, as is the intensifying debate over how to define family.
Families are characterized by a rich variety of compositions that mix gender, ethnicity, sexuality, and marital history. Families also vary widely in their dynamics, or how family members interact with and relate to one another. As a result, family researchers have invested considerable energy in designing and conducting studies that examine the flexibility and creativity with which individuals create and sustain a sense of family. To be sure, there are myriad ways that individuals experience and define family. However, there is a need to define family in a way that is useful, meaningful, and inclusive, yet not devoid of theoretical or empirical meaning. It also is important to recognize the difficulty in establishing an appropriate and inclusive definition of family that is flexible over time, i.e., a definition that reflects historical, demographic, social, and family change. No definition of family applies universally across cultures and historical periods (Coontz 2000).
The US Census Bureau defines a family as two or more individuals related by birth, marriage, or adoption. While practical, this definition excludes many groups who consider themselves to be families, such as couples who cohabit (with or without children), foster parents residing with their children, and gay and lesbian couples. Further complicating this debate and its implications for families is the disparity in family policies and laws across local, state, and federal levels. For example, the state of Massachusetts now recognizes same sex marriages, but such marriages are not recognized by other states or by federal law. A second example is a woman who adopts a child and lives with her lesbian partner. According to the US Census Bureau definition, the lesbian partner is considered a member of the household, but not a member of the family.
For our purposes, family is defined more broadly and involves consideration of both family structure and family process. Structurally, a family is defined as two or more persons related by birth, marriage, adoption, or choice (Allen et al. 2000). Adding the element of choice recognizes that individuals have human agency, or the ability to choose those whom they consider family, such as individuals who might be close friends. An inclusive definition of family also recognizes that family members do not need to be physically present or live in the same household. To illustrate, non-residential fathers are family members even though they typically live apart from their children much of the year. Similarly, individuals may consider a deceased parent or other relative to be part of their family.
Typically, families also provide emotional and financial support, recreational opportunities, nurturance, discipline, and affection (Allen et al. 2000). As such, family also needs to be defined by process. Again, we do not take a purely relativistic view and assume all families function adequately, but we do believe that we need to be explicit about the definitions we use. Taken together, incorporating choice and process allows for a broader, more inclusive, and more meaningful definition of family.
Dimensions of Family Diversity
In the early twenty first century, racial/ethnic families represent a growing proportion of society, including substantial numbers of interracial couples and transnational families. Understanding the diversity of intersecting cultures and the influence of diversity on society and family life is important, particularly when developing public policy. Given that the pro portion of Hispanic families is growing faster than any other family groups, we are witnessing an increased research emphasis on Hispanic family life, including examination of the effects of immigration and acculturation (see Zinn & Wells 2000). According to the most recent Current Population Survey (Fields 2004), 71 percent of all family groups in the US are white, with 12 percent black, 4 percent Asian, and 13 percent Hispanic. (It is worth noting that many of those categorized as Hispanic may have reported as being both white and Hispanic.)
Socioeconomic status (SES) is defined in terms of a family’s combined index of income, education, occupational prestige, and the number of related adults and dependent children in the household (Rank 2000). Research consistently shows that economic hardship and stress adversely affect individual and family wellbeing (White & Rogers 2000). Unemployment, underemployment, and low family income are associated with poor mental and physical health, lower marital quality, diminished parenting effectiveness, and child maladjustment (Fox & Bartholomae 2000). Currently in the US, 12.4 percent of the total population lives below the poverty level, and 10.8 percent of all people living in families and 16.1 percent of families with children under age 18 live below the poverty level. A disproportionate number of black (24.9 percent) and Hispanic (22.6 percent) families live in poverty compared with white (9.1 percent) and Asian (12.8 percent) families. Interestingly, 15.8 percent of single fathers live below the poverty level compared to 32.2 percent of single mothers. As troubling as these statistics are, they do not include millions of children and adults in the US who live in severe economic hardship but have family income that falls just above the official poverty threshold (Rank 2000).
Gender refers to social meanings regarding masculinity and femininity that are produced through social processes and interactions (West & Zimmerman 1987), whereas sex refers to biological distinctions between a man and a woman. Each individual, whether male or female, is the product of complex configurations of both masculine and feminine characteristics that influence daily interactions (Thompson & Walker 1995). As a dimension of family diversity, gender is an ever present and powerful force in family relationships. For example, one family might divide labor on the basis of traditional gender beliefs and values such that the woman ‘‘stays home’’ to care for children and the man is the sole or primary earner. In this instance, gender is related to power in families because the man makes all or most of the family’s income and controls the family’s financial decision making. With each choice families make, such as how mothers and fathers parent, how they divide household labor, and how they provide care for aging parents, they are doing gender (West & Zimmerman 1987). Patterns unfold with enormous implications for family life and future generations because families exert a primary influence on gender socialization. Gender is thus a critical axis of both social stratification and family diversity.
One of the influential social movements of the twentieth century was the gay and lesbian liberation movement, which continues to draw attention to issues of civil and family rights. Sexual orientation refers to an individual’s beliefs, attractions, and behaviors toward members of the opposite and same sex. From a family diversity perspective, families do not have a sexual orientation, but are comprised of individuals with varying sexual orientations. Consider, for example, a family in which one parent identifies as heterosexual, the other as gay, an aunt as bisexual, and a child as trans sexual. These variations are of increasing importance as more families are faced with how to accept, or whether to accept, a family member whose sexual orientation differs. Due to the difficulties involved in collecting sensitive information regarding sexual orientation, available statistical evidence regarding the pre valence and types of gay and lesbian headed households is likely to be conservative. Using data from the 2000 Census, Gates and Ost (2004) suggested that approximately 5 percent of the US population over age 18 are gay or lesbian. Of those who were identified as gay or lesbian and in couple relationships, 27.5 percent had children present in the household. Other estimates suggest anywhere between 9 and 11 million children are being reared by a gay or lesbian parent (Patterson 2000). Studies of sexual orientation often compare the adjustment of children who live with gay or lesbian parents with that of children who live with heterosexual parents (Patterson 2000). This area of research is of great concern given current policy debates concerning same sex marriage, adoption, and foster care. Collectively, research in this area suggests no negative differences in child outcomes based on parental sexual orientation (Patterson 2000). Studies also suggest that relationship quality and relationship outcomes are similar for families of gays and lesbians compared with families of heterosexuals (Kurdek 2004). Unfortunately, we know little about the important topics of bisexuality, transgenderism, transexualism, and family life.
Recent demographic changes, notably including high rates of non-marital childbearing, divorce, and remarriage, have changed the face of American families. Less than half of American children now live in traditional nuclear families, defined as families consisting of two biological parents married to each other, full siblings only, and no other household members (Brandon & Bumpass 2001). Variations in family structure and the consequences for individual wellbeing have been widely studied. Most of the research has focused on the impact of different family forms (e.g., first married families, divorced families, and remarried families) on children’s development and wellbeing. In general, when compared with children in first married families, children in single parent families and remarried families are slightly disadvantaged on measures of academic performance, psychological adjustment, conduct, social competence, and physical health (Amato 2000; Demo et al. 2004). However, for most children the effects of family disruption are temporary. Studies suggest that 80 percent of children who have experienced parental divorce function within normal ranges of adjustment within one to two years of the divorce (Barber & Demo 2006). Similarly, divorced adults report more negative life events, more difficulties in parenting, and lower psychological wellbeing during the separation process, but most are resilient and function normally within a couple of years post-divorce. Although family composition and family transitions are important to understand, the evidence suggests that family processes exert stronger effects on the wellbeing of family members.
Family process refers to the interpersonal dynamics (e.g., support, communication, decision making, conflict resolution, violence) between family members (e.g., parent–child, husband–wife, partner interactions). Given societal concerns related to couples who divorce or dissolve their relationships, examination of family process is especially important and has the potential to provide valuable insight. For example, once a conflict between partners starts, the discussion that follows and the rate at which the conflict escalates is related to the prediction of divorce/dissolution. Gottman et al. (2003) examined communication among heterosexual, gay, and lesbian couples and found that gay and lesbian couples used humor more effectively during initial stages of conflict discussions, leading to lower escalation rates compared to heterosexual couples. Attending to the diversity of family process provides a better understanding of family dynamics and has potential to guide prevention and intervention efforts for practitioners.
Contemporary families are remarkably diverse both in structure and process, and the social and demographic changes propelling family diversity are likely to accelerate (Stacey 2000). Unfortunately, much of the extant research relies on samples of predominantly white, middle class, heterosexual families and their children, limiting our ability to generalize to increasingly pluralistic family forms. Students, scholars, practitioners, and policymakers need to be more inclusive and explicit with their definitions of families and attend more fully to the rich, fluid, and multidimensional diversity of family experiences.
- Allen, K. R., Fine, M. A., & Demo, D. H. (2000) An Overview of Family Diversity: Controversies, Questions, and Values. In: Demo, D. H., Allen,
- K. R., & Fine, M. A. (Eds.), Handbook of Family Diversity. Oxford University Press, New York, pp. 1 14.
- Amato, P. R. (2000) The Consequences of Divorce for Adults and Children. Journal of Marriage and the Family 62: 1269 87.
- Barber, B. & Demo, D. H. (2006) The Kids are Alright (At Least, Most of Them): Links between Divorce and Dissolution and Child Well-Being. In: Fine, M. A. & Harvey, J. (Eds.), Handbook of Divorce and Relationship Dissolution. Erlbaum, Mahwah, NJ.
- Brandon, P. D. & Bumpass, L. L. (2001) Children’s Living Arrangements, Coresidence of Unmarried Fathers, and Welfare Receipt. Journal of Family Issues 22: 3 26.
- Coontz, S. (1992) The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap. Basic Books, New York.
- Coontz, S. (2000) Historical Perspectives on Family Diversity. In: Demo, D. H., Allen, K. R., & Fine, M. A. (Eds.), Handbook of Family Diversity. Oxford University Press, New York, pp. 15 31.
- Demo, D. H., Aquilino, W. S., & Fine, M. A. (2004) Family Composition and Family Transitions. In: Bengtson, V. L., Acock, A. C., Allen, K. R., Dilworth-Anderson, P., & Klein, D. M. (Eds.), Sourcebook of Family Theory and Research. Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA, pp. 119 34.
- Fields, J. (2004) America’s Families and Living Arrangements: 2003. Current Populations Reports, P20 553. US Census Bureau, Washington, DC.
- Fox, J. J. & Bartholomae, S. (2000) Economic Stress and Families. In: McKenry, P. C. & Price, S. J. (Eds.), Families and Change. Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA, pp. 250 78.
- Gates, G. & Ost, J. (2004) The Gay and Lesbian Atlas. Urban Institute Press, Washington, DC. Gottman, J., Levenson, R., Swanson, C., Swanson,
- K., Tyson, R., & Yoshimoto, D. (2003) Observing Gay, Lesbian, and Heterosexual Couples’ Relationships: Mathematical Modeling of Conflict Interaction. Journal of Homosexuality 45: 65 92.
- Kurdek, L. A. (2004) Are Gay and Lesbian Cohabiting Couples Really Different from Heterosexual Married Couples? Journal of Marriage and Family 66: 880 900.
- Patterson, C. J. (2000) Family Relationships of Lesbians and Gay Men. Journal of Marriage and the Family 62: 1052 69.
- Rank, M. (2000) Poverty and Economic Hardship in Families. In: Demo, D. H., Allen, K. R., & Fine, M. A. (Eds.), Handbook of Family Diversity. Oxford University Press, New York, pp. 293 315.
- Stacey, J. (2000) The Handbook’s Tail: Toward Revels or a Requiem for Family Diversity? In: Demo, D. H., Allen, K. R., & Fine, M. A. (Eds.), Handbook of Family Diversity. Oxford University Press, New York, pp. 424 39.
- Teachman, J., Tedrow, L. M., & Crowder, K. D. (2000) The Changing Demography of America’s Families. Journal of Marriage and Family 62: 1234 46.
- Thompson, L. & Walker, A. (1995) The Place of Gender in Family Studies. Journal of Marriage and the Family 57: 847 66.
- Walsh, F. (1998) Strengthening Family Resilience. Guilford Press, New York.
- West, C. & Zimmerman, D. H. (1987) Doing Gen- der. Gender and Society 1: 124 51.
- White, L. & Rogers, S. (2000) Economic Circum- stances and Family Outcomes: A Review of the 1990s. Journal of Marriage and Family 62: 1035 52.
- Zinn, M. & Wells, B. (2000) Diversity within Latino Families: New Lessons for Family Social Science. In: Demo, D. H., Allen, K. R., & Fine, M. A. (Eds.), Handbook of Family Diversity. Oxford University Press, New York, pp. 252 73.