Around the World in Search of Different Forms of "Family"

Fleetwood-Walker Painting "The Family" 1932
Fleetwood-Walker Painting "The Family" 1932


Western Society seems to have this idea that there is only one type of family, that of the Nuclear form, which consists of a mother, a father, and children. This belief is an incredibly misinformed one as across the globe at any point in our social history there have been all sorts of views on what families are and how they should be composed. In this article I hope to go over as many types of family as I can and provide a brief summary of each, illuminating the subject without casting a judging eye.


Communal Families are most often found in primitive tribes in areas where Western Culture hasn't yet extinguished a more ancient form of life, such as the depths of the Amazon or a variety of rural islands. These families are usually extended families living in one housing structure with mother, father, children, aunts, uncles, cousins, and elders all taking up residence. Sometimes these societies are matriarchal, with everyone living under roof being related through a grandmother, mother, or aunt, or patriarchal with everyone being related through a grandfather, father, or uncle. Rarely cases are found that are neither. These bands or tribes are often formed by convenience rather then relation. There are several benefits to having a family formed in this way, the obvious one being that all the children have more then just their parents' eyes watching them and raising them. Everyone within this community will have their own share of responsibilities and often every home within the tribe will also help care for the children from other families if they end up somewhere else after dark. This undoubtedly will heighten the chances of raising children to adulthood in areas where wild beasts and accidents could easily cause a high mortality rate. Sometimes these tribes don't even have marriage ceremonies. It doesn't seem unusual for matriarchal and patriarchal societies to segregate individuals by the household they're born into. In other words if a woman becomes pregnant it's not up to her and the father to take care of the child, it's up to her household. The father in return will have to take care of the children within his own household who are usually siblings, nieces, nephews, and cousins.

Queen Victoria and Her Family by Franz Xaver Winterhaler 1846
Queen Victoria and Her Family by Franz Xaver Winterhaler 1846

Nuclear Family

Nuclear Families are the ones most Westerns feel are the 'right' kind of family. They are formed by two married parents and their offspring. This form of family was probably conceived to protect the women who lived by it. In this tradition fathers are held responsible for any offspring they create and are forbidden to have more with any other women. Marriage came onto the scene probably to make heritages and lineages more clear. Bastard children have traditionally not been subject to inheritances, equal treatment, or the benefits of a two parent home. This form of family is currently the most popular globally speaking but this may just be due to the influences of Christianity. Religion and tradition often have roles to play in the formation of any family.

Polyamory Symbol - A blue [loyalty & honesty] infinity symbol superimposed over a red heart on a black [solidarity] background
Polyamory Symbol - A blue [loyalty & honesty] infinity symbol superimposed over a red heart on a black [solidarity] background

Polyamorous Family

Polyamory translates quite literally as "multiple loves." It is the practice that consenting adults decide to create marriage-like bonds with more then one individual at a time. It is distinct from polygamy and polyandry in the fact it's usually composed of multiple people of either sex and if it ends up in a harem-type system this is generally coincidental, not intentional. Everyone within the group doesn't necessarily have to share sexual bonds but emotional bonds are always key. Sometimes married couples enter these arrangements as well. As far as family is concerned this is an unusually vague subject. I was unable to find any reliable sources on historical polyamory in an accepted cultural sense (though I don't doubt it must have existed somewhere at some point) and in it's modern sense polyamory is hard to pin down. Most polyamorous groupings aren't open about their choice because of the strong prejudice the culture has regarding it. This makes documentation exceedingly difficult. However, one can speculate this might be beneficial to raising children in the same way communal families are, with more then just the parents watching and raising the children. However, the larger the group the higher the risk of abuse becomes and it hasn't been documented if there are any ill mental effects that may have higher influence in children growing up in this setting just as of yet. Perhaps this is due to a possible instability of these groupings or perhaps this is due to the fact many of these groupings live separately and don't involve the children in any degree (going so far as to hide it.) People who practice this form of family often sight that monogamy is not enough for the human race, that emotional bonds are meant to be shared with many, stating that this is the reason most people are serial monogamists, bouncing from one relationship to another. It's an interesting point and it remains to be seen if this form of family is any healthier then any other. I apologize I was unable to find a short video on the subject that showed it in an unbiased light but if the subject interests you I have linked to a documentary that seems to show both the negatives as well as the positive. the rest of the videos linked in the article will be short clips.

Polyandrous Family

Polyandry is probably the rarest form of family ever practiced by humanity at any point in history. It is speculated that with the combined statistics of modern and ancient cultures polyandry only makes up less then 2% of the world population through the entire duration of human history. It is a practice in which one wife will marry several husbands which are usually brothers. This is matriarchal society at its extreme. The wife will bear children and the husbands will share duties within and without the home. This practice is sometimes used when one husband is rarely home (a sailor, merchant, etc) so another may stay to care for the wife. However it's most often used as population control. One woman can only have so many children in her lifetime but men can potentially sire dozens, if not more. This practice is most common in harsh landscapes where families only have a small plot of land that must be passed down through the generations without being divided up among siblings. Generally the eldest sister will marry a set of brothers and the rest of the sisters will remain unwed, ensuring that the farm land stay in one piece. The husbands in these families are expected to help take care of the children, even if they know they are not theirs, but often that is difficult to even know. This is a practice still seen with some regularity among Tibetan people living on the Himalayan Mountains.

Hindu Art - Krishna and the gopis (shepardesses)
Hindu Art - Krishna and the gopis (shepardesses)

Polygynous Families

Polygyny is a harem styled relationship with one husband and at least two wives. Unlike polyandry the wives are usually unrelated, although sisters can sometimes be seen in these settings. Historically speaking these relationships were often formed on farming lands with one purpose: the procurement of as many children as humanly possible. It's still practiced in some Middle Eastern regions as well as various points in Africa. The most known example in the West is of Fundamental Mormon Polygyny which is most common in the United States (though it's condemned by law.) This practice was thought by anthropologists to be used at least partially due to genetic theory. An older man who has lived in a disease infested area and lived is more likely to pass on desirable genes to his offspring. The older a man gets to prove this theory the more wives he'd typically have. This isn't to say it doesn't have its downfalls. In the US Fundamentalist Mormon Polygyny has been under fire for the past decade or so due to an increased incidence of sexual abuse in children as well as physical abuse and allegations that girls as young as twelve are being given away to marriage without their or the state's consent. Due to the cloistered nature of this community there is also many documented cases of genetic diseases and deformities such as club foot due to rampant inbreeding. There have been successful cases of polygyny where children were raised successfully that go back to the mistresses and concubines of the Old Testament. However, noting recent data and the inexplicable linking with closed fundamentalist societies, these are probably the exception in today's world, not the rule. One should note that the Mormon Church (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints)has prohibited polygynous marriages since 1904, stating members to be found still practicing it would be ex-communicated. That is precisely when the Fundamentalist Mormons formed their own church.

WIlliam Robert Kendall's "An Interlude" 1907
WIlliam Robert Kendall's "An Interlude" 1907

Single Parent Families

In Western society single parent families are often seen as Nuclear Families that for one reason or another have been divided. This can be the case but not always. It's true single parents can result from divorce or widowhood but its also becoming more common for individuals to purposely opt to be a single parent. With artificial insemination, a lack of lethal prejudices against single parents, and the option of adoption these families are growing in number. Single parent homes have been slammed in the press but they do have some benefits. A single parent has the sole responsibility and rights to care for the child or children, meaning they will not have to fight about petty differences in parenting methods. Depending on the social class and education level of the said parent these can also be very stable homes and without the influence of perpetual fighting they can also be beneficial to a child, in comparison with couples who stay together just for the sake of the children and end up instilling the child/ren with dread stemming from their latent hostility for their mate. Due to the fact these homes only consist of one adult they can be more challenging and difficult but this doesn't mean they're bound to fail.

Orange County gang tattoo - used to identify affiliation.
Orange County gang tattoo - used to identify affiliation.

Unrelated Families

Unrelated families are often groups, bands, or tribes of people that have gathered together for protection or for survival. In the US street gangs started when children orphaned by disease had nowhere else to go. When enough children in an area became homeless due to these circumstances they'd find each other and start a sort of family of their own with the older ones raising the younger ones and all of them sticking up for each other. This has been the case in many cultures throughout history. Social orphans and those on the margins of society don't have any less a desire for kinship and belonging then anyone else. Today street gangs exist for the same reason, for protection and survival in the midst's of poverty, but now they have turned violent for the first time in our angst ridden world. So long as these hardships still exist so will this form of "family."

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Comments 16 comments

In The Doghouse profile image

In The Doghouse 8 years ago from California

This gave an awesome definition of the "family." Very informative and definitely worth the read. Thank you for all your research and hard work to educate us on these different definitions of the family. Have you read the book, It Takes a Village? You would probably enjoy it. Thanks.

Theophanes profile image

Theophanes 8 years ago from New England Author

Glad you enjoyed the article. I haven't actually read It Takes a Villiage, though I do remember when it came out. Most of my 'research' (or at least the bare bones draft part of it) on social topics is done by watching people rather then reading, but reading is important too! Thanks for the comment.

Zsuzsy Bee profile image

Zsuzsy Bee 8 years ago from Ontario/Canada

Good info about the family set-up...It is amazing to see that the general structures of "families" have not changed much over the ages...great HUB

regards Zsuzsy

AndyBaker profile image

AndyBaker 7 years ago from UK

Some good definitions here.

Great profile picture as well!

skywalker_darth philippines 7 years ago


just exactly what i needed

thank you very much

beatrice dupree' 7 years ago

Dear Theophanes, the different forms of family you explored was well researched. The visual art helped to bring beauty to the subject. It has been said, there is no right or wrong, as long as there is goodness,integrity, joy, love, and respect. For those who believe strongly that the Bible approves of one mate for life only, that is ok too. At one time the Scriptures disclosed for us that concubines were permitted for reasons.

Life's rules are goverened by what country we live, although education can make married life in some countries effective and more pleasant.

beatrice dupree'

Denny J. 7 years ago

Life is what you learn to live.

albert martinez 6 years ago

iwant to know about the family fued in mindanao

amel 6 years ago

honey it is really a nice subject this moment i under stand the defintion of family..... thanks a lot

rachel 6 years ago

wow but i have a question what kind of jobs do normal familys have

rachel claudio 6 years ago

its nice toknow all this but are familys safe these days cause back in my daysthere was not that many bad people there was no rob that was the life but how do we get back that life HELP!

Birdybg6 5 years ago

What about family with the same sex relationship?

Nomvuyo 4 years ago

Thanks a lot for the information that's what i was searching.

Theophanes profile image

Theophanes 4 years ago from New England Author

A family that is composed of a monogamous couple of the same sex is just a variation of the Nuclear family.

Beckles 3 years ago

So in your quest to enlighten everyone about different styles of family around the world, and proclaim that there is no form of "right" family, you are quiet biased against the nuclear family, which feels "right" to the western world. I agree that there is no right style of family and each type of family comes with a set of benefits and challenges. However, for someone who wants to "illuminate the subject without casting a judging eye" you are clearly biased against the western notion of a nuclear family. This is not an unbiased article and therefore you should not present it as one.

Theophanes profile image

Theophanes 3 years ago from New England Author

Thank you for commenting but if you don't mind I would like to pick your brains.

At what point do I state this is an unbiased article? (And is there even such a thing? I mean any author must have an opinion of anything they write about or else they wouldn't be writing about it. Mind you I am not agreeing with your conclusion of what my opinion is.) And at what point do I say the nuclear family is somehow a wrong choice? I really don't remember writing that... and glancing over the article I don't see that I have.

People are people, we all have different needs, different desires, different personalities, and different ways of working things out. If a nuclear family is what you want then all the power to you. I just wrote this article to let people know there are other options if they so chose to seek them out. Nothing more, nothing less.

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