13 Family is a Social Structure

Bernice Ofori-Amanfo

What a family is, as well as who is a part of your family, can sometimes feel like a subjective assessment. Family can be those outside of your household and is not limited to those who you are related to by blood. For example, housemates or friends could be your family. It is not only based on biology such that you must share blood with that person, but it is also social, meaning that they can be people who support you and who you are comfortable with. Contrariwise, those who are related to you by blood may not always seem like family to you. Family is not limited to those who follow the traditional family values in heteronormative, nuclear families. The construct of a family is different for each individual. Societies and their constructs of family also differ, meaning that family is socially constructed."A rule piece of white paper has a sticky note on it that says 'important.' Under that is handwritten the sentence 'I don't live you because you're my son. You're my son because I love you.'"

However, that does not mean that all families are equally accepted and supported in society. Certain types of families receive more recognition, support, and acceptance than others, such that different family structures are better equipped to survive and thrive compared to others.

Family is a social structure, specifically a social group, meaning that it plays a key role in primary socialization of children. As a result of socialization and other interactions that occur within a family, learned behaviours and norms dictate how we act in society. Family is also a social institution, meaning that it provides structure to society by fulfilling societal needs, like feelings of safety and belonging. Other functions include providing emotional support, normative conditions for sexual activity, and the learning of one’s social identity. All of these functions play a greater role, because they are mirrored in society writ large. What this means is that even as it feels like what makes a family is very subjective, in reality, family serves highly normative functions.

When we view family within an intersectional approach, we can see how family structures and dynamics are impacted by social inequalities that work together. Class, race, gender, sex, ability etc. all impact families. For example, racialized families may experience wage discrimination and segregation in low wage jobs. The idea of a husband being the breadwinner and a wife completing housework is unattainable for some families; however, society is still built around the idea that a mother is always home to take care of her children. For example, public school usually ends around 3pm. Our society does not provide much in the way of caring for children when they arrive home from school to an empty home. This could mean that those who experience oppression due to their social identities are more at risk for weaker family relations and intimate relationships. Another example is if we look at classism. Those who are in a lower, working class may struggle financially and must work more to help provide for their families. Spending more time away from their families to financially provide for them can negatively impact these relationships, since spending quality time with the family can  strengthen bonds. As such, we can understand that the idea of “traditional family values” is a racist and classist construct. That being said, marginalized families still find powerful ways to cohere; culture, traditions, values, and even special family foods show the capacities of families to persist and survive through struggle.

Traditional family values: normative nuclear family structures associated with strict gender roles
Socialization: the learning of socially-accepted behaviour and norms
Primary socialization: the learning of behaviours and norms during one’s younger years typically spent with family



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Gender in Canada: A Companion Workbook Copyright © 2023 by Bernice Ofori-Amanfo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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