22 Families are Public

Rebecca Terry

Families are a central aspect of life, even as they are often seen as “private.” However, families are very much a public concept, as families can reflect broader societal values and structures. Families are public because people learn what is and is not socially acceptable in part through participation in their families. Family functions as a primary way to socialize individuals: values, rules, morals, and behaviours are instilled. Families are also public because ideologies prescribe what a family should and should not be. This “familialism” can be observed in government policies that reinforce the ideal definition of family. Families contribute to the socialization of people and echo what is valued in society, making families a public institution for societal values.

"A ruled piece of white paper with a crude trophy drawn on it. The bowl of the trophy has a picture of a load of bread on it, and the stand has the word 'winner' on it."

The meanings and understandings of families can be seen through different theoretical lenses. A structural functionalist lens shows how families can be connected to society through large-scale interactions reinforcing what constitutes the ideal family. This idea of family is related to and supports oppressions such as capitalism, patriarchy, and racism. For example, there is the perfect definition of a family where the wife stays at home, cooks, cleans, and takes care of the children without being paid to do so, where as the husband works to make money and financially support that family. Here capitalism interrelates with patriarchy. It is important to note that while patriarchy is a system that generally enables men to survive and thrive relatively better than women and other marginalized people, patriarchy is also harmful to men. Men’s social roles include being seen as “breadwinners”; rates for serious injury at work are higher for men than women in most occupations, and men are more likely to work in industries with high rates of injury.[1]

With a symbolic interactionist lens, ideas about families can be seen in minor, small interactions that do not get much attention. Examples of this can be seen in gendered divisions of labour in the family, and reinforcement of approved values through verbal exchanges. The ideal vision of family allows certain people to succeed and thrive based on their gender, sex, sexuality, race, and class. It is important to use an intersectional lens when analyzing the concept of families because families can support oppressions people experience due to race, gender, and class.


: conceptual values for how a family should function, as well as the ideal vision of what a family should be
: the theory that a society is comprised of various social structures that work together to provide stasis and stability
: the theory that social meanings emerge in microsocial negotiations



  1. See https://www.ccohs.ca/genderhealth/

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

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