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Социология Composition: What Is the Family?
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Learning Objectives

Looking Ahead


This unit starts considering sociological analysis of the major social institutions. First, it focuses on the family and its importance as a cultural universal. Particular attention is given to the functions of the family. Then the unit presents religion and the world's major religious faiths. The basic functions of religion are explored and different sociological approaches to studying religion are introduced. Finally, the unit analyzes the process of secularization in modern industrial society on the one hand, and the increasing influence of religion within contemporary human life on the other hand.

After studying this unit you should be able to answer the following questions:

1. Are all families necessarily composed of a husband, a wife, and their children?

2. How do societies vary in the way that power within the family is distributed?

3. What functions does the family perform for society?

4. What are the basic forms of religious organization? Which of them prevails in modern industrial society and why?

5. What sociological approaches to the functions of religion are known? Why did Karl Marx view religion as a form of social control within an oppressive society?

6. Will religion survive despite the process of secularization?

The family as a social institution is present in all cultures.A family can be defined as a set of persons related by blood, marriage (or some agreed-upon relationship) or adoption who share the primary responsibility for reproduction and caring for members of society. Although the organization of the family can very greatly, there are certain general principles concerning its composition, descent patterns, residence patterns, and authority patterns.

In human society the family has traditionally been viewed in very narrow terms — as a married couple and their unmarried children living together. However, this is but one type of family, what sociologists refer to asa nuclear family upon which larger family groups are built. But only a certain part of households will fit this model. A family in which relatives other than parents and children — such as grandparents, aunts and uncles — live in the same home is know asan extended family. While not common, such living arrangements do exist. The structure of the extended family offers certain advantages. Crises, such as death, divorce, and illness involve less strain for family members, since there are more individuals who can provide assistance and emotional support. In addition, the extended family constitutes a larger economic unit than the nuclear family. If the family is engaged in a common enterprise — for example, running a farm or a small business — the additional family members may represent the difference between prosperity and failure.

In considering these differing family types, we have limited ourselves to the term of marriage which is calledmonogamy. The term monogamy describes a form of marriage in which one woman and one man are married only to each other. Some observers, noting a high rate of divorce in modern society, have suggested a more accurate term«serial monogamy» under which a person is allowed to have several spouses in his or her life but can have only one spouse at a time.

Some cultures allow an individual to have several husbands or wives simultaneously. This form of marriage is knownas polygamy. You may be surprised to learn that most societies throughout the world, past and present, have exhibited a preference for polygamy, not monogamy. Polygamy cultures devalue the social worth of women.