The Sociology of the Family Unit

Michelle Obama, Malia Obama, President Barack Obama, Sasha Obama family portrait in the Oval Office

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Sociology of the family is a subfield of sociology in which researchers examine the family as one of several key social institutions and units of socialization. The sociology of the family is a common component of introductory and pre-university academic curricula because the topic makes for a familiar and illustrative example of patterned social relations and dynamics.

Culture of the Family

To consider the sociology of a family, sociologists utilize family culture as the biggest research tool at their disposal. They do this by examining the existing structures and practices of each family to make sense of the pieces of the larger unit. The sociology of a family is founded on many cultural factors that shape its structures and processes, and sociologists must look at these to understand many complexities of the field.

Factors like gender, age, race, and ethnicity are just some of the factors that influence the relationships, structures, and practices within each family. Shifting demographics also tend to affect family culture and sociologists seek to understand why and how.

Family Relationships

Relationships should be closely investigated to better understand family dynamics. The stages of coupling (courtship, cohabitation, engagement, and marriage), relationships between spouses through time and parenting practices and beliefs must all be examined.

These elements of relationships can be approached differently, depending on the goals for research. For example, some sociologists have studied how differences in income between partners influences the likelihood of infidelity, while others have examined how education affects the success rate of marriage. Relational nuances contribute substantially to the sociology of the family.

Parenting is especially significant to the sociology of a family unit. The socialization of children, parental roles, single parenting, adoption and foster parenting, and the roles of children based on gender are each handled differently by every family. Sociological research has found that gender stereotypes influence the parenting of children at a very young age and could even manifest in a gender pay gap for children's chores. Sociologists have also studied the effects of homosexuality on parenting to understand the influence of this type of romantic parental relationship on children. Parenting relationships are deeply important to family culture.

Family Structures

Common and alternative family forms are also leveraged to gain insight into the sociology of the family. Many sociologists study the roles and influence of family members within and beyond the nuclear or immediate family, including grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, godparents, and surrogate kin. Families affected by marital disunions and divorce often have very different dynamics than families with stable, healthy marriages. Singlehood is another structure that is important to study.

Family Systems and Other Institutions

Sociologists who study the family also look at how other institutions and family systems affect each other. The influence of religion on a family is often worth considering and the influence of a family on religion can be equally insightful. Even unreligious and agnostic families often have some spiritual practices. Likewise, sociologists are interested in the way that a family is affected by work, politics, mass media, and the effect of family on each of these.

Overview of Focus Areas

The following gives a brief summary of the technical themes present in the study of the sociology of the family. Understanding each of these concepts makes it possible to understand the sociology of the family.


A focus on the demographic makeup of families and how they shift with time or location is a major point of discussion in the sociology of the family. For example, research in 2019 found that millennial adults were most likely to live at home with their parents in smaller cities than any other generation and were also responsible for increasing racial diversity most within their families.

Social Class

How social class affects a family and how the family itself might help or hinder individual social mobility, or movement through systems of society, is another key topic of discussion in beginning sociology. Disparities not only within a family but between impoverished and wealthy families are often very informative.

Social Dynamics

When researching the sociology of the family, it is important to study familial social dynamics and note the various interactions that take place. This includes looking at the relative roles and routines of family members in a larger unit over a long period of time.

Other Topics

Other topics likely to be covered when exploring the sociology of the family include:

  • How social and economic changes affect families.
  • The diversity of families and households.
  • How family beliefs and principles influence choices and behaviors.

Edited by Nicki Lisa Cole, Ph.D.


Unknown. "American Time Use Survey — 2017 Results." Bureau of Labor Statistics, June 28, 2018, Washington, D.C.

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Crossman, Ashley. "The Sociology of the Family Unit." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Crossman, Ashley. (2021, February 16). The Sociology of the Family Unit. Retrieved from Crossman, Ashley. "The Sociology of the Family Unit." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 31, 2023).