The Sociology of the Family Unit

(L - R) Michelle Obama, Malia Obama, President Barack Obama, Sasha Obama family portrait in the Oval Office.

Handout/Handout/Getty Images

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


Within the sociology of the family, there are several key areas of inquiry. These include:

  • Focus on the demographic makeup of families, and how this shifts over time or from place to place. For example, research has found that millennial adults are more likely to live at home with their parents than any other previous generation.
  • How social class affects a family and how the family itself might help or hinder the social mobility of its members.
  • Social dynamics within families, including the specific roles family members play in relation to one another, and what families do together on a daily basis and in the long-term. Those interested in this aspect will be fascinated by the findings of the American Time Use Survey, which took a close look at family dynamics.
  • How social and economic change affects families.
  • How the family as an institution interacts with other institutions and social organizations.
  • The diversity that families and households take.

How do sociologists approach some of these key areas?

Family and Culture

Within the sociology of the family, one area that sociologists examine is the cultural factors that shape family structures and family processes. For example, how gender, age, race, and ethnicity influence family structure, and the relationships and practices within each family. They also look at the demographic characteristics of family members across and within cultures and how they have changed over time.

Family Relationships

Another area studied under the sociology of the family is relationships. This includes the stages of coupling (courtship, cohabitation, engagement, and marriage), relationships between spouses through time, and parenting. 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.

The topic of parenting is a large one. It includes things such as the socialization of children, parental roles, single parenting, adoption and foster parenting, and the roles of children based on gender. Sociological research has found that gender stereotypes influence parenting even when children are at a very young age, and manifests in a gender pay gap for children's chores. Sociologists have also examined whether being in a same-sex couple affects parenting.

Alternative Family Forms

Alternative family forms and singlehood are other topics examined under the sociology of the family. For example, many sociologists study the roles and influence of family members beyond the nuclear family, such as grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, godparents, and surrogate kin. Marital disunions are also studied, as divorce rates have risen over the past several decades.

Family Systems and Other Institutions

Sociologists who study the family also look at how other institutions affect and are affected by family systems. For instance, how is the family affected by religion and how is religion influenced by the family? Likewise, how is the family affected by work, politics, and mass media, and how are each of these institutions affected by the family?


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