The History of the Family

Throughout history, the family has progressed from a union based primarily on its usefulness for production and reproduction, to a union based also on affection. Don't miss this article!
The History of the Family
Paula Villasante

Written and verified by la psicóloga Paula Villasante.

Last update: 17 August, 2021

According to the Royal Spanish Academy, a family is a group of people related to each other, who often live together. The family is one of the most important structures in society, so join with us as we take a fascinating look at the history of the family.

It’s also the first social group we belong to. In most cases, this group accompanies us throughout our lives. This implies taking into account both the positive and negative aspects that it provides us.

In addition to being a central group in our individual lives, the family is also a central group in the life of societies. In the field of social norms, the family is of great importance. Furthermore, many fundamental traditions evolve around the different types of families.

A definition

It’s difficult to give a specific definition of the family, taking into account all the implications that it can have. What seems clear, however, is that the conception of reproductive rights and motherhood is, in the West, the very center of the definition of the family.

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The family is possibly the most relevant relational context for any person. This is true for the following reasons:

  • It’s essential in order to understand your development as a person.
  • It’s critical in order to understand your conflicts.
  • The most intense emotions are often manifested there.
  • It’s one of the main sources of support.
  • And, sadly, it’s also sometimes a place of  hidden violence.

It must also be taken into account that the family is one of the most relevant social groups, socially speaking. That’s why we must realize that it has undergone significant transformations. And, depending on the idea of family, this can affect and create many other social institutions.

Its transformations greatly affect how a society conceives itself. Very different societies often have very different family models as well.

The family as a social group

As we have already mentioned, the family is one of the most relevant social groups. Because of this, its conception as a social group has the following characteristics:

  • Duration: It’s the only group that virtually requires membership for life.
  • Intergenerational: It isn’t a group of equals. The bonds of dependency between generations are crucial for their survival.
  • Biological and affiliative relationships: The act that creates family ties is biological: birth, motherhood, and fatherhood.
  • Kinship relationships: The family is at the center of broader social relationships.

The ‘institutionalization’ of the modern conjugal family

The concept of family has gone through various phases during history:

Sexual promiscuity

In this phase, men and women would have sexual relations with numerous people from the rest of the group without any social norm prohibiting or morally censuring it.

  • The children would be common to the group, not specific to a father and mother
  • The mother would be the only true relative
  • There would be open relationships
  • The basic social organization would be the tribe or the clan, not the family

The consanguineous family

This is the first stage of what we could consider as family. Sexual promiscuity would now be frowned upon by parents and children.

  • The figure of the true father appears; that is, the link between sexuality and reproduction.
  • The first preservation of the children is given. Incest becomes taboo.
  • Sex between siblings is still allowed.
  • The basic social organization begins to be the family.
  • Children, and behavior towards them, become the nucleus of the social representation of the family.
  • Biological ties are starting to become more important.

The ‘panalúa’ family

‘Panalúa’ is a term of Hawaiian origin, which refers to the prohibition of sexual promiscuity between siblings. It enacts the need for exogamy to avoid malformations and diseases.

  • Thus, the roles of biological mother and father are established.
  • There’s a general commitment to group exogamy. Taboos regarding incest are extended to all first and even second-degree consanguineous relationships.
  • The idea that the group, or the tribe, is more important than the marriage continues to remain.

The ‘syndiasmic’ family

In this type of family, the man lives only with one woman. However, polygamy and occasional infidelity outside of marriage are still a ‘right’ for the man:

  • This is the origin of the monogamous marriage of the modern western and ‘westernized’ world.
  • Even so, in this phase, the marital bond is still very easily dissolved. The children belong to the mother most of the time.
  • There’s a clear division of roles. The father provides the food and the woman takes care of the offspring. In case of separation, the man kept the work utensils and the woman the household utensils.

The patriarchal monogamous family

This type of family is born of the previous type. However, it more clearly incorporates the dominance of men over women, which is institutionalized. As a result, women don’t have the same rights as men, institutionally speaking:

  • There’s a clear economic base where they live.
  • The man controls property within the family (patriarchy, in addition to patrilineality).
  • The objective of the family is to procreate children using a secure paternity, for hereditary purposes (perpetuation of the lineage or dynasty).


  • It seems quite probable that the concept of family was born with the social regulation of sexual relations.
  • Throughout history, the family has progressed from a union based primarily on its usefulness for production and reproduction, to a union based also on affection.
  • When affection and love are at the core of the family, it begins to form.

The modern conjugal family

Murdock (1949) analyzed 250 societies and pointed out four universal family functions:

  • Sexual
  • Financial
  • Reproductive
  • Educational/socializing

Current family values

Alberdi proposes the following values in the current family:

  • Solidarity
  • Equality
  • Freedom
  • A revaluation of private areas.
  • The authenticity of feelings.

Thus, these days, men and women have a greater capacity to choose in terms of their ways of life and coexistence. However, more and more emotional commitment and sincerity are required:

  • The partner is increasingly the center of our emotional and personal lives, which is why they’re more vulnerable.
  • Children are no longer a destiny, but a choice. Thus, everything that has to do with them is given greater importance.
  • Childhood takes on greater social importance.
  • The importance of having children is compatible with the growing freedom of not having them.
  • Divorce has become a normal part of social and family life.

Thus, the family can be defined as the closest environment to our affections. It’s an environment made up of a set of biological and social relationships whose raison d’être is mutual affection and care.

To conclude, we must point out that the family still has great value, but its concept has changed. Its democratization has given rise to a great variety of types of families, which equally fulfill emotional and caring functions.

  • Alberdi, I. (1999). La nueva familia española (Vol. 10). Madrid: Taurus.
  • Roussel, L. (1989). La famille incertaine: essai (Vol. 25). Odile Jacob.
  • Veyne, P. (1984). Familia y amor durante el alto imperio romano. Amor, família, sexualidade. Barcelona: Argot.
  • Murdock, G. P. (1949). The nuclear family. Social Structure.

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