The Cultural Dimensions of Family

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Carrie Steckl earned her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology with a Minor in Gerontology from Indiana University – Bloomington in 2001. She has spent over ...Read More

When you think of your “family,” who do you include? Your current nuclear family, which might include your spouse or partner and your children, if you have any? Or do you think of your family as also including your parents, siblings, and their nuclear families? Perhaps you go further than that and consider grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and more as your family. Still others have friends and neighbors whom they consider family even though they are not related by blood.

Over time, social and cultural norms have changed and families have become more geographically spread apart. As a result, additional conceptions of family emerged. Family structure has also been found to be highly influenced by socioeconomic status, perhaps because this affects the level of need for reciprocal support and resources. Here are some sociological definitions of family that describe current family structures.

  • Modified extended family. This is a family structure acknowledging that although relatives live in separate households, often at great distance from each other, there are strong bonds of affection and support between them. Modified extended families are extremely common these days.
  • Generations. This word has multiple meanings. But in the context of the family, generations are described as “lineage descent” positions. Grandparent, parent, child, etc. are all clearly recognizable roles connecting individuals of various ages into one family. A rising interest in genealogy – the study of family history and the development of family trees – adds a new dimension to the meaning of generations to the family structure.
  • Fictive kinship. Have you ever granted someone who is technically unrelated to you the title and rights of a family member? I certainly have. I have a “sister” who is not related to me by blood, but I love her like a sister and consider her one. The idea of fictive kin demonstrates the diversity among families that is partially influenced by race, culture, and ethnicity. Research has shown that African American families are more likely to establish fictive kinship with close members of their social circles (e.g., a fellow church member or neighbor becomes an “aunt”). Fictive kin can be truly valuable in providing social, emotional, and practical support.
  • Surrogate family relationships. These occur when family members or others take on an active role responsibility by replacing an absent parent, child, or caregiver. Surrogate family relationships are a little different from fictive kin in two ways. First, the surrogate can be a biological family member who is simply taking on an additional role (e.g., an aunt takes on the role of an absent mother). Second, the surrogate is replacing a role that was previously occupied as opposed to becoming an additional family member.

Now that you have these concepts at your disposal, how would you define your family? There is no right or wrong answer, but it’s helpful to know this in the context of nurturing and strengthening family relationships.


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Morgan, L. A., & Kunkel, S. R. (2011). Aging, society, and the life course (4th ed.). Springer: New York.

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