Family can be defined as an organized, dynamic, natural, and social system with critical dimensions for psychosocial analysis such as structure, functions, and influence (Winch, 1963). As an ongoing living and developing system, family members are essentially interconnected and tied to one another by powerful, durable, reciprocal, emotional attachments, and loyalties that may fluctuate in intensity over time but nevertheless persist over the lifetime of the family. Similarly, as an interdependent network of individual forces, the family relates and reacts as a unified whole, a whole that transcends the sum of its separate elements. The family’s interdependence and mutual influence goes beyond what family members do and say to each other when they are together. It also includes the family member’s attitudes and dispositions as well as the patterns of activity that family members engage in when they are apart (Houston & Rempel, 1989).
According to family life cycle theory, family systems must continually adapt to the individual development of its members. Since much of the individual development is incremental, little substantive change in the family is required; rather the simple addition or deletion of behaviors is adequate. In contrast, major developmental thrusts and unexpected circumstances, which usually require a transformation of the status of family members, demand a new repertoire of behavioral sequences, and subsequently require the emergency of a new structural organization. Therefore, a key to adaptive family functioning is the ability to shift internally to accommodate intra- and extra-familiar pressures, while simultaneously maintaining the continuity essential to family cohesion and individual security. In sum, family functioning requires a range of patterns of behavior that can be mobilized for new operations but also requires flexibility to develop alternative patterns of behavior that can be incorporated in time of crisis without disorganization.
Another important dimension of family theory is the concept of family boundaries that represents the “perimeter” of the family. Family boundaries hold together the components that make up the family system, protect them from outside stresses, and control the flow of matter, energy, and information to and from the system itself (Miller, 1978). If boundaries are too permeable, the system loses its integrity and identity. If boundaries are too impermeable, the system is cut off and isolated.
In conclusion, the nature of the family life could be seen as dynamic, fluid, interactional, with members constantly working to achieve the desired ends in the context of ever-changing and emerging family-related values (Mace & Mace, 1978).
Family Internal Organization as a Response to the Sociocultural Context
An understanding of the functioning of any family requires attention be given to the environment in which the family interacts. This includes the neighborhood, peer groups, church, school, and workplace that touch family members directly, as well as the larger political, governmental, and economic situations.
Every family belongs to a defined cultural community by identifying itself with a common group as set off by race, religion, nationality, or by some mixture of these categories that serve as social-psychological referents and create, through historical circumstances, a sense of peoplehood (Gordon, 1964). Consequently, every family is interwoven in a continuous interchange with its own economic and sociocultural environment to accomplish its universal functions or tasks (Bronfenbrenner, 1986).
The family’s four universal functions or tasks are: (a) the function of replacement or reproduction; (b) the function of position conferring by introducing the new member into the ethnic and cultural larger societal group to which the family belongs; (c) the parentifying function–fulfillment of basic physiological and psychological survival needs through nurturance, emotional gratification, and support; and (d) the socialization/enculturation of the offsprings so they can qualify as full members of society (Winch, 1977, p. 108).
Ideally, the relationship between the family and its sociocultural environment involves mutuality and reciprocity, social articulation, and recognition, so it can create a sense of belonging and of historical continuity for the family and its members. The environment should provide the protection, security, support, and supplies that will enhance family functioning. Therefore, when these resources are inadequate, the results may be stress and conflict within the family and failure in the individual development of its members.
The way in which a family is organized is determined by the way people make their living, that is, by the mode(s) of subsistence and the related technology (Winch, 1977). Consequently, in response to its sociocultural environment, all families develop some type of internal structure that serves as the family’s organizational framework. This framework is a manifestation of the values of the cultural group to which the family belongs and is responsible for developing culturally typical procedures and relationships that will make it possible for the family to achieve its goals and actualize its potential. Family structure can be defined as the set of rules, roles, power distribution, specific forms of communicating, and ways of negotiating and problem solving. The interactions that define the internal organization of every familial group also serve to maintain the integrity and balance of the family system as a whole.
Some characteristics of the family structure are: (a) it gives to each family its identity, unity, and stability; (b) it regulates and facilitates family members’ psychosocial development, and family members’ coping mechanisms to deal effectively with stress, as well as facilitates family fulfillment of its own tasks as a family; and (c) in the presence of external stress or unexpected crisis, the family structure develops and arranges itself into a functional group to jointly perform family-related functions, preserve the family values, and transmit their behaviors.
Finally, since family structures as an adaptive response of the family to the sociocultural system and to the historical circumstances in which it is embedded, it is expected that family structure changes its power structure, rules, and role relationships in response to situational and developmental stress (Olson, Russell, & Sprenkle, 1983).
(*) This article is based on the Qualitative Study of the Acculturative Process of Immigrant Hispanic Parents. Marquez (2000). Doctoral Dissertation.