1. On the basis of authority:
On the basis of authority, families can be divided into patriarchal families and matriarchal families.
(a) Patriarchal families:
In a patriarchal family, the male head has all the inclusive powers and is instrumental in taking all the decisions on behalf of the family. He is the administrator of the family and presides over all the religious rites of the family. He also acts as the protector and the ruler of the family, enjoying full authority over all the family members.
In the olden days, this type of family was prevalent amongst the Hebrews, the Greeks, the Romans and the Aryans of India. The Old Testament contains several descriptions of such families, such as those of Abraham, Jacob and Isaac.
In ancient Athens, the wives and daughters of the family were confined to ‘women’s apartments’ and were not allowed to go out without the permission of the patriarch. Likewise, it is said that ancient China followed the practice of tying the feet of women, signifying that they were not free to leave their household.
In Vedic times, the Indian family was strongly patriarchal. The father exercised supreme power over his wife and children, who could not even own any property. The wife had to endure a position of total subordination and was subject to the will of her husband in all matters.
It was the duty of every girl to obey her father before marriage, her husband after marriage, and her son after widowhood. In recent times, of course, things have changed and there is a strong and sustained movement towards gender equality in India.
The chief characteristics of a patriarchal family are:
i. After marriage, the wife comes to live in the husband’s and in-laws’ home.
ii. The father is the supreme lord of the family property.
iii. Descent is reckoned through the father, and the children are known by the name of the family of the father.
iv. The children often inherit the property of the father only.
(b) Matriarchal families:
In a matriarchal family, it is the mother who is the supreme commander of the family. She is the ruler of the family and also the owner of the family property. Such types of families prevailed amongst the most primitive tribes who led a wandering life.
The father went hunting for the family and came home irregularly, staying away from the family for long periods of time. His absence naturally made the woman rule the family, and she came to possess complete authority over all the members of the family.
This type of family prevailed in many parts of the world, as for instance, amongst the Red Indians of North America. Today, this type of family is to be found amongst the Naris in Kerala and the Garos and Khasis in Assam.
2. On the basis of structure:
On the basis of structure, families can be classified into nuclear families, extended families and joint families.
A nuclear family is the smallest composite family unit. It consists of the husband, his wife (or wives, where permitted by law) and the children. The children leave their parental household as soon as they are married. A nuclear family is completely free from the control of elders, and the parents take decisions all the time without any hindrance.
As newly-weds start their own nuclear family, such a family is an autonomous unit, free from the control of their parents and other elders. Its separate residence ensures a physical distance between the parents and their married children. The typical American family is a good example of a nuclear family.
Some authors have singled out eight possible relationships in nuclear families, namely,-
i. Husband and wife
ii. Father and son
iii. Father and daughter
iv. Mother and son
v. Mother and daughter
vi. Brother and brother
vii. Brother and sister
viii. Sister and sister.
An extended family comes into existence on a merger of two or more nuclear families. A large extended family may include a man and his wife (or wives, where permitted by law), their unmarried daughters, married sons and the sons’ wives along with their unmarried children.
A typical case of an extended family is where the nuclear families of the married sons are merged into the nuclear family of their parents. An extended family may live together in the same house or may occupy a cluster of houses within the same locality.
Two important characteristics distinguish a nuclear family from an extended family. Firstly, an extended family is continuous, whereas a nuclear family is not. A nuclear family comes to an end when one of the parents dies. Secondly, a nuclear family is a separate and independent unit, which is run by the husband and wife. In contrast, an extended family is run by the patriarch and the married sons have little or no say in decision-making. Even after marriage, the son of an extended family often continues to be regarded as a child – or at best, a married child.
A joint family is a form of an extended family. It consists of two or more primary families, whose members are blood relatives or close kins. Such a family often consists of three or more generations, namely, the older parents, their sons, the wives of the sons and their children. All such persons live under one roof, eat food of the same kitchen, hold property in common and participate jointly in worship and religious ceremonies. A Hindu undivided family (HUF) is a typical example of a joint family.
3. On the basis of residence:
On the basis of residence, families can be classified as follows:
i. Matrilocal family:
In this type of family, the husband goes to live in the house of his wife after marriage.
ii. Patrilocal family:
Here, the wife goes to the husband’s family and resides there after marriage.
iii. Bi-local residence family:
Here, a married couple can choose to live either with the wife’s parents or with the husband’s parents.
iv. Avunculocal residence family:
In this type of family, the married couple lives with the husband’s maternal uncle, namely, the brother of the husband’s mother.
v. Neo-local family:
Here, the husband and wife live in separate residences, which are usually close to their respective jobs. This type of families are to be found today in the west, where for instance, an American husband lives in one state (where he has a job), whereas the wife lives in another state (where she has a job).
The husband may come and spend some days, as for instance, a weekend at the wife’s house, and vice versa. Such families are also sometimes referred to as “changing residence families”, as neither the husband nor the wife lives permanently with the other spouse.
4. On the basis of marriage:
On the basis of marriage, families can be divided into monogamous, polygamous and polyandrous families. In a monogamous family, neither the husband nor the wife can marry again in the lifetime of his or her spouse (as for instance, amongst Christians, Parsees and Hindus after the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955). In a polygamous form of family, the husband is allowed to have more than one wife at the same time (as for instance, amongst Muslims). In a polyandrous family, the wife is allowed to have more than one husband at the same time.
5. On the basis of ancestry or lineage:
On the basis of ancestry or lineage, families can be divided into patrilineal and matrilineal families. The terms ‘ancestry’ and ‘descent’ signify descent in one line from a common ancestor or ancestress. In a patrilineal family, the father is the basis of ancestry and this is the most common type of family in several parts of the world today. In a matrilineal family, on the other hand, the basis of ancestry is the mother ‘ and the rights of every member of the family depend on such member’s relationship with the mother.
The term ‘patriline” literally means ‘father’s line’. One’s patriline is one’s father, his father, his father’s father and so on. Patrilineality (or genetic kinship, as it is sometimes referred to) is a system in which a person belongs to his father’s lineage. The person uses his father’s surname and inherits property and titles from the male line.
The agnatic ancestry of a person is thus the pure male ancestry of that person. An agnate is a person’s genetic relative exclusively through males, a kinsman with whom he has a common ancestor by descent in an unbroken male line.
On the other hand, matrilineality is a system in which descent is traced through the mother and maternal ancestors. It is a social system where a person belongs to this matriline or mother’s lineage and which involves the inheritance of property and titles through the mother. In this system of descent, a person is considered to belong to the same descent group as his or her mother.
Today, although most cultures follow the patrilineal line of descent, matrilineality prevails in some tribes like the Hopi, Cherokee and Navajo tribes of North America, the Basques of France and Spain, the Nairs and Bunts of Kerala and Karnataka and the Garos of Meghalaya.
It is interesting to see that the South Indian family structure is part- based on the principles of matrilineal inheritance and succession. Even when this not so, as amongst the Brahmins, one notices distinct traces of the matrilineal family structure in the current patrilineal system. Such marks of survival are easily seen in the position accorded to the mother’s brother, puberty rites for girls and the religious concepts revolving around the figure of the mother-goddess.
Significantly, even in Greek mythology, although the royal function was distinctly a male privilege, the devolution of power often came through the female line and the future king inherited power by marrying the queen heiress. This is amply reflected in the works of Homer, where we see all the nobles of Greece lined up to vie for the hand of Helen (and thereby, for the throne of Sparta) and the story of Oedipus, who marries the widow of the late king to assume the Theban kingship.
6. On the basis of in-group and out-group affiliation:
On the basis of in-group and out-group affiliation, families can be looked at as being an endogamous family or an exogamous family. In the former, marriage is sanctioned amongst members of the in-group. In an exogamous family, marriage is sanctioned only if it is with a member of an out-group.
7. On the basis of blood relationships:
On the basis of blood relationships, families can be said to be conjugal or consanguineous. A conjugal family consists of spouses, their offspring and relatives through marriage. On the other hand, a consanguineous family consists of blood relatives, together with their mates and children.