Unit 1: Course Notes
Diversity of Family Structures in Canada
There are over 33 million people, who live in Canada and as of September 19,
2007, we had 8,896,840 families (Statistics Canada). When we think of families
today, we often think of diverse family structures and have many names to
describe and distinguish what we think of as important differences.
1. "Nuclear" families composed of two parents and their one or more
biological or adopted children, living together - when the nuclear family
was led by a male wage-earner, it wa s the conventional family of the
1950's, although now it is only one of many types of family;
2. "Extended" families composed of parents, children, aunts, uncles,
grandparents and other blood relatives living together, or not;
3. "Step-families" or "blended" or "recombined" or "reconstituted"
families composed of parents who hav e divorced their first spouses,
remarried someone else and formed a new family that includes
children from one or both first marriages, and/or from the remarriage;
4. "Childless" families consisting of a couple;
5. "Lone-parent" families composed of a parent, most often a mother,
with a child or children;
6. "Cohabitating couples" and "common law marriages" - family
arrangements that rese mble other forms, but without legalized
7. "Traditional" families - a confusing term that reflects the changing
nature of Canadian families in that people tend to use it to refer to
their own families, or to the family type that they have encountered
8. "Same sex" families consisting of two partners of the same sex and,
possibly, natural or adopted children of one or both partners.
Source: The Vanier Institute of the family and Canada Committee for the International Year of
the Family (1994). Canadian families, p. 4.
According to Statistics Canada, Family Structure refers to the classification of
census families into:
1. Married couples and common-law (same-sex or opposite) couples, with or
without never-married sons or daughters living with them; 2. Lone-parent families: a lone parent, either male or female, living with at
least one never-married son or daughter.
The diversity of family forms and the language we as a culture have come up
with to "name" these family structures reflect the dynamic nature of our socio-
cultural history when it comes to studying the family. It may also reflect the
dynamic nature of people's experience of living in families. However, even with
our increased awareness of this diversity, we may, as students of the "family,"
exaggerate the similarities within each structure while minimizing the similarities
between structures. For example, we may think of all "lone-parent" families as
alike when, in their experience, each lone-parent family may share some similar
experiences with other lone-parent families but they likely have many different
experiences too. As well, a "lone-parent" family may share some similar
experiences with a family that we consider "nuclear."
Analytic Biases in Studying Families
Margrit Eichler (1983, pp. 1-2) identified four pervasive biases in our thinking
about and studying families:
1. Monolithic Bias is the tendency to think of a family structure with an
emphasis on uniformity of experience and a universality of structure and
functions. She reminds us to think about diversity of experiences,
structures, and functions - even when we are thinking about families who
seem to share some obvious similarities. An example of this monolithic
bias is believing that all children in single-parent families are
disadvantaged compared to a two-parent "nuclear" family.
2. Conservative Bias refers to the tendency to largely ignore changes in
socio-cultural institutions such as "family" or to treat apparent changes as
temporary rather than central and fundamental. She identifies several
risks associated with the conservative bias, such as looking at the
dynamics of a "remarriage" family through the same lens as is used to
study families in first marriages; or to ignore the uncomfortable reality of
spousal abuse in families. For example, thinking that co-habitating
couples are just "trying out" their relationship and will "naturally" want to
marry when they decide to have children shows a conservative bias.
3. Sexist Bias is identified as the tendency to assume there is some "natural
differentiation of functions within families" based on sex and that there is a
uniformity of experience for all members of the family regardless of sex.
Believing that all women are better suited to providing care for children
than are men is an example of the sexist bias.
4. Microstructural Bias is a tendency to ignore impacting and explanatoryfactors external to the family and maintain a focus on the isolated, internal
workings of a family when trying to understand and/or explain behaviours
within the family unit. This practice can lead to seeing individual and/or
family characteristics as "the problem" rather than appreciating the larger
cultural and social policy systems that are a family's backdrop. For
example, in an Eastern town with a fisheries economy (in an era when the
fisheries are being shut down) someone with a microstructural bias could
point to a man's "laziness" as the root of the family's poverty, rather than
appreciating the severely depressed regional and local labour market
An Overview of the Study of Couples and Families
There are many disciplines involved in the study of families. In the Department
of Family Relations and Applied Nutrition (FRAN), several disciplines are
represented, such as child development, counselling, education, gerontology,
nutrition, psychology, public health, sociology, and social work. Each discipline
may have a slightly different focus. The foci in the study of families from a child
development perspective may be on growth, learning and personality
development. From a psychological perspective, the foci might involve
interpersonal relationships and adjustment, cognition, and behaviour