Family Diversity Essay

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Historically, the term family diversity referred to variations from a traditional family. This implied that there was one best type of family, and that all other family types were dysfunctional and deviant. In a more contemporary view, family diversity refers to a broad range of characteristics or dimensions on which families vary, along with a recognition that there are a multitude of different family types that function effectively. Family diversity thus  refers  to  variations  along  structural or demographic dimensions (e.g., race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status), as well as in family processes (e.g., communication and parenting behaviors).

Family living arrangements in the USA and throughout much of the world are considerably more diverse, pluralistic, and fluid than they were just a few decades ago. We have witnessed profound demographic changes, including longer life expectancy, postponed marriage and childbearing, dramatic increases in both childbearing and child-rearing outside of marriage, and substantial growth of singlehood, cohabitation, divorce, and remarriage. As a result, there has been a sharp increase in the visibility of diverse family forms such as single-parent (mostly single-mother) families, step-families, households headed by gays and lesbians, and families living in poverty. These changes have stirred considerable debate surrounding the definition of family. For example, do two cohabiting adults and their dependent children constitute a family? Are they still a family without the presence of children in the household? What if the two adults are gay or lesbian?

Beginning in the middle of the twentieth century, a strong value was attached to a ”benchmark” family type in the United States, or what is commonly termed the ”traditional” nuclear family. Following World War II, rapid social changes including men returning to the labor force, a post-war economic boom, an increasing standard of living, increases in marriage and birth rates, and a decline in the divorce rate supported a set of values and beliefs that privileged the two biological parent, male breadwinner, female homemaker family. Although families of the 1950s often are viewed with nostalgia, evidence shows that many traditional families were characterized by severe inequities, male dominance, men’s overinvolvement in work and underinvolvement in family activities, wife abuse, and alcoholism. Since then, changing historical contexts and powerful social movements (e.g., civil rights, women’s rights, gay and lesbian liberation, and men’s movements) have been associated with the establishment of a wide variety of family forms, making the diversity of families more visible and normative, and spurring debates over the future of marriage and whether there is one best type of family.


  1. Fine, M. A. (eds.), Handbook of Family Diversity. Oxford University Press, New York, pp. 15-31.
  2. Patterson, C. J. (2000) Family relationships of lesbians and gay men. Journal of Marriage and the Family 62: 1052-69.

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