Question Precious Social Sciences

Domestic Fluidity and the Family

What is meant by the term

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In sociology, the term “family” is often used as a convenient, statistical descriptor for units based on kinship. The concept of a nuclear family unit, consisting of one married couple with dependent children, was once considered as a norm in Western societies, and it was based on gendered assumptions about males as breadwinners and females as carers and unpaid, domestic workers (Seekings, 2008). This construct does not, however, reflect the much more flexible arrangements that people now have in Western societies, and have always had in other settings. There is no current consensus on how to define the family, whether at the theoretical or the practical level (Settles, 1999). The term “domestic fluidity” was coined because of the inadequacies of this generalised, and often idealised concept of the family, and the limitations of alternative terms such as “household”. It recognises the dynamic nature of relationships (Gillies, 2011). Many people go through several life stages, and their living arrangements can very easily change from one category to another. Some people maintain a dual household in which they “maintain separate living quarters but spend several days and nights at a ‘friend’s’ residence” (Teachman, Polonko and Scanzoni, 2013, p. 27). The term “domestic fluidity” accurately reflects human experiences, but it is a broad concept that does not match earlier taxonomies. It is open to interpretation and can cover a wide range of practices. This challenges the clear, statistical definitions that are relied upon in census documentation, for example. Researchers who use the concept of domestic fluidity can no longer maintain methodological consistency with earlier studies, and so their work cannot easily be used for comparison or for measuring long term trends. Domestic fluidity highlights the necessary limitations of statistical representations of complex, social realities which are bound to change over time.


Gillies, V. (2011) From function to competence: Engaging with the new politics of family. Sociological Research Online 16(4), p. 1. Available at: [Accessed 21 July 2016].
Seekings, J. (2008) Beyond ‘fluidity’: kinship and households as social projects. CSSR Working Paper No 237. Cape Town: University of Cape Town.
Settles, B. H. (1999) Definitions of the family: Professional and personal issues. Marriage and Family Review 28(3-4), pp. 209-224.
Teachman, J. D., Polonko, K. A. and Scanzoni, J. (2013) Demography of the family. In M. B. Sussman and S. K. Steinmetz (Eds.), Handbook of Marriage and the Family. New York and London: Plenum Press, pp. 3-36.