4160.0 - Measuring Wellbeing: Frameworks for Australian Social Statistics, 2001  
ARCHIVED ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 12/10/2001   
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Contents >> Chapter 3: Family and Community >> Defining family and community

Defining family and community


While a family is commonly thought of as a group of people who are related through blood or marriage, there is an enormous amount of variation and diversity in the way in which families are structured and function. Like every individual, every family is unique. Family can refer to a large extended network of people, which may be spread across countries, or to a small number of people residing in the same dwelling. Family structures and traditions also differ widely across different cultures. However, a theme common across the many perceptions of what family means is the understanding that a family looks after its members. Family can therefore be defined in terms of functions. Some of the core functions of a family are the exchange of love, affection and companionship; day-to-day nurture and care; economic security; a sense of identity and belonging; and guidance on commonly held social values.

Care and guidance functions take place within the family across the life cycle, beginning with parents (and sometimes grandparents) caring for children, and ending with children caring for parents. There is the day-to-day care of the household, whereby members contribute to the provision of food and clothing for one another, and to maintaining the family's physical environment. There is the more intensive care involved in looking after young children, or family members with short or longer term illnesses or disabilities. The emotional care and psychological support provided by families is also fundamental to individual wellbeing. The care needs of a family are often highly age related. For families with children, young infants need 24 hour care each day, formal childcare may be needed to supplement parental care for toddlers, and older children need support in their pursuit of both formal and wider education. For families with older people, caring revolves around whether these older family members have disabilities, what types of disabilities these are, and the extent to which they restrict activity.

While a family's primary function is to care for its members, families can be vulnerable to varying degrees of dysfunction. Individual families may be able to care for their members to differing levels of success, at different times in their life cycle. The level to which families are able to fulfil the role of caring for family members is a major focus of statistics in this area of concern.


Although composed of individuals, the family can be seen as an entity in its own right, because family members have a sense of obligation toward one another and perform functions of care and support that are intimately binding. The wellbeing of the family per se is therefore of interest, and can be usefully measured using a family counting unit. The ABS family counting unit is currently based on people who are both related and co-resident. This is still predominantly the group that is most significant to an individual, and is also the family group targeted by key family support services. However, there may be important caring connections that lie outside this definition. For example, some people (e.g. children or older parents) may be financially dependent on relatives they are not living with, or be predominantly cared for by those relatives. These connections are often difficult to clearly and consistently identify, but information about them can usefully supplement data based on the standard counting unit. The important caring relationships surrounding children whose parents live separately may also need to be identified through tailored question modules rather than through the standard family counting unit. (Further definition and discussion of the family counting unit are provided later on in this chapter in the 'Frameworks' section).


The term 'community' also refers to an inter-connected group of people who can influence one another's wellbeing - however, an individual's community is usually considered to be broader than the people with whom they live or have immediate family ties. Communities are commonly thought of as being groups of people living within particular geographical areas, such as cities or rural towns and their surrounding areas, but there is no particular geographic criteria that are widely used to set limits in defining a community. Indeed, the choice of area depends on the focus of interest and can vary in scale from the global to the neighbourhood level. The use of geographical areas to help define communities recognises that people are connected by the habitat in which they live (both the natural and built environments) and that they often have common concerns about the quality of their habitats (e.g. the quality of the environment, the range of services available in the area, and so on). A commonly used and apt way of choosing areas that define communities is to choose those that accord with areas of governance. Thus, in Australia, people in particular Local Government Areas (LGAs) or States and Territories, and those that form the population at large, may all be seen as communities, not only because the people in these areas have a common area of residence but because they share regulations, laws, rights and obligations relating to a wide range of matters.

There are other connections between people which are not geographically based but which indicate the existence of communities. These include connections relating to shared values, traditions and lifestyles. Thus, people with a shared culture or heritage such as groups of Indigenous people, people belonging to religious groups, or groups of people born in particular countries who maintain associations with each other, are often viewed as belonging to a community. Communities may also be defined in terms of people with a shared set of interests or activities, for example, 'school communities' or 'arts communities'. Notwithstanding the many possible connections between people that may be used to define communities, there is an important sense that the wellbeing of the members of a community is influenced by their connections to others.

Like the family, a community may be an important source of support and care for individuals, and individuals can gain a sense of identity and security from belonging to a community. The organisations and institutions surrounding and supporting a community (e.g. political, business, educational, religious, welfare and other institutions) provide work and education opportunities, infrastructures for health care and leisure pursuits, the opportunity for companionship, and also provide a means for delivering guidance on, and shaping, social values. Statistics about the community are most often needed to inform debate and policy centred on the capacity of the community at large to care for members, and on how that capacity can be improved. There are various levels of community within the social environment. Although there are not always clear cut boundaries between these, some basic groupings, which align with the transaction model of communities presented in Chapter 1, are described below.


Some community care functions are so important to social wellbeing they have become institutionalised. For instance, health care is provided through hospitals, and education through schools and universities, the criminal justice system protects citizens and ensures the predominance of law and order, and the cultural life of the nation is preserved and promoted through heritage and other cultural institutions. It has become a core obligation of governments to provide and maintain these institutions. Governments also have an obligation to assist people to gain sufficient income, and achieve this in part through promoting labour market activity which can provide people with employment opportunities. This level of community and government activity can be broadly described as formal, and is covered by the areas of social concern that are the subjects of the following chapters of this book.

There is also a non-institutional, but still highly organised, or formal, network of support and care supplied by groups and organisations such as charitable bodies, clubs, community associations, support groups and businesses. These groups may operate in conjunction with the institutions mentioned above, but are not usually essential to them. Parents and citizens associations operate within schools but are separate, self-funded bodies; charitable organisations cooperate with government relief programs but are independently run. Such groups make an enormous collective contribution to society, through supporting schools, nursing homes, young people, people with disabilities, older people, families and communities.


There are also many community transactions that are not planned or organised but occur within the society on a daily basis and contribute to support and care functions in ways that are significant but difficult to quantify. Day-to-day interactions between people in a community build relationships that mean people are more willing to assist each other in times of need (e.g. interactions between neighbours or between retailers in local shopping centres and their customers). More significant relationships may be built between work mates, or people using the same childcare or medical facilities. Interactions such as these can also build networks that assist individuals to gain information or make other connections of value to them. Libraries and other public places can be important meeting places; for example, shopping malls can be central to the social networks within which young people operate. There is increasing awareness of the importance of this level of community activity and a number of ways in which these interactions can be measured. These measures link closely with emerging interest in social capital and how it can be defined, constructed, repaired and maintained.

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