Family and relationships are important to most people, yet because they seem "natural" or are taken for granted, many people rarely think of them as an area of study and professional practice. Family studies is a multidisciplinary examination of families, their characteristics, their behaviours and their roles in society. Characteristics can include family structure and membership, and patterns of affiliation and inclusion that make families different from each other. To a native Canadian, for example, "family" includes grandparents, in contrast to other Canadian families who view family as composed of only 2 generations, parents and children.
Behaviours of families could include how they share housework, how they budget their money, how they provide affection and nurturing to each of their members, and many activities of family life. Families' roles in society have been discussed by politicians, professionals and families themselves for decades. Are families responsible for children's education and well-being or is the state? Is the family the foundation of society or is it one of many social institutions in which individuals have their needs met?
In Canada, information on families and family life is gathered and distributed by a variety of agencies. Statistics Canada, through its censuses, and provincial governments, through the collection of vital statistics (births, deaths, marriages, divorces) provide extensive information about the broader picture of Canadian family life. The Vanier Institute of the Family has been active in documenting many of the issues and ideologies that affect Canadian families. Many specific studies on various aspects of family and family relationships are carried out by university and college students and faculty, and by agencies or task forces specifically focused on the concerns of families.
The impact of changing family forms as a result of increased rates of divorce and remarriage has been the focus of much of the attention paid to the family in recent years. Concerns about the economic situation of single parent families, the effect of divorce on children, and the rights and responsibilities of divorced parents are examples of issues that have been addressed by popular press, by advocacy groups and by academics (see MARRIAGE AND DIVORCE). Families are intimately involved in and affected by local, regional and national economies, and the effect on families and family life of new economic policies of governments which are focused on deficit reduction are a new area of study.
Many studies on families by social scientists have had a direct application to programs offered in elementary and high school programs, including sex education, substance abuse education, and career and family life management.
Family studies are offered as a specialization in some colleges and universities, most often in Canada in the new discipline of Human Ecology. While some of these programs have in the past reflected a traditional conservative view of family life, most offer a program of study that mirrors the realities of family life in Canada today, with increasing emphasis on understanding family violence, the challenges that a wide variety of families face, and gender relations within families.
The recognition that it is within families that much individual and interpersonal pathology begins underlines the importance of understanding the potentials and the problems inherent in modern family life. It has also created a new interest in therapeutic interventions in families by professionals in SOCIAL WORK, PSYCHOLOGY, psychiatry and family medicine.