Sociology of Family

Sociology of family is the area devoted to the study of family as an institution central to social life. The basic assumptions of the area include the universality of family, the inevitable variation of family forms, and the necessity of family for integrating individuals into social worlds. Family sociology is generally concerned with the formation, maintenance, growth, and dissolution of kinship ties and is commonly expressed in research on courtship and marriage, childrearing, marital adjustment, and divorce. These areas of research expanded in the twentieth century to encompass an endless diversity of topics related to gender, sexuality, intimacy, affection, and anything that can be considered to be family related.

A recognizable, modern sociology of family emerged from several different family studies efforts of the nineteenth century. Early anthropologists speculated that family was a necessary step from savagery to civilization in human evolution. Concentrating on marital regulation of sexual encounters, and debating matriarchy versus patriarchy as the first enduring family forms, these explanations framed family studies in terms of kinship and defined comprehensive categories of family relations. In consideration of endogamy, exogamy, polygamy, polyandry, and monogamy, these efforts also fostered discussion of the best or most evolved family forms, with most commentators settling on patriarchy and monogamy as the high points of family evolution.

Nineteenth century sociologists such as Herbert Spencer and William Sumner adopted evolutionary views of family and made use of anthropological terms, but discussions of best family types gave way to considering the customs, conventions, and traditions of family life. The evolutionary view of family pushed sociology toward the pragmatic vision of the family as adaptable to surrounding social conditions. And sociology’s emphases on populations, societies, and the institutions embedded within them allowed the observation that American and European families were rapidly changing in response to the challenges of modern society.

Another important development in early family sociology resulted from the growing distinction of sociology from religion, charity, and activism. Commentaries of the middle and late nineteenth century warned urgently of the social problems of divorce and abandonment – citing individualism, easy morals, and lax divorce laws for a breakdown of family. Family advocates saw such decline as a sure cause of more social calamities and sought reliable social data and solutions. While sociologists of the day were concerned with social pathologies, they were also working to establish sociology as an objective, scientific discipline. Scientific work on family issues specifically had already been completed. Shortly after the US Census Bureau published a report on marriage and divorce statistics in 1889, Walter Willcox completed The Divorce Problem: A Study in Statistics (1891). This study presented the family as a strong, flexible institution, and linked divorce to social conditions. Casting family change as a dependent variable and subjecting divorce to demographic analysis were two strong indicators of an emerging science of family that would be relatively independent from moral concerns. This type of analysis also satisfied scientific urges to predict and explain.

Interest in the properties of family as an institution, and the incidental necessity of describing family for other sociological work, contributed to the development of scientific, sociological approaches as well. This was shown in the breadth and scope of Thomas and Znanieki’s The Polish Peasant in Europe and America (1929). The family as a socializing agency, the pressures of urbanization and industrialization on family, the effects of immigration, and the problems of migration from rural to urban life were all addressed in The Polish Peasant. Thomas and Znaniecki cast the Polish immigrant family as an object for neutral sociological analysis and examined the effects of rapid change and disorganization on the integrity of the family. In these ways the family was revealed as an institution situated in society and subject to social influences.

During the first two decades of the twentieth century, sociological study was seldom devoted exclusively to family. The family as a topic in its own right was still most often the province of social workers concerned with social problems and therapeutic issues. Still, these interests overlapped with sociological concerns about social pathologies and helped to maintain general, academic interest in a scientific sociology of family. In the 1920s the land mark accomplishments for sociology of family included the first American Sociological Association sessions on family and the development of a section on family in the journal Social Forces. At the University of Chicago, Ernest Burgess elaborated the properties of family as a collection of interacting individuals, and encouraged a commitment to prediction and explanation in all of sociology including the area of family. This further distinguished sociological family research from the concerns of activists and social workers, and by the end of the decade a fully formed, scientific sociology of family was visible in textbooks, class rooms, and scholarly journals.

During the institution building phase (Maines 2001) of sociology up to World War II, sociology was empirical, quantitative, and theoretical. Family sociology was compatible with abiding, understandable variables in sociology such as race, class, and religion, and topics associated with family sociology multi plied rapidly in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. Sociological research on family investigated rural, urban, and black families, explored the impact of the Depression, observed the migration of families from the country to the city, and described the characteristics of single parent families. Much of this work presented families in structure and process (as in the roles of grandparents and the process of grand parenting), types of families (like military families), internal dynamics such as decision making or emotional conflict, or basic life processes such as housing and employment. Many more topics were developing, of course, and research continued on the topics that had come to represent family sociology – courtship, marriage, socialization, and divorce. Family sociology grew to be among the largest specialty areas of the discipline during the middle decades of the twentieth century. It was a robust and diverse area. Family sociology also became historical in its orientation to changes, trends, and patterns over time. For example, researchers noted a constant increase in the percentage of marriages ending in divorce and linked the increases to changes in economy, law, and the changing roles of women who were entering the workforce in increasing numbers. Family sociology was comparative within and between cultures. It compared families by race, geography, income, and occupation in the United States, and as the sociological community became more global, American sociologists conducted more international family comparisons and American journals published significant international work. As was much of American sociology at mid century, family was relentlessly empirical, demographic, and quantitative. The known and understood areas of family such as marriage, fertility, and divorce were particularly amenable to statistical analysis.

Although the popularity of family sociology was represented in a large body of empirical research, the theoretical contributions of family sociologists were relatively narrow. The commitment to an explanatory and predictive family sociology first expressed by Burgess came to be represented by a sociology of straightforward, testable propositions and quantitative descriptions of phenomena. For example, family sociologists might be interested in measuring the effects of divorce on the school performance of children, determining the influence of birth order on personality, or collecting the personal traits of the ideal mate. Family theory aimed at phenomena no more general than family roles, organization, life cycles, and the like. While theoretical work tended to be topic specific, and did not offer refinements to established sociological perspectives, it was also evident that family sociology was relatively free of the intellectual directives of major schools. Attempts to show how family sociology should be framed by theory were rare; so much so that a 1979 collection by Burr and his associates is still considered particularly noteworthy. Family sociology rather kept pace with advances in descriptive and inferential statistics. Researchers produced thousands of journal articles from the 1950s through the 1980s that were increasingly data driven and quantitative. Half of all articles in the Journal of Marriage and Family were empirical by the end of the 1970s. By the end of the 1980s, 90 percent of Journal of Marriage and the Family articles were empirical (Adams 1988).

Because research and commentary in family sociology are guided more often by topical interests than by gaps in theory, family has been one of the most fluid and open areas of sociology. The open quality of family sociology has widened the array of staple topics to include cohabitation, childlessness, and extra marital sex, to name only a few, and family is clearly among the most responsive specialties to popular and political issues. In the 1980s this was already apparent in the frequency of research enterprises related to policy. Respond ing to conservative shifts in fiscal politics, family sociologists in the US conducted extensive research on the impact of changes in welfare, Medicaid and Medicare, and Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). Family planning, contraception, and abortion policies also received attention during the 1980s in a time of a perceived reactionary cultural cli mate. This attention has persisted as private sector funding sources reevaluate their sup port for family planning agencies, state legislatures tighten abortion restrictions, and contraceptive technologies advance. Real and proposed changes in social security in the late twentieth century have pushed policy research on aging families. Government and business practices associated with a globalizing economy have been scrutinized in recent years. In these and other areas, family sociologists have explored reciprocal effects of family and family policy, considering how changes in family behavior have influenced policies, and how policy changes have affected different types of families.

The large balance of sociological research on family is still as insulated as most professional intellectual activity, and concentrates on issues primarily of interest to scholars. But the policy and issue discussions of the 1980s reflected deeper cultural and political divides that did become important to public presentations of contemporary family sociology. In the most accessible venues of classrooms, texts, trade books, periodicals, and weblogs, family sociologists have slipped into debunking roles in responding to popular social criticism or common myths and misunderstandings. Typically this involves minor factual correctives that address sensational but accepted media narratives – there is not an epidemic of teen pregnancy (rates continue to decrease), there is no precipitous decline in US households with children, but slow changes related to delayed marriage, low unemployment, and an aging population. More often family sociologists address diffuse, popular anxiety about the family in ‘‘decline,’’ in ‘‘crisis,’’ or the ‘‘breakdown’’ of the family. The common view of divorce rates as an indicator of family decline can be addressed by historical analysis of changing divorce laws, the relative marital satisfaction of modern couples, the desire for marriage expressed by the overwhelming majority of young people, the blending of families after divorce, or the abiding interest in their children shared by divorced parents. Common concerns about the negative effects on children and marriage of two career families are countered by an examination of the benefits – more income, less stress, healthier and happier women, and men more engaged with their children. What is brought to the public from family sociology is the established and unified view that the family is a tough, flexible institution that is constantly in transition, and that decline and crisis are critical evaluations rather than scientific conclusions.

In recent years family sociologists seem especially sensitive to national discussions of family issues. Family research and commentary often amplify political rhetoric, and scientific findings are obscured by political debate. Moreover, well funded moral entrepreneurs (Becker 1973) have adopted nomenclatures and trap pings that ape the process of peer reviewed science. Clinicians and academics from a variety of disciplines founded the Council on Contemporary Families in 1996 specifically to bring accurate information about family research to the public. The foundational assumption of the Council is that shifts in family life are best met with investigations of underlying causes rather than moralizing discourse. Though a decidedly progressive organization, its stance against the framework of families in decline because of selfishness and immorality is within the main stream of sociological thought.

If family sociology were more visible to the lay public, its basic assumptions would be recognized as politically liberal and culturally progressive. This is nowhere more apparent than in the passionate inclusiveness of socio logical definitions of family. Having established the perspective that family is plastic and resilient, rather than fixed and vulnerable, sociology necessarily accounts for families in all of their emergent forms. This standpoint was manageable for a twentieth century sociology that had variations of the two parent household as its units of analysis. Now, along with single parent families, extended families, stepfamilies, and blended families, contemporary family sociology accounts for gay and lesbian families. That gay and lesbian relationships are accorded the family label attests to the non judgmental attitude popularly associated with liberal thinking. Invocations of family in political debate reveal the deep understanding that most people belong to families and hold cherished values associated with family life. And family sociologists commonly observe that everyone who has been in a family is somewhat expert in family sociology. However, in its refusal to find an ideal family form and the causes of family decline, family sociology departs from this commonsense expertise. This is the scientific quality of family sociology. It will remain topical, comparative, and empirical, but the politics and rhetoric of family will increasingly frame its issues.


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