Family theory consists of sets of propositions that attempt to explain some aspect of family life. Theorizing involves making general statements about some phenomenon, and an important characteristic of family theory, therefore, is that it involves a degree of abstraction from reality. Theoretical statements are abstract statements employing concepts that refer to things in the real world. Theories differ in the concepts that they use, and in the statements that are made about them. There are many different theories in family theory, and the relationships between them range from complementary borrowing of ideas, through mutual indifference, to antagonism.
Intellectual and Social Context
The history of family theory varies according to the national context of family theorists. For example, in the 1970s and early 1980s Marxism had a significant influence on family theorizing in Britain and, especially, in Canada, but it was rarely mentioned in the United States. On the other hand, British and other European theorists have not paid much attention to exchange theory, which has been popular in the United States.
Family theory has changed from a consensus on the value of nuclear family living in the period immediately after World War II to the current situation of theoretical pluralism. In the post war period the standard theory of family life held that the nuclear family was an adaptive unit that mediates between the individual and society. An early, and very influential, version of standard sociological theory was structural functionalism. This approach held that families perform essential functions for family members and for society. Talcott Parsons, for example, argued that the nuclear family household has two main functions in modern industrial society. It socializes children and manages tensions for adults.
Influenced by the prestige of grand theory in structural functionalism, the period of the late 1960s and 1970s saw a move in family studies toward theory construction combined with theory integration. The phrase that was most often used to describe the goal of creating a unified body of family theory was theory systematization. By the early 1970s the sociology of the family had entered a phase of systematic theory building and theory unification. However, this phase did not last long.
Beginning with the impact of feminism on family studies, the sociology of the family went through a Big Bang in the mid-1970s. There was a rush of theorizing about family issues, but only a portion of this growth resulted from the application of theory construction techniques. By the mid-1970s it was clear that the move toward theoretical convergence had omitted issues and theories which did not fit the image of the family favored in standard sociological theory. New types of theory were developed that asked new kinds of questions. This was especially true of feminism.
From the 1980s onwards family studies have been characterized by the acceptance of theoretical pluralism. One way of looking at this theoretical pluralism is presented next.
In North America, James White and David Klein (2002) have identified seven major dimensions of family theory. These are theoretical frameworks from which specific theories are derived. The seven theoretical frameworks are: (1) the social exchange and choice frame work; (2) the symbolic interaction framework; (3) the family life course development frame work; (4) the systems framework; (5) the conflict framework; (6) the feminist framework; and (7) the ecological framework.
The individual is the unit of analysis in exchange theory. Individuals are seen as making rational choices about behavior based on the balance of rewards and costs that the behavior has for them. The relationship between rewards and costs defines the profit that is derived from behavior, and individuals are assumed to try to maximize their profits. Actors rationally calculate their expected profits for all possible choices in a situation and then choose the action that they calculate will bring the greatest rewards for the least costs. A theory of choice is at the heart of the exchange approach to family interaction. Behavior becomes exchange when the actions of one individual enter into the rewards and costs of another individual, and each individual modifies the behavior of the other.
Applications of exchange theory include the study of the choice of marriage partner, the quality of the marriage relationship, marriage bargaining, and separation and divorce. One of the advantages of exchange theory is that it enables the investigator to think about rewards provided within the family, and rewards provided by sources outside the family, as alter natives between which individuals choose. Marriages are seen as breaking down when one or both partners no longer find them profitable by comparison with the alternatives. The probability of divorce is thought to be a result of two comparisons that individuals make. First, individuals compare the profits they derive from their own marriage with the profits that others derive from their marriages. If the sense of relative deprivation is high then the motive to divorce is enhanced. Second, individuals compare the rewards and costs associated with the alternatives to the existing marriage, including being divorced or remarrying. Rewards might include finding a more compatible partner, and costs might include social disapproval for divorce.
Symbolic interactionism rests on three simple premises. First, human beings act toward things on the basis of the meanings that things have for them. Symbolic interactionists therefore believe that to understand social behavior, the researcher must understand the meanings that actors assign to the situation and action. Second, the meanings that people assign to the objects in their environment are drawn from the social interactions in which they engage. That is to say, we do not simply form our meanings as a result of psychological elements in our personalities, but other people’s actions define the meanings for us. Third, the meanings of things are handled in, and modified through, an interpretive process. There is a process of interaction that goes on within the individual, as people engage in an internal conversation about what things mean and how they should respond.
The emphasis in symbolic interactionism is on the family as a unity of interacting personalities. Whatever unity exists in family life can only be the result of interactions between family members. One of the most basic concepts in symbolic interactionism is that of role. Roles are the rules of behavior for positions in a family, and as such they are taken into account by individual members as they construct their lines of action. Symbolic interactionists have therefore often believed that individual behavior can only be understood within the context of the family role that an individual occupies. Interactionist work on patterns of family life includes studies of the ways in which behavior is negotiated and renegotiated among family members. It is through negotiations that members adjust their individual claims to produce joint actions.
Family Life Course Development
The family life course development framework is a dynamic approach that looks at family life as a process that unfolds over time. It focuses on the systematic and patterned changes experienced by families as they move through stages and events of their family life course. This approach has gone through several phases itself. The first phase consisted of an approach that studied families as moving through deterministic, invariant stages of the family life cycle. This approach was heavily criticized. The principal difficulty has been the impossibility of fitting all of the many different living arrangements that exist into a universal set of stages. Accordingly, this approach was replaced by an emphasis on family careers. More recently, it has been followed by an approach stressing patterns of the life courses of individuals. The focus here is upon the individual life course, and on how it affects and is affected by the life courses of other individuals.
A system is a set of interconnected parts that exhibits some boundary between itself and the surrounding environment. Families may be considered as systems, as they are in the systems framework. Assumptions of the systems framework include the idea that all parts of the system are interconnected; the idea that understanding is only possible by viewing the whole; and the idea that a system’s behavior affects its environment, and in turn the environment affects the system. It is also commonly held that systems exhibit equilibrium, that is to say, they tend to maintain a steady state in the face of environmental changes.
Family processes are understood as the pro duct of the entire system. Family systems theory therefore shifts the primary focus away from the individual family member toward relationships among the members of the family system. The systems approach to the family has therefore been welcomed by some scholars and practitioners as a way to understand family problems and intervene in family processes without blaming any one family member. For example, the eating disorders of bulimia and anorexia nervosa can be conceptualized as disorders involving the entire family system rather than the identified patient alone.
The concept of boundary is an essential one in systems thinking. Systems theorists have therefore been interested in the issue of boundary redefinition when spouses divorce and remarry. Boundaries are defined by rules that identify who participates in a family, and how they do so. Blended families require drawing new boundaries and establishing a consensus on those boundaries. Confusion over boundaries, in other words boundary ambiguity, is thought to create a variety of interpersonal problems. It is held that boundary confusion in remarried families leads to confusion in the rights and duties associated with different positions in the family.
Conflict theory maintains that conflict is a nor mal part of social life, and it therefore deserves to be a focus of explicit attention. Sources of conflict include the competition for scarce resources, and incompatible goals, such as the tension between privacy and jointness. Most conflict theorists accept the assumption that individuals act out of self-interest, and that interests are often contradictory. There are many dimensions of conflict, such as class conflict, age based conflict, and gender conflict. Conflict can occur between groups or within groups.
The concept of power is as central to many versions of conflict theory as is the concept of conflict itself. The resources that are available within families are not only the subject of competition, they are also the means by which one individual may gain power over others. The unequal distribution of power can be seen as important in several respects. First, the distribution of legitimate power can be seen as a structural mechanism of conflict management that operates to suppress overt conflict. Second, power differentials can themselves become a source of conflict. And third, power inequalities influence the outcomes of conflict, including who wins and who loses.
Applications of conflict theory include the study of family violence. One of the major issues here is the fact that most family violence is violence against women. Because of the interest in gender divisions, there is some overlap here between conflict theory and feminist theory.
Feminist theory is concerned with the position of women in society, and specifically with the disadvantages that women face in a society that is dominated by men. It is a diverse approach, but three premises can be identified as it is applied to the study of family life. First, family life is envisaged as an arena within which individuals who pursue different economic and social interests meet and struggle. That struggle is not equal. There is thought to be an internal stratification of family life, in which men receive more benefits than do women. The allocation of tasks among family members is seen as taking the form of a gendered division of labor. Although this division of labor has the appearance of an equal exchange, feminists maintain that women contribute more than they receive in return. Second, processes of control and domination are thought to come into play whenever men and women interact. Relations between husbands and wives are identified as power relations, in which men dominate over women. Feminist theories of marriage and family therefore devote much attention to analyzing structures of patriarchy, or the oppression of women by men. Third, ideological legitimations of gender inequality are held to be responsible for the acceptance by women of their own subjection. It is claimed that there exists an ideology of familism, or familialism, that supports traditional family norms, including traditional gender norms. Feminist theory considers familism to be a restrictive ideology that is a barrier to women’s liberation. For example, there is the domestic ideology which encourages girls to think that putting family responsibilities first is the nor mal pattern for women.
Viewed from the perspective of feminist theory, the family is a concept which has been created and distributed by those whose interests it serves (mainly men). Scholars working in the feminist tradition therefore argue that existing concepts of the family must be deconstructed, or decomposed. As a result, the social scientific concept of the family as a system is replaced by the concept of the family as an ideology. That is to say, ‘‘the family’’ is thought to be a set of ideas which obscures more fundamental relations, such as the sex/ gender system.
One of the most obvious applications for feminist theory has been the study of the division of household labor between husbands and wives. For example, feminists have been interested in time use studies which have examined the contrasting amounts of time that men and women devote to housework.
A concern with individuals and their environment is at the heart of the ecological approach. A person’s behavior is seen as a function of the interaction between the person’s traits and abilities and their environment. One of the most popular ways of thinking about this is to conceive of the nested ecosystems in which the individual human being develops. First, there is the microsystem of connections between per sons who are present in the immediate setting directly affecting the developing person. Second, there is the mesosystem consisting of linkages between settings in which the developing person actually participates. Third, there is the exosystem that consists of linkages between settings that do not involve the developing person as an active participant, but in which events occur that affect, or are affected by, what happens in the setting. And finally, there is the macrosystem consisting of overarching patterns of ideology and organization of the social institutions common to a particular culture or subculture. Individuals develop within the family microsystem, and families are situated within society. The relations between a family and the larger society are meso, exo, and macrosystem issues.
An ecological approach can be taken to family decision making. Here the family is viewed as a system interacting with its environment. The embeddedness of the family system in the larger ecosystem is emphasized, and the interchanges that take place between the various levels are described.
The main current emphasis in family theorizing does not fit into any of the theoretical frame works identified above. Perhaps it deserves to be identified as a distinctive theoretical approach. This approach is concerned with the deinstitutionalization of family life. It is associated with the work of Ulrich Beck and Elisabeth Beck Gernsheim as well as the work of Anthony Giddens.
Beck and Beck Gernsheim have advanced individualization theory. This states that many of the changes occurring in families are the result of a long term trend in modern societies to accord more autonomy to individuals. Individualization involves liberation from traditional commitments and personal emancipation. Individuals construct their own lives, and they therefore make decisions about whether and whom they shall marry, whether or not to have children, what sort of sexual preference they will have, and so on. As a result, the traditional family, which consisted of a lifelong officially legitimated community of father– mother–child, is being replaced by a diverse array of ways of living.
Giddens argues that traditional family ties have been replaced by the pure relationship as the foundation of personal life. A pure relationship is one based upon emotional communication, where the rewards derived from such communication are the main basis for the relationship to continue. It is not maintained by external forces, but it is constructed by the participants out of their own unaided efforts. Interpersonal trust is, therefore, no longer based on customary obligations between the occupants of well-defined roles. In a pure relationship trust can only be gained through the mutual disclosure of feelings and beliefs. There is therefore a great demand for intimacy in pure relationships. Intimacy is found within marriage, but it is also found outside marriage, in cohabitation for example. The focus of attention today is the relationship between a couple, not the institution of marriage.
- Beck, U. & Beck-Gernsheim, E. (2002) Individualization: Institutionalized Individualism and its Social and Political Consequences. Sage, London.
- Beck-Gernsheim, E. (2002) Reinventing the Family. Polity, Cambridge.
- Bengtson, V. L., Acock, A. C., Allen, K. R., Dilworth-Anderson, P., & Klein, D. M. (Eds.) (2005) Sourcebook of Family Theory and Research. Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA.
- Boss, P. G., Doherty, W. J., La Rossa, R., Schumm, W. R., & Steinmetz, S. K. (Eds.) (1993) Source book of Family Theories and Methods: A Contextual Approach. Plenum, New York.
- Cheal, D. (1991) Family and the State of Theory. University of Toronto Press, Toronto.
- Giddens, A. (1992) The Transformation of Intimacy. Polity, Cambridge.
- Giddens, A. (2000) Runaway World. Routledge, New York.
- White, J. M. & Klein, D. M. (2002) Family Theories, 2nd edn. Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA.