Please choose one of the following questions: 

1.  Since the 1970s, the traditional family has been changing as we have experienced steady trends with growing numbers of divorces and more children born out of wedlock. Should the legal system make it more difficult for married couples to obtain a divorce, and harder for people to cohabit outside of marriage, especially when children are involved? What can the United States government do to strengthen families and marriages in American society? How can the people change the culture to strengthen families and marriages? Refer to examples from the text to support your answer. Now, critique your answer from the point of view of a functionalist or a conflict theorist.

2.  What is a “credential society?” Is there too much of an emphasis on credentials in the United States? If so, how might this be harmful? To whom? Discuss education in the U.S. from the point of view of a functionalist or conflict theorist.  Also use examples in your answer.

3.  What is the role of religion in society?  In your response, include a comparison of the theories on religion of Marx, Weber, and Durkheim.  Has the role of religion in society changed over time?  How does this relate to the current generational shift in religious affiliation in the U.S.?



The Week 6 Forum meets the following course objectives:



· Apply a sociological perspective to the social world

· Analyze contemporary social issues using the sociological imagination and use sociological theories and concepts to analyze everyday life.

· Describe the family, education, and religion from a sociological perspective.



Instructions for all Forums:

Each week, learners will post one initial post per week.  This post must demonstrate comprehension of the course materials, the ability to apply that knowledge in the real world.  Learners will engage with the instructor and peers throughout the learning week.  To motivate engaged discussion, posts are expected to be on time with regular interaction throughout the week.  All posts should demonstrate college level writing skills. To promote vibrant discussion as we would in a face to face classroom, formatted citations and references are not required.  Quotes should not be used at all, or used sparingly.  If you quote a source quotation marks should be used and an APA formatted citation and reference provided.






Exemplary (100%)



Accomplished (85%)



Developing (75%)


Beginning (65%)


Not Participating (0%)


Comprehension of course materials



Initial post demonstrates rich comprehension of course materials.  Detailed use of terminology or examples learned in class.  If post includes opinion, it is supported with evaluated evidence. Initial post demonstrates clear comprehension of course materials.  Use of terminology or examples learned in class. If post includes opinion, it is supported with evaluated evidence. Initial post demonstrates some comprehension of course materials.  Specific terminology or examples learned in class may be incorrect or incomplete.  Post may include some opinion without evaluated evidence. Initial post does not demonstrate comprehension of course materials.  Specific terminology or examples learned in class are not included.  Post is opinion based without evaluated evidence. No posting, post is off topic, post does not meet minimum criteria for demonstrating beginning level of comprehension. Post may be plagiarized, or use a high percentage of quotes that prevent demonstration of student’s comprehension.
Real world application of knowledge



Initial post demonstrates that the learner can creatively and uniquely apply the concepts and examples learned in class to a personal or professional experience from their life or to a current event. Initial post demonstrates that the learner can apply the concepts and examples learned in class to a  personal or professional experience from their life or to a current event. Initial post does not clearly demonstrate that the learner can apply the concepts and examples learned in class. Unclear link between the concepts and examples learned in class to personal or professional experience or to a current event. Initial post does not demonstrate that the learner can apply the concepts and examples learned in class. No link to a personal or professional experience or to a current event is made in the post. No posting, post is off topic, post does not meet minimum criteria for demonstrating beginning level of application. Post may be plagiarized, or use a high percentage of quotes that prevent demonstration of student’s ability to apply comprehension.
Active Forum Engagement and Presence


Learner posts 4+ different days in the learning week.


Replies to at least one response from a classmate or instructor on the learner’s initial post to demonstrate the learner is reading and considering classmate responses to their ideas.


Posts two or more 100+ word responses to initial posts of classmates.  Posts motivate group discussion and contributes to the learning community by doing 2+ of the following:

· offering advice or strategy

· posing a question,

· providing an alternative point-of-view,

· acknowledging similar experiences

· sharing a resource

Learner posts 3 different days in the learning week.


Posts two 100+ word responses to initial posts of classmates.  Posts motivate group discussion and contribute to the learning community by doing  2+ of the following:


· offering advice or strategy

· posing a question,

· providing an alternative point-of-view,

· acknowledging similar experiences

· sharing a resource

Learner posts 2 different days in the learning week.


Posts one 100+ word response to initial post of classmate.  Post motivates group discussion and contributes to the learning community by doing 1 of the following:


· offering advice or strategy

· posing a question,

· providing an alternative point-of-view,

· acknowledging similar experiences

· sharing a resource

Learner posts 1 day in the learning week.


Posts one 100+ word response to initial post of classmate.  Post does not clearly motivate group discussion or clearly contribute to the learning community.


Responses do not:

· offering advice or strategy

· posing a question,

· providing an alternative point-of-view,

· acknowledging similar experiences

· sharing a resource

Learner posts 1 day in the learning week, or posts are not made during the learning week and therefore do not contribute to or enrich the weekly conversation.


No peer responses are made.  One or more peer responses of low quality (“good job, I agree”) may be made.

Writing skills


Post is 250+ words.  All posts reflect widely accepted academic writing protocols like using capital letters, cohesive sentences, and no texting language. Dialogue is also polite and respectful of different points of view. Post is 250+ words.  The majority of posts reflect widely-accepted academic writing protocols like using capital letters, cohesive sentences, and no texting language. Dialogue is polite and respectful of different points of view. Post is 175+ words.  The majority of posts reflect widely-accepted academic writing protocols like using capital letters (“I am” not “i am”), cohesive sentences, and no texting language. Dialogue may not be respectful of different points of view. Post is 150+ words.  The majority of the forum communication ignores widely-accepted academic writing protocols like capital letters, cohesive sentences, and texting; Dialogue may not be respectful of different points of view. No posting, post is off topic and does not meet minimum criteria for demonstrating beginning level of comprehension.






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Media Library

CHAPTER 11 Media Library


Racially Mixed Families

Same-Sex Couple Rights


Student Debt in America

Defining Family

Immigrant Family Issues

Domestic Violence


The Fatherhood Movement

Domestic Abuse in Families


Student Loan Debt

Female Perceptions of Strength and Divorce


Consequences of Parental Divorce

Social Class and Childrearing

Family Violence and Police


Divorce in Families






Some Concepts Sociologists Use to Study Families

Theoretical Perspectives on Families

U.S. Families Yesterday and Today

Socioeconomic Class and Family in the United States

Violence and the Family

Globalization and Families

Why Study Family Through a Sociological Lens?




1.   Is the burden of student debt preventing some young people from marrying and starting families?

2.   Why are poor and working-class women in the United States less likely than their middle-class counterparts to marry—and more likely to divorce?

3.   What is a family? Who should have the power to decide what constitutes a family?




© Bryan Denton/Corbis


According to an article on the CNN website’s CNNMoney page, students today are graduating from college with unprecedented levels of debt:


College seniors who took out loans to fund their college education owed an average of $25,250, [or] 5% more than the class of 2009 owed, according to a report from the Institute for College Access & Success Project on Student Debt….

“Most students in the Class of 2010 started college before the recent economic downturn, but the economy soured while they were still in school, widening the gap between rising college costs and what students and their parents could afford,” the report stated. (Ellis, 2011)

Student loan debt now exceeds consumer credit card debt: The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau estimates that student loan debt is more than $1 trillion, and an estimated 14% of student loans are past due (Brown, Haughwout, Lee, Mabutas, & van der Klaauw, 2012; Chopra, 2012).

Why is this topic of interest to us in a chapter on families in the United States? Here is why: Research has begun to show a correlation between the student debt burden and the ability or willingness of young adults to start families—that is, to marry and have children (Smock, Manning, & Porter, 2005). Whereas in the past young people in their early to middle 20s were marrying and perhaps purchasing first homes, today’s substantial and widespread student debt may be delaying entry into both family life and the associated consumption of “big-ticket items” such as houses and cars. Indeed, students graduating from higher education in the past decade are the first U.S. generation to finance so much of their education with interest-bearing loans. The relationship between rising student debt and social trends like the declining rate of marriage among young adults is relevant to sociologists, students, and society.

  Student Loan Debt CLICK TO SHOW


So what does research show? A 2002 survey from Nellie Mae, a nonprofit corporation and until recently the largest private source of student loans, offers some early insights into the relationship between debt and delayed family formation. In the survey, 14% of borrowers indicated that “loans delayed marriage,” a rise from 9% in 1987, when the debt burden was smaller. More than one fifth responded that they had “delayed having children because of student loan debt,” an increase from 12% in 1987. Among low-income recipients of Pell Grants, the figures were still higher: 19% indicated they delayed marriage, and 24% delayed childbearing due to debt (Baum & O’Malley, 2003).

The findings of a study concerning debt and life choices further reinforce this point: About half the young single adults in the study “indicate that their current debts will probably delay their plans to start a family” (Manning, 2005, p. 56). More recently, an IHS Global Insight report highlighted the fact that while other types of debt have declined, student loan debt continues to rise—and it correlates with a discernible trend among young adults of delaying marriage and childbearing (Dwoskin, 2012).

As we will see later in this chapter, marriage rates among today’s young adults have declined compared to those of earlier generations. Some suggest that marriage is an outdated institution, or that more economically independent women are choosing singlehood over marriage, while others cite a shortage in some communities of “marriageable” men. There are a host of possible explanations. Might debt be one that sociologists should further explore? Is it an obstacle to family formation, and is this a generational and “public issue” rather than just a “personal trouble”? What do you think?

  Student Debt in America CLICK TO SHOW

In this chapter, we focus on the U.S. family, its demographics, trends, variations, and challenges. We begin by introducing the key concepts used in the sociological study of families and discuss the idea of the family as an institution. Then we review the functionalist and feminist perspectives on families and, in particular, on the character of sex roles in marital relationships. We devote a broad section of the chapter to an overview of U.S. families today, looking at trends in marriage and divorce, as well as family life in a sampling of subcultures—immigrant, Native American, and deaf families. Sociologists take a strong interest in issues of social class and its roots and effects, so next we explore practices of child rearing and differences across class, the decline of marriage in the poor and working classes, and work and family life in the middle class. Finally, we explore the relationship between globalization and family in the United States and beyond.


Families come in a broad spectrum of forms, but they share basic qualities. A family, at the most basic level, is two or more individuals who live together and have a legally or normatively recognized relationship based on, among other things, marriage, birth, or adoption. The family is a key social institution. Though families and their structures vary, the family as an institution is an organized system of social relationships that both reflects societal norms and expectations and meets important societal needs. It plays a role in society as a site for the reproduction of community and citizenry, socialization and transmission of culture, and the care of the young and old. Families, as micro units in the social order, also serve as sites for the allocation of social roles, like “breadwinner” and “caregiver,” and contribute to the economy as consumers.

Many families are formed through marriage. Sociologists define marriage as a culturally normative relationship, usually between two individuals, that provides a framework for economic cooperation, emotional intimacy, and sexual relations. Marriages may be legitimated by legal or religious authorities or, in some instances, by the norms of the prevailing culture. Although marriage has historically united partners of different sexes, same-sex marriages have become increasingly common in the United States and other modern countries, though their legal recognition is still incomplete.

Most societies have clear and widely accepted norms regarding the institution and practice of marriage that have varied across time and space. Two common patterns are monogamy, in which a person may have only one spouse at a time, and polygamy, in which a person may have more than one marital partner at a time. Within the latter category are polygyny, in which a man may have multiple wives, and polyandry, in which a woman is permitted to have multiple husbands. In feudal Europe and Asia monogamy prevailed, though in some parts of Asia wealthy men supported concubines (similar to mistresses; Goody, 1983). George Peter Murdock’s (1949) classic anthropological study of 862 preindustrial societies found that 16% had norms supportive of monogamy, 80% had norms that underpinned the practice of polygyny, and just 4% permitted polyandry.



Stephan Gladieu / Contributor/Getty Images

The polygynist practice of a man taking multiple wives is unusual (and not legally recognized) in the United States, but according to researchers at Brigham Young University, an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 U.S. residents practice polygamy. Many are members of breakaway sects of the Mormon church.

The polygynist practice of a man taking multiple wives is unusual (and not legally recognized) in the United States, but according to researchers at Brigham Young University, an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 U.S. residents practice polygamy. Many are members of breakaway sects of the Mormon church

Some sociologists have suggested that, because divorce and remarriage are so common in postindustrial countries such as the United States, our marriage pattern might be labeled serial monogamy, the practice of having more than one wife or husband, but only one at a time.Most modern societies are strongly committed to monogamy, and to the selection of a lifelong mate—in principle, if not always in actual practice. Later in this chapter, we will explore another key trend in families: More women and men in modern countries are forgoing marriage altogether, turning the tables on an institution that has long been considered normative and necessary in the life course—and the social order.

In many societies, marriages tend to be endogamous—that is, limited to partners who are members of the same social group or caste. Sexual or marital partnerships outside the group may be cause for a range of sanctions, from family disapproval to social ostracism to legal consequences. Consider that in the United States, antimiscegenation laws—that is, laws prohibiting interracial sexual relations and marriage—were ruled unconstitutional only in 1967. Until then, some states defined miscegenation as a felony, prohibiting residents from marrying outside their racial groups. Today such laws are history. In fact, the Pew Research Center reported in 2010 that nearly 15% of new marriages were between spouses of different races or ethnicities. The data show that among newlyweds in 2008, about 9% of Whites, 16% of Blacks, 26% of Hispanics, and 31% of Asians married outside their own race or ethnicity (Passel, Wang, & Taylor, 2010).

While intermarriage has increased, more than doubling between 1980 and today, most people who marry still do so within their own racial or ethnic group. Think about married couples you know: Would you say that most “match up” on the basis of characteristics such as race, ethnicity, religion, and class? How much of this matching might be attributable to chance or personal preferences? To exposure in the “marriage markets” such as college or places of worship? To normative pressures?

Clearly, marriage in modern societies is most often the outcome of choices made by two people in a relationship. At the same time, as sociologists, we need to attend to the social context in which “choice” is exercised. Later in this chapter we examine U.S. patterns of partnership and family dissolution in greater detail.


The role of parent or primary caregiver in the United States and much of Europe has traditionally been assumed by biological parents (occasionally stepparents), but this is one of many possible family formations in which adults have raised children in different times and places. Consider the Baganda tribe of Central Africa, in which the biological father’s brother was traditionally responsible for raising the children (Queen, Habenstein, & Adams, 1961). The Nayars of southern India offer another variation, assigning responsibility to the mother’s eldest brother (Renjini, 2000; Schneider & Gough, 1974). In Trinidad and other Caribbean communities, extended family members have often assumed the care of children whose parents have migrated north (to the United States in most instances) to seek work (Ho, 1993).

A substantial minority of children in the United States also live in extended families, social groups consisting of one or more parents, children, and other kin, often spanning several generations, living in the same household. An extended family may include grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, and other close relatives. In Northern and Western Europe, Canada, the United States, and Australia, most children live in nuclear families—that is, families characterized by parents living with their biological children and apart from other kin—while extended families are more common in Eastern and Southern Europe, Africa, Asia, and Central and Latin America. In the United States, the extended family form is most common among those with lower income, in rural areas, and among recent migrants and minorities.

  Racially Mixed Families CLICK TO SHOW



© AF archive/Alamy

In the film We Bought A Zoo (2011), actor Matt Damon portrays a widowed father of two children who buys and revives a failing animal park. His new endeavor, grief over the loss of his wife, and a troubled young teenager are the key challenges that underpin the film. Even today, only a small percentage of children live exclusively with their father and few films offer stories of such families.

For close and extended family members to function as caregivers is neither new nor unusual. In fact, a growing number of children in the United States live with one or a pair of grandparents, though the proportion who live with neither parent is still just 4%. In 2013, 69% of children lived with two parents, and just under 24% lived with only their mothers, while 4% resided with just their father (U.S. Census Bureau, 2013b).


When sociologists study families, their perspectives are shaped by their overall theoretical orientations toward society. Thus, as in the study of other institutions, it is helpful to distinguish between the functionalist and conflict perspectives, though, as we will see, there are some important variations and additions to these classic categories.


Recall a key functionalist question: What positive functions does a given institution or phenomenon serve in society? Based on this question and the foundational assumption that if something exists and persists, it must serve a function, functionalist theory has tended to highlight in particular the economic, social, and cultural functions of the family. Arguably, the shift from agricultural to industrial to postindustrial economies has made the family’s economic purpose less central than its reproductive and socializing functions, though the family’s micro-level consumption decisions continue to drive a macro-level economy that is deeply dependent on consumer activity and acquisition.

In his work on sex roles in the U.S. kinship system, functionalist sociologist Talcott Parsons (1954) theorized that men and women play different but complementary roles in families. In the “factory of personalities”—in other words, the family—socialization produces males and females prepared for different roles in the family and society. Parsons posited that women were socially prepared for the expressive role of mothers and wives, while men were prepared for instrumental roles in the public sphere, working and earning money to support the family. As well, socialization prepares men and women to want to enact the roles that society needed them to do. These complementary roles, Parsons suggested, were positively functional, as they ensured harmony rather than the conflict that might emerge from husbands and wives competing for status or position. Distinct sex roles also clarified the social status of the family, which was derived from the male’s social position.

Aside from his belief that the family served the function of primary socialization—that is, the process of learning and internalizing social roles and norms (such as those relating to gender)—Parsons suggested that the nuclear family of his time functioned to support adult family members emotionally, a phenomenon he called personality stabilization (Parsons & Bales, 1955). In industrial societies, in which the nuclear family unit was often disconnected from the extended kin networks that characterized earlier eras, this stabilization function was of particular value.

Writing in the 1950s, Parsons worried that disruption of the roles he observed in families could have dysfunctions for the family and society. Indeed, though he did not live to see it, there has been some correlation between women’s assumption of autonomous roles outside the home and the rise of divorce. Correlation is, of course, not causation. Possible explanations for the link include the advent of no-fault divorce laws, decline in the normative stigma related to divorce, and women’s greater economic independence, which has enabled them to leave unhappy marriages that might earlier have been sustained by their dependence on spouses’ wages.




Lambert / Contributor/Getty Images; FOX / Contributor/Getty Images

According to the Census Bureau, about one fifth of U.S. households today consist of married couples with children. In 1950, about 43% of households fit this description. Some contemporary television shows including Family Guy both parody and reproduce traditional family images and gender roles


Critics see Parsons’s work as reinforcing and legitimating traditional roles that have both positive functions and problematic dysfunctions. The functionalist perspective—and Parsons’s expression of it—has been criticized for neglecting the power differentials inherent in a relationship where one party (the wife) is economically dependent on the other (the husband). In a capitalist system, power tends to accrue to those who hold economic resources. Functionalists also neglect family dysfunctions, including ways in which the nuclear family, central to modern society yet in many respects isolated from support systems such as kin networks, may perpetuate gender inequality and even violence.


You can probably anticipate that in looking at the family, the conflict perspective will ask how it might produce and reproduce inequality. Feminist theorizing about the family has reflected a conflict orientation in its efforts to unpack and understand the family as a potential site of both positive support and unequal power. From the 1970s, a period following intense activity in the women’s movement and an increase in the number of women taking jobs outside the home, feminist perspectives became central to sociological debates on the family.

While early theorizing about the family highlighted its structure and roles, as well as its evolution from the agricultural to the industrial era, feminist theorizing in the late 20th century turned its attention to women’s experiences of domestic life and their status in the family and social world. Feminists endeavored to critique the sexual division of labor in modern societies, the phenomenon of dividing production functions by gender (men produce, women reproduce) and designating different spheres of activity, the “private” to women and the “public” to men. While theorists including Parsons saw this division as fundamentally functional, feminists challenged a social order that gave males privileged access to the sphere offering capitalism’s prized rewards, including status, independence, opportunities for advancement, and, of course, money.

HIS AND HER MARRIAGE  An important sociological analysis that captures some of liberal feminism’s key concerns is Jessie Bernard’s The Future of Marriage (1982). (See Chapter 10 for a fuller discussion of varieties of modern feminism, including liberal feminism.) Bernard confronts the issue of equality in marriage, positing that husband and wife experience different marriages. In her analysis of marriage as a cultural system comprising beliefs and ideals, an institutional arrangement of norms and roles, and a complicated individual-level interactional and intimate experience, Bernard identifies his and her marriage experiences:

•    His marriage is one in which he may define himself as burdened and constrained (following societal norms that indicate this is what he should be experiencing) while at the same time experiencing authority, independence, and a right to the sexual, domestic, and emotional “services” of his wife.

•    Her marriage is one in which she may seek to define herself as fulfilled through her achievement of marriage (following societal norms that indicate this is what she should be experiencing) while at the same time experiencing associated female dependence and subjugation.


Bernard understood these gender-differentiated experiences as rooted in the cultural and institutional foundations of marriage in the era she studied. Marriage functioned, from this perspective, to allocate social roles and expectations—but not to women’s advantage. In a good example of the sociological imagination, Bernard saw a connection between the personal experiences of individual men and women and the norms, roles, and expectations that create the context in which their relationship is lived.

Bernard’s analysis pointed to data showing that married women, ostensibly “fulfilled” by marriage and family life, and unmarried men, ostensibly privileged by “freedom,” scored highest on stress indicators, while their unmarried female and married male counterparts scored lowest. Although this was true when Bernard was writing several decades ago, recent social indicators show a mix of patterns. Some are similar to those she identified. For instance, a 2010 article in the Harvard Men’s Health Watch Newsletter reported:

A major survey of 127,545 American adults found that married men are healthier than men who were never married or whose marriages ended in divorce or widowhood. Men who have marital partners also live longer than men without spouses; men who marry after age 25 get more protection than those who tie the knot at a younger age, and the longer a man stays married, the greater his survival advantage over his unmarried peers. (Harvard Medical School, 2010)

Other studies paint a different picture. For instance, a 2007 examination of a spectrum of marriage studies determined that married women were less likely to experience depression than their unmarried counterparts. Researchers controlled for such factors as the possibility that less depressed people were more likely to get married (which would confound results) and found that self-selection was not an issue. That is, marriage did seem to have positive health effects for women (Wood, Goesling, & Avellar, 2007).

In fact, however, the issue is more complex than either Bernard’s work or recent scientific studies can embrace in a single narrative. Consider some other variables at play here. For example, men do seem to have more health benefits than women from marriage, even if women have some. Yet marriage as an institution does not appear to confer health benefits; rather, it is the quality of marriage that matters. Solid and low-conflict marriages are healthy, and unstable, high-conflict marriages are not. The never married are better off than those in high-conflict marriages (Parker-Pope, 2010).

Bernard’s work gives us an opportunity to look at marriage as a gendered institution—that is, one in which gender fundamentally affects the experience on a large scale. While her 30-year-old analysis cannot fully capture the reality of today’s U.S. marriages, her recognition that men and women can experience marriage in quite different ways remains an important insight.

The feminist perspective and other conflict-oriented perspectives offer a valuable addition to functionalist theorizing. However, their focus on the divisive and unequal aspects of family forms and norms may overlook the valuable functions of caring, socializing, and organizing that families have long performed and continue to perform in society. Indeed, both these macro-level approaches may have difficulty capturing the complexities of any family’s lived experiences, particularly as they evolve and change over years through interpersonal negotiations and decisions. Nonetheless, they offer us a useful way of thinking about families and family members, their place in the larger social world, and the way they influence and are influenced by societal institutions and cultures.

THE PSYCHODYNAMIC FEMINIST PERSPECTIVE  Sociologist Nancy Chodorow (1999) asks, “Why do women mother?” She suggests that to explain women’s choice to “mother,” a verb that describes a commitment to the care and nurturing of children, and men’s choice to “not mother” (that is, to assume a more distant role from child rearing), we must look at personality development and relational psychology. While mothering is rooted in biology, Chodorow argues that biology cannot fully explain mothering, because fathers or other kin can perform key mothering functions as well.

Drawing from Sigmund Freud’s object relations perspective, Chodorow argues that an infant of either sex forms his or her initial bond with the mother, who satisfies all the infant’s basic needs. Later, the mother pushes a son away emotionally, whereas she maintains the bond with a daughter. Through such early socialization, daughters come to identify more fully with their mothers than with their fathers; boys, on the other hand, develop “masculine” personalities, but those draw from societal models of masculinity (or, sometimes, hypermasculinity) rather than predominantly from their fathers, who take a far less prominent role in child rearing than do mothers. Chodorow suggests that “masculinity” in boys may thus develop in part as a negation and marginalization of qualities associated with femininity, which is rejected for both social and psychological reasons.

Women, reared by mothers who nurture close and critical bonds, are rendered “relational” through this process, seeking close bonds and defining themselves through relationships (Anna’s mom, Joe’s wife, and the like). Men, by contrast, define themselves more autonomously and have a harder time forming close bonds. Again, the roots of this difficulty are social (society defines men as autonomous and independent) and psychological (the pain of an early break in the mother–son bond results in fear or avoidance of these deep bonds). So why do women “mother” then? Because men in heterosexual relationships are not socially or psychologically well prepared for close relational bonding, women choose to mother in order to reproduce this connection with someone else.




Lambert / Contributor/Getty Images; The Granger Collection, NYC — All rights reserved.

“White flight” to residential suburbs in the post-World War II period left many minority families behind in economically struggling neighborhoods. Suburban advantages in access to good education, housing, and recreation were in many cases a stark contrast to the disadvantages of poor urban areas.


While these processes play out primarily on the micro level of the family and relationships, Chodorow also recognizes macro-level effects. For instance, if, for lack of available male role models at home, the masculine personality develops in part as a negation of the feminine personality, when the boy makes his psychological break from the mother, this devaluation of the feminine and its associated traits may be reflected in the societal institutions that men still dominate. That is, the higher valuation of traits associated with masculinity in areas such as politics, business, and the labor market is, at least in part, linked to the devaluation of the feminine that men carry with them from their early childhood experiences.

Chodorow’s work on sex roles and socialization in the family offers a merger of Freud and feminism that is both challenging and compelling, asking us to consider the effects that psychological processes in early childhood have on social institutions from the family to politics and the economy.


The traditional nuclear family often appears in popular media and political debates as a nostalgic pinnacle of values and practices to which U.S. families should return. Historian Stephanie Coontz (2000, 2005), who has written about the history of U.S. families, points out that this highly venerated traditional nuclear family model is, in fact, a fairly recent development.

Consider that in the preindustrial era, when the U.S. economy was primarily agricultural, families were both social and economic units. Households often included multiple generations, and sometimes boarders or farmworkers too. The family was large, and children were valued for their contributions to its economic viability, participating along with the other members in the family’s productive activities. Marriages tended to endure; divorce was neither normative nor especially easy to secure. At the same time, average life expectancy was about 45 years (Rubin, 1996). As life spans increased, divorce also became more common, replacing death as the factor most likely to end a marriage.

The period of early industrialization shifted these patterns somewhat, not least because it was accompanied by urbanization, which brought workers and their families to cities for work. The family’s economic function declined; some children worked in factories, but the passage of child labor laws and the rise of mass public schooling made this increasingly uncommon (though, according to one source, at the end of the 19th century a quarter of textile workers in the American South were children, whose cheap labor was a boon to employers; Wertheimer, 1977). Over time, children became more of an economic cost than a wage-earning benefit; in a related development, families became smaller and began to evolve toward the nuclear family model.

The basic nuclear family model, with a mother working in the private sphere of the home while focused on child rearing and a father working in the public sphere for pay, evolved among middle-class families in the late 19th century. It was far less common among the working class at this time; working-class women, in fact, often toiled in the homes of the burgeoning middle class, as housekeepers and nursemaids.

Coontz (2000) points out that, just as the popular imagination suggests, the mother-as-homemaker and father-as-breadwinner model of the nuclear family is most characteristic of the widely idealized era of the 1950s. The post–World War II era witnessed a range of interconnected social phenomena, including suburbanization, supported by federal government initiatives to build a network of highways and encourage home ownership; a boom in both economic growth (and wages) that brought greater consumption power, along with technologies that made the home more comfortable and convenient; and a “baby boom,” as a wave of pregnancies delayed by the years of war came to term.


FIGURE 11.1 Living Situations of Children Under 18, 2013


SOURCE: U.S. Census Bureau. (2013a). America’s families and living arrangements: 2013: Children (C table series).


While prosperity and technology brought new opportunities to many, mass suburbanization largely left behind minorities, including Black Americans, who were not given access to the government’s subsidized mortgages and were left in segregated, devalued neighborhoods. As the jobs followed White workers to the suburbs, the economic condition of many Black families was further diminished.

Further, it is not clear that all was well in the prosperous suburbs either. As we noted in the section on feminist theoretical perspectives, some sociological observers detected a streak of discontent that ran through the nuclear family so idealized today. Betty Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique(1963) highlighted “the problem that has no name,” a broad discontent born of women’s exclusion from or marginalization in the workplace and the disconnect between their low status and opportunities and society’s expectation that marriage and children were the ultimate feminine fulfillment. Coontz (2000) points out that tranquilizers, one of many medical innovations of the era, were largely consumed by women, and in considerable quantities—at least 1.15 million pounds in 1959 alone.


The traditional nuclear family with the man as breadwinner and the woman as caregiver is still in existence, though it has changed in many respects since the 1950s and today represents only about 7% of U.S. households (see the Behind the Numbers box on page 275). At the same time, while commentators often lament the “decline of the family,” most children in the United States (69% in 2013) still live in two-parent households, and, as we saw above, all but 3% live with at least one parent (U.S. Census Bureau, 2013b; see Figure 11.1). More children are living with single parents than in the past, but more adults are also living in nonfamily households, consisting of either a single householder or unrelated individuals. The trend toward living alone—which about 27% of people in the United States do (Figure 11.2)—is one we will discuss more below.

One reason for the growth of single-person households is the rising age at first marriage, now about 29 for men and 27 for women (Taylor et al., 2011), which means many people are not marrying until their 30s or even later. Most U.S. adults indicate a wish to marry, and most will at some point in their lives; more than 2.1 million married in 2011, and the U.S. marriage rate exceeds that of most other modern societies (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2013). By contrast, Western and Northern Europe are home to very high rates of cohabitation and common-law marriage, in which partners live as if married but without marriage’s formal legal framework.


FIGURE 11.2 Changes in U.S. Household Composition, 1940–2010


SOURCE: U.S. Census Bureau. (2003). Statistical Abstract of the United States, No. HS-12. Households by Type and Size: 1900 to 2002. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office; U.S. Census Bureau. (2012). Households and Families: 2010. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

  Divorce in Families CLICK TO SHOW


While marriage remains socially normative in most U.S. communities, rates of marriage have declined (Figure 11.3). Between 1960 and 2010, the rate per 1,000 women declined by about 20 percentage points, and today only about half of U.S. adults over age 18 are married, compared to about 72% in 1960 (Taylor et al., 2011). These declines have been far more pronounced among the less educated than among those who have a college education, though the latter also marry later. In the section below on class and marriage, we will look at some of the factors driving this decline, particularly among poor women.

With the decline of marriage, the United States has also experienced a decline in divorce. After rising through the 1960s and 1970s, the rate of divorce has leveled off. There is a logic to these two phenomena, since a smaller number of marriages reduces the pool of people who can divorce. The rate overall is still high, however, and the United States has one of the highest divorce rates in the world, with the rate for second and later marriages exceeding that for first marriages (Figure 11.4).

Why is the U.S. divorce rate, while declining, persistently high? Historian Stephanie Coontz (2005) argues that divorce is in part driven by our powerful attachment to the belief that marriage is the outcome of romantic love. While historically many societies accepted marriage primarily as part of an economic or social contract, and some still do, modern U.S. adults are smitten with love. Yet the powerful early feelings and passion that characterize many relationships are destined to wane over time. In a social context that elevates romantic love and passion in films, music, and books, we may have less tolerance for the more measured emotions inherent in most long-term marriages. Could our strong focus on romantic love be a driver of both marriage and divorce? What do you think?


FIGURE 11.3 Marital Status in the United States, 1960–2012


SOURCE: U.S. Census Bureau. (2013). America’s families and living arrangements: 2013: Adults (A table series): Table A1.


FIGURE 11.4 U.S. Divorce Rate, 1950–2010


SOURCE: National Center for Health Statistics. (2012). Aggregate data 1950–2010. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


Families are surely in the process of changing—and not only in the United States. See the Global Issues box on page 279 for a look at family issues in Japan.


In the Behind the Numbers box on page 275 we ask, “What is a family?” As the box explains, by the definition of the federal government many U.S. household configurations are not counted as “families,” including same-sex partners. At the same time, in 2012 there were more than 180,000 married same-sex households and more than 630,000 nonmarried same-sex partner households in the United States. More than 115,000 of the same-sex households were raising children (U.S. Census Bureau, 2012a).

Many U.S. states follow the federal government in their rejection of same-sex marriage; in mid-2014, 33 states prohibited it while just 17 states and the District of Columbia permitted it (Ahuja, Barnes, Chow, & Rivero, 2014). States that reject same-sex marriage often use the same language as the federal law, the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA): “The word ‘marriage’ means only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife.” DOMA was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996. It also includes the provision that states are not obligated to recognize same-sex marriages conducted in states or cities that permit them.

Some states that do not permit same-sex marriage do recognize civil unions, which are legal unions that fall short of marriage but provide some state-level legal rights and benefits, or domestic partnerships, which are legal unions that provide a circumscribed spectrum of rights and benefits to same-sex couples. The more expansive set of social and economic opportunities available to couples recognized as legally married by the federal government, including Social Security and survivor benefits and joint filing of income taxes, is not available to those in civil unions or domestic partnerships.

  Female Perceptions of Strength and Divorce CLICK TO SHOW






Reuters/Lucas Jackson

For same-sex couples, the struggles and joys of family life do not differ significantly from those of heterosexual couples.

The U.S. Census Bureau uses the household as a key unit in calculating a spectrum of national statistics, from income to poverty. A householdis composed of all the people who occupy a given housing unit. The Census Bureau further distinguishes between family households—consisting of immediate relatives such as a husband, wife, and children or a mother and her children—and nonfamily households, which include just about everyone else, such as those who live alone and those who live with “nonrelative” household members. Implicit in these bureaucratic categories is a definition of what a family is from the government’s perspective.

In 2011, of more than 114 million households in the United States, more than a third were nonfamily households (Vespa, Lewis, & Kreider, 2013). But aside from those living alone, are these households necessarily “nonfamilies” from a sociological perspective? Sociologist Brian Powell sought to answer this question in a study that surveyed more than 2,300 U.S. adults about their definitions of family. Powell and his team identified three categories of respondents in the study: “exclusionists,” who embrace a narrow and largely traditional definition of family; “moderates,” who expand beyond the traditional to include, for instance, same-sex couples if there are children; and “inclusionists,” who hold an expansive view of what can constitute a family, ranging from opposite- or same-sex cohabiters to people with pets. Children seemed to be a decisive factor in whether a household was seen as a family: For instance, while only 33% of respondents agreed that a gay male couple was a family, the addition of children to this unit raised the figure to 64% (Powell, Bolzendahl, Geist, & Steelman, 2010).

The public’s definition of what constitutes a family is rapidly changing. Powell noted a significant change even in a short period of time; for instance, the proportion of respondents favoring a narrowly traditional view of a family as married parents and children dropped by 11% between 2003 and 2010. More people are accepting cohabiting and gay or lesbian couples as families as well.

The definitions used by the Census Bureau and other institutions, including those that govern estates and inheritance, adoption, and hospitalization and medical consent, lag behind those embraced by a growing number of U.S. adults. Perhaps within the third of the population living in “nonfamily” households, we would find quite a few families too.


How would you define the term family? What experiences or influences led you to that particular definition?


FIGURE 11.5 Same-Sex Marriage Laws as of October, 2014


SOURCE: National Public Radio. (2012). “State by State: The Legal Battle Over Gay Marriage.” Associated Press; “The Changing Landscape of Same-Sex Marriage,” by Masuma Ahuja, Robert Barnes, Emily Chow and Cristina Rivero. Washington Post, July 28, 2014.


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