Sociology Discussion – Family

Families, in addition to being one of the primary forces of socialization, is and important institution. The primary purpose of the family has been, historically, the transmission of wealth, economic stability and the production of the next generation of citizens. In recent years, however, attitudes toward family in the US has shifted to being focused on providing emotional and psychological support and care for all members of the family. As this function has shifted, so too has the shape of families begun to change. We have moved from living primarily in extended families, to a brief period where the nuclear family was idealized, into a contemporary era where diverse family forms are necessary.

Prior to the industrial revolution, families lives primarily in extended family, or extended kinship networks or strings of relationships between people related by blood. This changed during the industrial revolution, beginning with men leaving home to work in factories, separating them from their families (about 1890). This rusted in increasing ideals about the gendered division of labor, which separates male and female labor into public and private realms, respectively. In rural areas, children were an economic asset, but after families moved to the cities they became an economic liability. Families had to be smaller because of finances, housing, and similar factors. Also, industrialization in the early 20th century created a need for more education, so children spent more time in school and thus, more years at home. About this time, some forms of birth control were used to allow couples to limit the number of children so the birth rate plummeted.

However, the idea of nuclear family, mom, dad and kids as a single unit, had little historical precedent. Initially, it was widely regarded as a symptom of family decline and faced challenges related to childcare, elder care and other problems associated with its isolation from kinship networks. Then during WW II, women entered the workplace in record numbers. After the war, government officials, concerned with low U.S. birthrates and increasing competition from women in the workplace, implemented programs to encourage both consumer spending and childbirth, resulting in the “baby boom” as well as increases in cost of living. The concept of a nuclear family emerged in the 1950’s and quickly captured the popular imagination.

Education, recreation, and caring for the elderly increasingly shifted from family duties to institutional jobs, though remained heavily gendered into contemporary times. During the 60’s and 70’s social movements to challenge notions of family, women’s place and racial stratification arose, resulting in new ideas about family and increases in complex family forms. Economic conditions in the 1980’s resulted in further changes, including increasing the overall population of married women who hold paid employment outside the home to over 50%.

Contemporary family forms are diverse both nationally and globally. Single parent, blended, and gay/lesbian families make up significant portions of modern American families.

Family is socially constructed, meaning that what “counts” as a family depends on the social context, the time and place in which it exists. Social constructions are agreed upon social conventions that can change from time to time and place to place. The nature of these constructions are based on the advantages that they provide due to the structure of the society in which they exist. For this discussion we will talk about the social construction of families.

black and white photo of large extended family on porch of houseThe structure and function of families has changed over time. Historically, extended families that functioned primarily as economic units were most common. During and after the Industrial revolution nuclear families with two parents and children and a gendered division of labor provided the best structure of workers. Contemporary families have shifted to focus on functions and not on form.

To begin, compare and contrast historic extended families, mid-century nuclear families and one other family form, by answering the following questions:

What are the advantages and disadvantages of a historic extended family structure?
What are the advantages and disadvantages of a nuclear family structure?
What other family structures exist today and what might some advantages and disadvantages of these are?
Select one of the family forms you discussed and explain how the norms of society in which it existed/exists result in these advantages and disadvantages.




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