Sociology of the family
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Sociology of the Family. Week 1. Public and Private Families How do we view the American family? Public vs. private families How do we study the family? Modes of observation Theoretical perspectives. Discuss: What is a Family?.

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Sociology of the Family

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Week 1

Public and Private Families

How do we view the American family?

Public vs. private families

How do we study the family?

Modes of observation

Theoretical perspectives

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Discuss: What is a Family?

  • Write a definition of the word “family.”

  • Which of these would match your definition?

    • Married couple, with or without children

    • Single parent and children

    • 2nd marriage including in at least one stepparent

    • Cohabiting couple with or without children

    • Gay/lesbian couple with or without children

    • Grandparents raising grandchildren

    • Any group of people who consider themselves “family”

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What is a Family?

Social Conservative: Two parent breadwinner-homemaker

Economic: specific rules; who qualifies for benefits

Cultural: varies from culture to culture

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How We Feel About the American Family

Diversity can be tolerated or rejected:

right/conservative side:

  • marriage and childbearing

  • disapproves divorce, births to single moms , cohabitation, gay marriage, abortion

  • favors policies that promote marriage

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left/liberal side:

society can adjust to new family forms

policies should support all types of families

Tolerates or approves diversity

Favors government involvement

How We Feel About the American Family

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Family decisions are individual choices

Individualism: Pursuing personal reward

Utilitarian:self-reliance and personal achievement

Expressive:emotional satisfaction

Leads to family decisions based on emotional bond

Individualism and Families

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Public and Private Families

  • Two key issues:

    • Are families taking care of dependents? (public function)

    • Are families providing emotional satisfaction? (private function)

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The Public Family

Public Goods

Have value for people who did not produce or pay for them


Care of children, ill, elderly

Public family provides these for society

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The Public Family (cont.)

“Public Family” Includes:

  • One adult or two adults

  • Related by marriage, partnership, or shared parenthood

  • Taking care of dependents

  • Dependents

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Provides emotional support

“Private Family” Includes:

Two or more individuals

Intimate relationship that they expect will last indefinitely

Live in the same household

Pool their income and labor

The Private Family

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Two common methods:

Survey: Random sample, standardized questions

Observational study: Direct observation in natural environment

What Do Family Researchers Do?

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What Do Family Researchers Do? (cont.)

What Do Family Researchers Do? (cont.)

Table 1.2 Comparing Survey Studies and Observational Studies


Survey Study

Large, random sample An interviewer asks questions Results can be generalized Only limited knowledge can be of individuals or families from a predesigned questionnaire to the population of interest obtained; hard to judge honesty and records the answers of responses

Observational Study

Small, purposefully A researcher observes them in Detailed knowledge is Findings may not be chosen sample of depth over a long period of time, obtained representative of other, similar individuals or families sometimes participating in their individuals or families daily activities

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Classical theories




Symbolic Interaction


Contemporary theories

Evolutionary psychology


Theory of Families

  • Influences questions and observations

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Classical Perspectives

Functional theory

Stability and cooperation

Each member performs functions

Family contributes to society

Best fits breadwinner-homemaker model

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Conflict theory

Inequality, power, change

Male dominance — physical, economic

Men less dominant when women have financial power

Economic development = more power for women

Classical Perspectives

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Exchange theory

Relationships involve exchange of resources

Housework, child care, financial support, love, emotional support

Contributions are evaluated by members

Income may give more power

Classical Perspectives

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Symbolic interaction theory

Social interaction: shared understanding

Shared understandings: social roles (Spouse, parent, breadwinner, homemaker, child, etc.)

Nontraditional families: more negotiation, fewer cultural roles.

Classical Perspectives

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Feminist theory

Gender defines social roles

Roles are socially (not biologically) constructed

Family life is different for women than men

Contemporary Theories

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Evolutionary psychology (sociobiology)

Women’s interest: survival of young (needed men’s protection)

Men’s interest: maximize reproductive potential (impregnate many women, control sexual access)

Contemporary Theories

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Modernity Theory

Historical development of roles

Modern era – (to 1950)

Roles were culturally defined (student, spouse, parent, etc.)

Little choice

Late modern era – 1950-1980’s

Individual choice – flexible roles

Contemporary Theories

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Author (Cherlin) believes

Families should be publicly supported

Stable long-term partnerships, regardless of sexual orientation, are best for children

Alternative family forms can provide support

Equality of men and women in family life