Family Science

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Family Science

Family science is a field of study where "the primary goals are the discovery, verification and application of knowledge about the family" (NCFR Task Force on the Development of a Family Discipline 1987, p. 48). Although family science treats contributions from related academic disciplines as vital background information, it has also developed its own unique assumptions, paradigms, methodologies, and world view (Burr, Day, and Bahr 1993).

Historical Background

Prior to the twentieth century, much of the writing about families was characterized by emotion, superstition, speculation, or "revelation." Insights concerning family life were typically gleaned from sources such as family folklore, philosophy, religion, theater, poetry, and the arts. With the rise of Social Darwinism in the second half of the nineteenth century, interest peaked in the social evolution of marriage and family forms. Attempts were made to apply Darwin's concept of biological evolution to social forms and institutions. Harold Christensen (1964) observed that during this period, the occasional scholarship about families became somewhat more systematic. Some of this scholarship was based on assumptions that families pass through natural stages in their evolution, and that this evolutionary trajectory is progressive in nature.

During the first half of the twentieth century, there was a general shift in the academy toward scientific, positivistic modes of inquiry. These approaches employed more rigorous research methodologies, and attempted to maintain a professional, value-free stance. A parallel trend was observed among scholars interested in systematic study of families.

It was during this period that family as a field of inquiry came into its own. Prior to that time, most of the scholarship related to families was imbedded in any number of traditional academic disciplines. Disciplines such as psychology, sociology, political science, anthropology, education, and religion contributed valuable insights into family structure and process. However, each conveyed a limited and fragmented vision of the scope and complexity of family life (Schvaneveldt 1971). No single discipline viewed family as its organizing center or core. None described family in holistic terms, or as a coherent, integrated body of knowledge (NCFR Task Force 1988).

One of the early pioneers to study the family holistically was sociologist Ernest R. Groves. In 1922, while chair of the sociology department at Boston University, Groves launched the first college course with family as its focus, "The Familyand Its Social Functions." In 1931 he published the first college textbook in the field, entitled Social Problems of the Family. Groves taught the first course on parent education at Harvard University, and from 1937 to 1942 served as special lecturer in marriage and family at Duke University (Dail and Jewson 1986). In 1934 he helped co-found what became the Groves Conference on Marriage and the Family. In 1939 he inaugurated the first three-year graduate training program in marriage and family at Duke (Greene 1986).

The Developing Discipline of Family Science

It might be noted that much of this early work, though family-focused, was interdisciplinary in nature. Some have labeled the initial phase of formal study about families the "Discovery Stage" (NCFR Task Force 1988). During this time, scholars from various disciplines were discovering family to be a fruitful domain of intellectual inquiry. For example, the premier association of family professionals, National Council on Family Relations (NCFR), was founded in 1938 by law professor Paul Sayre from the University of Iowa, working closely with Ernest Burgess, a sociologist from the University of Chicago, and Sidney Goldstein, a New York rabbi. NCFR's second president was the distinguished Swiss psychiatrist and neurologist, Adolf Meyer, who served as professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University (Dail and Jewson 1986). Many other examples of collaborative activity across disciplines exist from this period.

During the second "Pioneering Stage," Ernest Groves (1946) argued for the formation of a new science of marriage and family.

The establishment of a definite program for the training of specialists in the field of

TABLE 1 Employment Opportunities In Family Science
career areaemployment opportunitiescareer areaemployment opportunities
educationpublic school teaching in family & consumer sciences (certification)business, consumer and family resource servicesemployee assistance specialist
corporate day care administrator
university teaching & research in family science departmentsconsumer protection agencies
family financial counseling & planning
family life and sexuality education
programs in parish & community settingsfamily resource management
food assistance programs
parent educatorschild and family poverty research
family peace & justice educationresearch on work and families
children's museum educationfamily business consultant
marriage & family enrichment facilitators
researchgrant proposal writinginternational education & developmentinternational family policy analyst
academic and government-related research in family science content areaspeace corps and ngo leadership
global family planning programs
community & sustainable development
population studies & demographic research
international human rights advocacy
community-based research for non-profit family agencies servicesimmigration & migrant family
cross-cultural family studies programs
program evaluation & assessment
family interventionindividual & family therapycommunity-based social servicesadoption agencies
case manager for family treatment plansfoster care programs
teen pregnancy counselor
crisis & hotline servicesfamily preservation worker
court-mandated parent education programswelfare assistance for low-income families
divorce mediationvocational rehabilitation & job training
abuse protection services
drug & alcohol prevention counselorsadult day care providers
gerontology programs
residential treatment programs
victim/witness support services
government & public policyfamily policy analysthealth care & family wellnesspublic health programs & services
advocate/lobbyist on behalf of children, women, & family well-beinghospital family support professionals
nutrition education & counseling
prenatal and maternity services
cooperative extension specialistholistic health centers
aid to dependent childrenlong-term care administrator
military family support serviceshospice programs
departments of child & family services
writing and communicationcurriculum & resource development in family life educationearly childhood educationday care centers
head start programs
public service radio and tv programmingmontessori schools
child development consultant
newspaper & magazine journalism on social issues affecting children and families

marriage and the family means that several sciences must contribute to the instruction. The outcome will be a science of marriage and the family carried out by specialists who will draw their data from a wide range of resources. They will not be sociologists, home economists, or social workers, but persons who are committed to the gathering and the giving of information that concerns marriage and the family, who have prepared themselves for such an undertaking, and who approach their task from a background shared by no other science. (p. 26)

Advocates for the emerging field of family science argued that all disciplines have their historic roots and origins. They questioned how commonly recognized sociology was in 1839, psychology in 1865, or gerontology in 1945 (Burr and Leigh 1983). They further reasoned that all other major social institutions have established disciplinary identities. The economic institution has its discipline of economics; the religious institution, religion; and politics has political science. There is a similar need for boundaries around the discipline of family science because "family is one of the most fundamental and complex human institutions, and it is distinct in many ways from other institutions and aspects of reality" (Burr and Leigh 1983, p. 468).

During the Pioneering Stage, family departments generated a variety of names to describe their discipline. A 1982 NCFR (Burr and Leigh 1983) survey indicated that 79 percent of the membership felt that identity ambiguity about the discipline was a "serious problem." In response, a task force was appointed by then NCFR President Bert Adams to reach consensus around the clearest terminology to reflect this emerging field of study. After numerous discussions, open forums, and published essays, the task force brought its final recommendation to the 1985 NCFR Conference in Dallas, Texas. Their recommendation, advocating family science as the preferred term for the emerging discipline, was unanimously adopted. "The unanimity of the endorsement was interpreted as a virtual mandate— further justifying subsequent action, such as changing names of courses, majors, and eventually departments around the country" (NCFR Task Force 1987). Around this time a Family Science Section was formed within the NCFR. In 1988, the Family Science Association (FSA), which sponsors an annual conference on Teaching Family Science, was established, and in 1989 the University of Kentucky began hosting an international discussion list for family scientists and researchers called FAMLSCI. The listserv, created and managed by Gregory Brock, had 650 subscribers as of February 2002.

During the "Maturing Stage," family science further consolidated its identity. The result has been a domain of inquiry that is interdisciplinary in nature, yet conceptually unique. It has been suggested that "the family field has entered a unique historical era because it has a bona fide family discipline and also complex interdisciplinary ties. In other words, rather than concluding that it is A rather than B, we conclude that it is A and B. It is a discipline and an interdisciplinary area" (Burr and Leigh 1983, p. 470).

Maturity in the field is further seen by the development of professional standards and a professional code of ethics. For example, the Family Science Section of NCFR initiated and developed a code of ethics for family professionals that was endorsed by the broader NCFR membership in 1998 (Adams 2001; Adams et al. 2001; Doherty 1999). The importance of clarifying ethical principles and guidelines for family scientists is reinforced by the fact that one of the Certified Family Life Educator (CFLE) substance areas includes attention to the area of ethics.

Academic Programs in Family Science

Early graduate programs in family science were typically imbedded in related academic disciplines. Selected examples include Columbia University's graduate school of education featuring a doctoral program in Family and Community Education, and the sociology department at the University of Minnesota offering a concentration in Family and Life Course.

In addition to family programs housed in related academic departments, there have been growing opportunities to earn advanced degrees in family-specific programs. In 1981, fifty-four universities offered graduate programs focused on the study of families (Love 1981). By 2002, that number had grown to over 225 family science graduate programs in the United States and Canada (Hans 2002).

The number of family science programs and majors at international universities is growing, as well. Examples include the College of Family Sciences at Zayed University, Dubai, United Arab Emirates; the Department of Family and Consumer Science at Kenyatta University, Nairobi, Kenya; a major in Child and Family Studies at Yonsei University, Seoul, Republic of Korea; the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Baroda in India; and the Newcastle Centre for Family Studies, University of Newcastle on Tyne in the United Kingdom.

Substance Areas Comprising the Discipline

There have been various attempts to identify the content areas typically falling under the rubric of family science. The preface to the text, Family Science, distinguishes family science from related disciplines by noting that it emphasizes concepts such as "generational alliances, differentiation of self, emotional triangles, developmental tasks, analogic messages, boundaries, emotional distance, family paradigms and experiential aspects of mothering" (Burr, Day, and Bahr 1993, p. iii).

The essential concepts most widely recognized are the ten substantive areas required for CFLE status with NCFR. Between 1985 and 2001, the CFLE program has credentialed 1,200 family professionals. Family scientists seeking CFLE certification are required to demonstrate basic competency in the following areas (Powell and Cassidy 2001):

  1. Families in Society;
  2. Internal Dynamics of Families;
  3. Human Growth and Development over the Life Span;
  4. Human Sexuality;
  5. Interpersonal Relations;
  6. Family Resource Management;
  7. Parent Education and Guidance;
  8. Family Law and Public Policy;
  9. Ethics;
  10. Family Life Education Methodology.

The above areas of concentration in family science fall into the broad categories of family research, policy, practice, and education (Hogan 1995). Many are also distinguished according to whether their focus is primarily preventative or remedial in nature (Mace and Mace 1974).

Career and Professional Opportunities in Family Science

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, professional opportunities in child and family areas are likely to increase faster than the average for all occupations through 2010 (U.S. Department of Labor 2002). The breadth and availability of such opportunities is related somewhat to the level of one's education (Vance 1989). For example, research with family science graduates indicates that those with master's degrees are more likely to be working with human services organizations, whereas those earning doctorates are more likely to be employed by institutions of higher education (Krasenbaum et al. 1994). Table 1 provides an overview of selected opportunities available to family scientists in the general areas of family research, education, policy and practice (Burr 1992; Day et al. 1988; Keim 1995).

See also:Family, History of; Family Life Education; Therapy: Family Relationships


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Adams, R. A.; Dollahite, D. C.; Gilbert, K. R.; and Keim, R. E. (2001). "The Development and Teaching of the Ethical Principles and Guidelines for Family Scientists." Family Relations 50:41–48.

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Burr, W. R.; Day, R. D.; and Bahr, K. S., ed. (1993). Research and Theory in Family Science. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.

Burr, W. R. and Leight, G. K. (1982). "Identity Problems in the Family Field." NCFR Report 27:1–5.

Burr, W. R., and Leigh, G. K. (1983). "Famology: A New Discipline." Journal of Marriage and the Family 45: 467–480.

Cherlin, A. J. (1999). Public and Private Families, 2nd edition. New York: McGraw-Hill.

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Day, R. D.; Gilbert, K. R.; Settles, B. H.; and Burr, W. R., ed. (1995). Research and Theory in Family Science. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.

Day, R. D.; Quick, D. S.; Leigh, G. K.; and McKenry, P. C. (1988). "Professional Training in Family Sciences: A Review of Undergraduate and Graduate Programs." Family Science Review 1:313–347.

Doherty, W. J. (1999a). "Ethics, Family Science and Family Practice." NCFR Report 44:3–4.

Doherty, W. J. (1999b). "Postmodernism and Family Theory." In Handbook of Marriage and the Family, ed. M. B. Sussman; S. K. Steinmetz; and G. W. Peterson. New York and London: Plenum Press.

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Keim, R. (1995). "Careers in Family Science." In Research and Theory in Family Science, ed. R. D. Day; K. R. Gilbert; B. H. Settles; and W. R. Burr. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.

Krasenbaum, D. N; Pittman, J. F; Bradbard, M. R; and Solheim, C. A. (1994). "Educational and Professional Experiences of Recent Graduates of Four Family Science Master's and Doctoral Programs." Family Science Review 7:1–14.

Love, C. J. (1981). A Guide to Graduate Family Programs. Minneapolis, MN: National Council on Family Relations.

Mace, D., and Mace, V. (1974). We Can Have Better Marriages. Nashville, TN: Abington.

Mead, G. H. (1934). Mind, Self, and Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

NCFR Task Force on the Development of the Family Discipline. (1987). "A Recommendation about the Identity of the Family Discipline." Family Science Review 1:48–52.

NCFR Task Force on the Development of the Family Discipline. (1988). "What is Family Science?" Family Science Review 1:87–101.

Olson, D. H., and DeFrain, J. (2000). Marriage and Family: Diversity and Strengths. 3rd edition. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield.

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Powell, L. H., and Cassidy, D. (2001). Family Life Education: An Introduction. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield.

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Vance, B. (1989). "The Family Professional Inside and Outside of Academia." Family Science Review 2:49–60.

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other resource

U.S. Department of Labor. (2002). "Occupational Outlook Handbook 2002–03 Edition" Available from

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