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family, sociology of

family, sociology of The family is an intimate domestic group made up of people related to one another by bonds of blood, sexual mating, or legal ties. It has been a very resilient social unit that has survived and adapted through time. Yet, on both sides of the Atlantic, there have been loud claims that families are in decline, and there have even been those who welcome the so-called demise of the family, because it is viewed as an oppressive and bankrupt institution. Nevertheless, family sociology continues to thrive, and is producing a wide range of research that is demythologizing our beliefs about family systems of the past; and expanding our understanding of the diversity of family life, not only between individual nations, but also between various classes, ethnic groups, and regions. More studies are crossing discipline boundaries, looking at the interrelationship of family life and work, and how micro-family relationships are affected by macro-social and economic changes. Family sociology is also incorporating the life-cycle perspective, exploring how families differ at various stages, from early marriage through to old age. Finally, there is an increasing amount of research concerning different family forms, such as lone-parent and reconstituted families; and, inevitably, family sociology has become closely entwined with practical policy concerns.

In recent years there has been a radical reappraisal of the state of the contemporary family and of the desirability of its survival. One strand of this criticism has been to view the family as a bolster for capitalist society (see E. Zaretsky , Capitalism, the Family, and Personal Life, 1976
). A second is the view that the conjugal family oppresses and represses individuality (as argued by, for example, R. D. Laing , The Politics of the Family, 1971
). A third line of criticism can be found in the work of feminist authors, ranging from writers like Jessie Bernard and Ann Oakley, who tend to focus on the nature and consequences of current sex-role divisions in the contemporary family, through to the more radical critique of Michelle Barrett and Mary Mclntosh (The Anti-Social Family, 1982), who regard the family as not only oppressive to women but also an anti-social institution.

Historical studies of families have laid to rest some of the myths about family life of the past. For example, it is a mistake to presume that the nuclear family emerged in response to industrialization, replacing a pre-existing extended family system. Research has indicated that, throughout most of Western Europe, the nuclear family type preceded the early formation of capitalism. Moreover, the romantic image of a close and stable family unit in bygone ages proves unfounded, and studies such as Philippe Aries's Centuries of Childhood (1962) make it quite apparent that the emphasis on intimacy in modern family life is relatively new.

Although there is clearly some continuity of family form over time it is wrong to downplay the diversity of family life. Different ethnic and religious groups hold quite different values and beliefs, and these differences affect not only gender-role conceptions, the internal family division of labour and child-rearing, but also attitudes to work and other social institutions. Similar differences emerge for families of different class backgrounds. Working-class families have been associated with more segregated conjugal roles, although even working-class marriages are now claimed to be symmetrical (see Michael Young and and Peter Willmott , The Symmetrical Family, 1973
). Child-raising orientations also vary by social class, with studies by John (Newson) and Elizabeth Newson in England and by Melvin Kohn in America showing that the middle classes tend to emphasize autonomy and the working-class value obedience, in their respective off-spring. Kohn attributes this difference in orientation to the father's occupation, making it clear that family relationships and work roles interconnect.

Families and work have often been conceptualized as separate spheres, with women being linked to the home and men to the workplace. This separation was unfortunately perpetuated by the sociology of the family being conducted as a separate enterprise from the sociology of work and occupations. Clearly, however, the divide makes no sense, and the increased participation of married women in the workplace has highlighted the importance of work and family transactions. Early work by Rhona (Rapoport) and Robert N. Rapoport on dual-career families has expanded into studies exploring the benefits and strains of families with dual-earners. There are, however, many questions still to be answered concerning the interaction of family and work. For example, how do families affect transitions in and out of the labour-market? How do workplace policies and events affect family life? And how do work-family arrangements differ through the life-cycle?

Research concerned with the life-cycle of families parallels the growing interest in individual life-course analysis. A key concept is family time, which addresses the timing and sequence of transitions such as marriage and parenthood, and how such timings are precipitated both by individual family members and by society at large. The timings of earlier events (such as age of first marriage) are shown to have a great impact on later outcomes (such as divorce). Family transitions also have economic consequences. For example, research in the United States has revealed how women and children face a high risk of poverty following divorce.

The proportion of single-parent families has risen dramatically during the second half of the twentieth century. Social research can play an important role in revealing how society can aid single-parent families to adjust and survive—and not just in financial terms. Many children will at some stage live in a single-parent household and it is damaging to view such families as pathological or deviant. Reconstituted families are also coming under scrutiny and, as yet, many important questions remain unanswered. For example, to what degree does a remarriage terminate the existing child-grandparent relationship, and how does this affect the transfer of equity, inheritance, and family culture across the generations?

Inevitably, in family sociology, the line between social research and policy tends to be blurred. There is a long tradition of excellent family studies that combine both theory and practical concerns (see, for example, P. Townsend , The Family Life of Old People, 1957
, or J. Finch , Family Obligations and Social Change, 1989
). The questions facing family sociologists of the future will undoubtedly be different, as changing circumstances bring new problems to light. However, one thing is clear: regardless of changes in its size, shape, membership, or form, if past experience is any guide then families are here to stay. See also AFFECTIVE INDIVIDUALISM; HOUSEHOLD ALLOCATIVE SYSTEM; HOUSEHOLD WORK STRATEGY.

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