Professor Marshall

LESSON 2: Why Study the Family?

Why Study the Family?

Is the "American family" in trouble?

There are scholars and politicians who assert that the American family is in trouble. Consensus on what exactly the "trouble" is has not been reached. Some assert that there is a void in family values which is tearing away at the stability of the family as a social institution. Others would assert that outside forces (such as the workplace or some other agent of socialization) is having a detrimental impact on family life.

Whether or not we see the American family as being in trouble is a source of debate. As you learn about the family thoughout this course, you will incorporate knowledge that will help you to decide for your own self whether or not the American family is, indeed, in trouble.

Essential Tools for Studying the Family

Critical Thinking Skills

As is mentioned in the introductory lesson for this course, being able to think critically about the world around us is one of the essential tools of practicing sociology. In the scope of marriage and family studies, there are many reasons to exercise critical thinking:

  • Understanding divorce rates: is the divorce rate REALLY 50% in the US?
  • Understanding family diversity: how do children of same-sex parents fare when compared to children of opposite-sex parents?
  • Understanding family violence: does the structure of society contribute to family violence?
  • Living with a partner: does cohabitation before marriage increase the odds of divorce?

These are just a few of the things we need to think deeply about when we study marriage and family.

Understanding the Sociological Imagination

As you've already learned, the sociological imagination refers to the ability to grasp the relationship between your life and large social forces that helps shape it. Perhaps nowhere else is this more apparent that from within the family structure—for some scholars, the family is the source of external social, cultural and historical forces.

Of course, not all families are the same and this is the reason why the practice of the sociological imagination is so useful to us in a course on marriage and families. The concept of the sociological imagination allows us to see social acts (family behavior) as related to the structures of society. Putting ourselves into the positions of others—mothers, fathers, children, and so on—can help us to see that what we think of as "normal" behavior in our own families does not necessarily translate to "normal" behavior in other families.

Using the sociological imagination when studying family life can challenge us: it is difficult to step out of our own shoes and put ourselves into the point of view of outsiders. Families are the source of socialization, and to be able to see someone else's situation without bias may be impossible however exercising your ability to remain neutral while attempting to understand the situations of others is paramount to understanding the social construction of the institution of family in society today.

Understanding Levels of Analysis: Macro and Micro

Having already taken an introductory sociology course, you have a basic understanding of levels of analysis. Using both the micro and macro perspectives will help you to see not only your own family situation, it will also help you to see the family as a social institution.

Understanding that society is a SOCIAL CONSTRUCTION

It is such an obvious statement: WE construct social reality. Social construction theory deals with the ways in which our own personal ideas about social life help to create the scaffold of social structure. In a nutshell, social construction theorists are interested in how our own "subjective" points of view become what we view as "objective reality." Social constructionists concentrate on one idea: how is reality created? Theorists who follow this line of thinking further break social constructionism into two concepts:

  1. Objective fact (socially accepted and common order)
  2. Subjective meaning (something that is personally meaningful)

In this perspective, the world is created by us, and is given meaning and order by us. Both objective and subjective realities must function in order for society to exist. Things must be meaningful to us, and also must "fit in" to society in an orderly way. With the study of family life and the institution of the family (as well as marriage and relationships), you can see how the idea of the creation of the structure of society is important for us to think about.

Three Points of View to Study the Family

Judy Root Aulette asserts that, while there are several different points of view that we can use to study family life, one point of view clearly helps us to pivot around issues related to the family and see it from multiple angles: the feminist point of view. Examining both the conservative and liberal perspectives can help us to see how both are lacking, and by incorporating a feminist point of view, we achieve a more balanced and practical approach to studying the family which neither the conservative not the liberal perspectives can individually provide.


Parents should be responsible for children:

  • Husbands = providers
  • Wives = nurturers
  • Against abortion
  • Against divorce
  • Against single parenting
  • Considers what OUGHT to be, not what IS
  • Goes against the concept of verstehen

The LIBERAL view

Economics impact the family as much as cultural values do:

  • We can instill values, but when the economy is "bad" the family suffers and values are strained
  • Discrimination against some family types should not be a factor in political decision making
  • Opposes the CONSERVATIVE POV


Says that the CONSERVATIVE and LIBERAL views fall short:

  • Says the CONSERVATIVE view subjugates women and children and ignores the connection btwn family and economy
  • Says the LIBERAL view has too narrow a focus (just on economics) and ignores the impact of family values
  • Says it "takes a village" to raise a child
  • We DO need strong family values, but not necessarily CONSERVATIVE family values
  • We DO need to acknowledge the impact of the economy on the family, but this should not be out only focus

Why the '70s Were so Important to the Study of Family

The Feminist Enlightenment

In the 1970s in America, women began to gain power within our patriarchal society. In academics and in the workplace, women began to compete for positions which had long been the domain of men. In the field of academics this caused some significant changes to the study of society, in particular the study of the family as a social institution became more commonplace. Since the home had been the domain of women essentially since the arrival of the pilgrims, women and academics were interested in studying the family not only for personal reasons, but also in an attempt to understand how the family could be considered the genesis of social structure. Thus, academics and scholars studying the family began to re-envision it.

As Judy Root Aulette points out, women began to gain power and feminist researchers asserted that we should:

  • CHALLENGE the myth of the MONOLITHIC SNAFs (Standard North American Families)
  • OBSERVE that the family is the site of many activities which are captured within the structure of society (ideas about reproduction, production, socialization, sexuality)
  • ACKNOWLEDGE differences in the family by gender and age
  • QUESTION seeing the family as separate from the rest of society
  • CREATE equality within the family
  • UNDERSTAND that the family must be a changing social institution which serves the needs of men, women and children

A Feminist Point of View

Aulette's "take" on the family is a feminist perspective which encompasses three main points:

  1. Gender is critical to the study of the family: nearly all social relations-within and outside of the family-are influenced by gender
  2. Gender relations in the US are problematic: there is social inequality and strain between genders
  3. Gender relations are not "natural" or "inborn:" we socially create gender and expectations about gender


As we begin to study marriage and the family in contemporary American society, it's important that we consider various points of view and perspectives. Being able to understand all points of view—conservative, liberal, and feminist—allows us to understand the politics of the family as well as affording us a point of view which encompasses our sociological imaginations.