THE SPECTRUM OF FAMILY
CULTURES AND TIME
They are our enemies, and so we marry them.
Family systems, like biological organisms, evolve with time and circumstance.
Indeed, form may follow function. My anthropological colleagues observe
how the nuclear family form is found at both ends of stages of economic
evolution, predominating in societies with primitive hunting and gather
economies where food supply is uncertain, and in modern industrial societies
where the marketplace requires the geographical mobility of small, nuclear
systems. Further, over the past two centuries the family has metamorphosed
from being a unit of production to being a unit of consumption.
concepts: familial structures of obligation and aid; endogamous
and exogamous rules of mate selection; polyandrous, polygynous, and monogamous
unions; extended vs. nuclear forms; matrilineal and patrilineal descent
systems; matrilocal, patrilocal, and neolocal residence rules; matriarchal
and patriarchal authority systems; adult-child relationship rules and matters
of legitimacy; dowries; primogeniture and ultimogeniture inheritance rules. If
you want to see how these attributes correlate with each other in preindustrial
societies using the Ethnographic Atlas, check out the Centre
for Social Anthropology and Computing at the University of Kent at
and Social Organization--An Interactive Guide
- Lecture by Alan Macfarlane on Descent "What does descent mean? What is the distinction between social and biological descent?"
- The Family in Ancient Rome
- History of Marriage and Family an online course
- Lynn Nelson's "The Family Through Time",
chapter 11 of Sociology in Global Perspective
- See "Marriage" and "Women at Home" subsections of Paul Halsall's
Internet Medieval Sourcebook
- Abstracts of The History of the Family: An International Quarterly
THE MYTH OF SOME "GOLDEN AGE" IN FAMILY
In this era of rampant divorce, reports of family violence, and dramatic change in
family roles and role relations, many reflect nostalgically back to "the good old days" of
family life when, supposedly, familial bonds were richer and familial processes were less
likely to be "dysfunctional."
Among the fallacies and dangers of such envisionments, members of this class
- Such idealizations are typically false historically. When patriarchy reigned there
were, for instance, highly stratified gender spheres during Victorian times and perhaps
greater child "abuse" during colonial times. In Puritan New England, for instance, parents
usually sent their children away to the home of relatives or friends as a method of
discipline and a way to prevent the parents from becoming too emotionally tied to their
children and from spoiling them.
- Given the interrelationships between family structures and processes with broader
socio-historical phenomena, past forms--even if true--are inappropriate for present times.
- These idealizations deny the diversity and flexibility of "successful" family forms.
- Such idealizations can lead to false expectations and standards against which to
gauge our current family lives.
In his Family Discussions:
Sociological Perspectives of Changing Families site, Professor Edward J. Steffes has provided excellent reviews of the following
influential works that challenge the "supposed" history of families:
- Stephanie Coontz's The
Way We Never Were
- John R. Gillis's A World of
Their Own Making observes how it
"was not until the Victorian age that Western cultures began to associate
paradise with origins rather than with destinations and to transform the past,
particularly childhoods past, into an ideal."
For images of nineteenth-century family life, check out:
- Currier and Ives "The Happy Family"
(Museum of NYC exhibit)
- The Daguerreian Society and the
- Images from Prof.
Robin Love's Concepts of Childhood Page
Another window on the family past is through oral histories.
Resources to check include the Federal Writers' Project's "American
Life Histories," oral histories collected between 1936-1940 and
now part of the Library of Congress's American
Memory website. Another site is Paul Thompson's "Family
Life and Work Experience Before 1918: An Oral History Research Project."
The nineteenth century was a time when there still was faith in the
perfectibility of man, which was, in turn, seen accomplishable if he were to be
placed in the "correct" social environment. This was an era of great social experiments.
New societies required new families which required, in part, new relations
between the sexes and between children and adults. Among the
most interesting and long-lived of these experiments was the Oneida Commune,
which featured communal property and group marriage.
- Randall Hillebrand's "The Oneida Community"
- Images of Oneida from Syracuse University
- "Old Mansion Memories," by Harriet Worden, who was raised in the community
CULTURAL FACTORS AFFECTING FAMILY STRUCTURES AND
- Matters of Age
of course, matters of sexuality. A good site to begin with is Dennis
O'Neil's Sex &
Marriage: An Introduction to the Cultural Rules Regulating Sexual Access and
Over the past two decades there have been sixteen major American-family
studies commissioned by the Federal Government. These studies and others
- in the early 1990s, sixty-one percent of all adults are wed, compared
with 72 percent in 1970;
- in 1970, 85 percent of children under 18 lived with two parents,
compared to only 72 percent currently. Divorce caused 37 percent of the
one-parent situations, and in one-third of the one-parent homes the parent
has never married;
- the number of households in which a married couple lived with young
children was 26 percent of the total in 1990, down from 40 percent in 1970;
- the "traditional" nuclear family, with a husband wage-earner,
wife homemaker and dependent children, now accounts for less than 10 percent
of all American households;
- 45 percent of American families headed by a single mother live in
- 65 percent of black children live in a family headed by a single
mother, and that a black child born today has an 87 percent chance of spending
some years in a single- parent home.
Click here to see changes in American household
types from 1970 to 1995.
Status and Living Arrangements Data from the Census
- NORC 1999 report “The Emerging 21st-Century American Family”
number of own children under 18 by family type:1955 to present
RACIAL, ETHNIC, AND CLASS DIFFERENCES
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