Introduction to Sociology/Family
Most people have a network of others they consider their family. But what exactly is a family? How do family structures vary from culture to culture or subculture to subculture? Is what we consider the traditional family changing over time? Why do families exist? These are the questions sociologists ask when discussing families.
- 1 Defining Families
- 2 Families and Theory
- 3 The Family Life Cycle
- 4 Families and Inequality
- 5 New Developments in Families
- 6 Additional Reading
- 7 Discussion Questions
- 8 References
- 9 External links
You may think this is a fairly straightforward question with a simple answer. But think about it for a minute then ask yourself, "Who and what do I include in my family?" You might say your parents, your siblings, and/or your spouse. But what if you have none of these relations? And what about the family pet? What if you were raised by your grandparents and your parents played little to no role in your life or if you grew up in an orphanage or the foster care system? Who, then, do you consider your family? Is family limited to genetically related individuals; those we typically think of as kin, and if so, does this mean some people have never met their own family if they have one at all? Also, if families are limited to genetically related individuals, what do we make of adopted, fostered, or artificially developed people - do they have a family, multiple families, or some combination there in?
Questioning the basic concept of family is a relatively new phenomenon, though variations in what we consider a "family" are not. There are so many variations of "family" today that it is hard to define what, exactly, a family is. Generally, we think of a family as a domestic group of people, or a number of domestic groups linked through descent from: (1) a common ancestor, (2) marriage, (3) adoption, or (4) some other committed (romantic or otherwise) relationship. While many families have some form of kinship, many others possess no such tie.
But society increasingly accepts a number of variations on family forms. Consider each of the following examples:
- an elderly man and his twelve cats
- a cohabiting gay, lesbian, or asexual couple with three foster children
- a mixed group of singles sharing a town home in a large city
- a close knit fraternity or sorority
- a small group of soldiers fighting in a foreign country
- a collection of orphans or runaways sharing a residence
Each of the above groups differs from the dominant form of family in contemporary American society: a man, a woman, and their children. This notion of parents and children as family is called a nuclear family and is a recent invention of the Western World that has (in some cases) been sold as a form of "tradition." It is a social construct that does not necessarily reflect the reality of family life for many people. In fact, with recent developments in the U.S., the nuclear family is no longer the primary form of social life in the U.S. According to recent census data, more adult women now live alone or are raising their children alone than are living with a spouse or raising their children with a spouse. Further, historical research suggests the nuclear family has never been the statistical or numeric norm in the United States. What many people consider a family is not the only family form; families are diverse in both form and function.
The structure of families traditionally hinges on relations between parents and children, between spouses, between members of long term relationships (romantic, economic or otherwise) or all of the above. Consequently, there is substantial variation in family forms around the world, varying from culture to culture. The most common form of romantic relationship tied to family structure in the Western World is monogamy, which is the practice of having only one spouse or committed romantic partner at a time. A variety of other family structures exist. One prevalent form is polygamy, which broadly refers to any form of marriage in which a person has more than one spouse. Historically, polygamy has been practiced as polygyny (one man having more than one wife), as polyandry (one woman having more than one husband), or, less commonly, as "polygamy" (having many wives and many husbands at one time). Further, many people practice polyamory, which refers to the acceptance, desire, and experience of more than one intimate relationship at a time with the consent of all involved (note this differs from polygamy, which refers to multiple spouses rather than relationships and which historically, religiously, and culturally does not necessarily require the consent of all parties involved).
Another factor that leads to cultural variations in relationships tied to family forms is attitudes toward endogamy. Endogamy is the practice of marrying, becoming romantically involved, or engaging in sexual relations within a social group. Cultures that practice endogamy require relationships between specified social groups, classes, or ethnicities. Many people tend to develop relationships with members of their own social group, but there are some societies that practice endogamy very strictly and as part of their moral values, traditions, or religious beliefs. An example of a strictly endogamous religious group is the Yazidi in Northern Iraq, who prohibit any inter-clan marrying. Endogamy is a common practice among displaced cultures attempting to make roots in new countries as it encourages group solidarity and ensures greater control over group resources (which may be important to preserve where a group is attempting to establish itself within an alien culture).
Changes Over Time
Family structures of some kind are found in every society. Pairing off into formal or informal relationships (often referred to as marriages) originated in hunter-gatherer groups to forge networks of cooperation beyond the immediate family. Intermarriage between groups, tribes, or clans was often political or strategic and resulted in reciprocal obligations between the two groups represented by the marital partners. Even so, marital dissolution was not a serious problem as the obligations resting on marital longevity were not particularly high.
The development of horticultural or agriculture-based societies fundamentally changed the nature of marriage and family forms built around it. With the advent of sedentary societies, marriage became one of the central institutions for forging economic and political relationships and was no longer viewed, at least among the aristocracy, as a relationship that should be based on love, companionship, or sexual attraction. Among the aristocratic elite, marriage became a means of developing alliances or amassing wealth. For the non-elites, marriage was a pragmatic way of supporting oneself: it was easier to survive if resources (i.e., food, labor power, childcare responsibilities, etc.) were pooled between several people.
You can see a good example of the changing nature of families in the family structure of Ancient Rome. In Ancient Rome the family structure was centered on the father (see paterfamilias). In this structure, fathers held great power (patria potestas) over those living with them: They could force marriage and divorce, sell children into slavery, claim dependents' property as their own, and possibly even claim the right to kill family members. Patria potestas extended over adult sons with their own households: A man was not considered a paterfamilias while his own father lived. A daughter, when she married, usually fell under the authority of the paterfamilias of her husband's household, although this was not always the case, as she could choose to continue recognizing her father's family as her true family. However, as Romans reckoned descent through the male line, any children she had would belong to her husband's family. Groups of related households formed a family. Families were based on blood ties (or adoption), but were also used for political and economic alliances. Ancient Roman marriage was often regarded more as a financial and political alliance than as a romantic association, especially in the upper classes.
Modern forms of family structure and marriage in the West have their roots in Christian philosophy and practice. The nuclear family emerged during the late medieval period and was formalized during the Council of Trent, in which marriage was defined as, "The conjugal union of man and woman, contracted between two qualified persons, which obliges them to live together throughout life." While a variety of family structures continue to exist around the world today, including polygamous and polygynous families in many societies (including the U.S.), the predominant form is built upon monogamous sexual and emotional relations (though, as noted above, this is no longer the majority form). As described below and shown in the figure below, variations on monogamous relationships are increasingly prevalent (i.e., same-sex marriage), as are alternatives to monogamy (e.g., single-parent households and polyamory).
Families and Theory
The Function of Families
The primary function of the procreative families (e.g., families built around the pursuit of parenthood) is to reproduce society, biologically through procreation, socially through socialization, or in both ways. Given these functions, one's experience of one's family shifts over time. From the perspective of children, the family is a family of orientation: the family functions to locate children socially, and plays a major role in their socialization. From the point of view of the parent(s), the family is a family of procreation: the family functions to produce and socialize children. In some cultures marriage imposes upon women the obligation to bear children. In northern Ghana, for example, payment of bridewealth signifies a woman's requirement to bear children, and women using birth control face substantial threats of physical abuse and reprisals.
In other cases, procreative families utilize marital privileges, rights, and laws (if they have access to these opportunities legally) to establish legal parenthood of a child, gain control over sexual services, labor, and / or property, establish a joint fund of property for the benefit of children, and / or establish relations between partner's larger familial networks. No society does all of these; no one of these is universal, and many people different societies lack access to whatever marital and family privileges available in their given social context. In societies with a sexual division of labor, marriage, and the resulting relationship between a marital members, increasing economic opportunities and decreasing tax burdens, which can aid the establishment of financially stable families. In modern societies marriage entails particular rights and privileges - for those allowed to marry - that encourage the formation of new families even when there is no intention of having children.
The primary functions of non-procreative families (e.g., families that are built around pursuits and desires that do not involve parenthood) is to facilitate social, economic, emotional, and interpersonal support networks, combine resources for the pursuit of financial gain and / or stability, formalize long term commitments to one another and to larger familial and social networks, claim some of the rights, benefits and privileges granted to procreative families in many countries, and / or adhere to religious / spiritual beliefs about emotional-sexual commitment, trajectory, and purpose.
The Sociobiology of Families
In almost all societies, marriage between brothers and sisters is forbidden, with Ancient Egyptian, Hawaiian, and Inca royalty being the rare exceptions. In many societies, marriage between some first cousins is preferred, while at the other extreme, the medieval Catholic church prohibited marriage even between distant cousins. The present day Catholic Church still maintains a standard of required distance (in both consanguinity and affinity) for marriage.
These sorts of restrictions are a form of exogamy. One exception to this pattern is in ancient Egypt, where marriage between brothers and sisters was permitted in the royal family — as it was also permitted in Hawaii and among the Inca. This privilege was denied commoners and may have served to concentrate wealth and power in one family. The consequence of the incest-taboo is exogamy, the requirement to marry someone from another group. The incest taboo may serve to promote social solidarity.
The Family Life Cycle
Courtship is the traditional dating period before engagement and marriage (or long term commitment if marriage is not allowed). It is an alternative to arranged marriages in which the couple or group doesn't meet before the wedding. During a courtship, a couple or group gets to know each other and decides if there will be an engagement. Courting includes activities such as dating where couples or groups go together for some activity (e.g., a meal or movie). Courting can also take place without personal contact, especially with modern technology. Virtual dating, chatting on-line, sending text messages, conversing over the telephone, instant messaging, writing letters, and sending gifts are all modern forms of courting.
Courtship varies both by time period and by region of the world. One way courtship varies is in the duration; courting can take days or years. In the United Kingdom, a poll of 3,000 engaged or married couples suggested an average duration between first meeting and engagement of 2 years and 11 months,
While the date is fairly casual in most European-influenced cultures, in some traditional societies, courtship is a highly structured activity, with very specific formal rules. In some societies, the parents or community propose potential partners, and then allow limited dating to determine whether the parties are suited (in fact, this was common in the U.S. throughout the 1800's). In Japan, some parents hire a matchmaker to provide pictures and résumés of potential mates, and if the couple or group agrees, there will be a formal meeting with the matchmaker and often parents in attendance; this is called Omiai. In more closed societies, courtship is virtually eliminated altogether by the practice of arranged marriages, where partners are chosen for young people, typically by their parents or (in the absence of parents) local authorities. Forbidding experimental and serial courtship and sanctioning only arranged matches is partly a means of guarding the chastity of young people and partly a matter of furthering family interests, which in such cultures may be considered more important than individual romantic preferences. Another variation of courtship is the bundling tradition, which likely originated in Scandinavia and was carried to the U.S. by immigrants. Bundling involved potential mates spending the night together in the same bed, though the couple was not supposed to engage in sexual relations. This practice ceased in the late 19th Century.
In earlier centuries, young adults were expected to court with the intention of finding marriage partners, rather than for social reasons. However, by the 1920s, dating for fun was becoming an expectation, and by the 1930s, it was assumed that any popular young person would have lots of dates. This form of dating, though, was usually more chaste than is seen today, since pre-marital sex was not considered the norm even though it was widespread. As a result of social changes spurred by the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, the taboo of sex during dating began to wane. Couples today are more likely to "hook up" or "hang out" with large groups rather than go on old-fashioned, paired dates. In recent years, a number of college newspapers have featured editorials where students decry the lack of "dating" on their campuses. This may be a result of a highly-publicized 2001 study and campaign sponsored by the conservative American women's group Independent Women's Forum, which promotes "traditional" dating. Also, in recent years dating has evolved and taken on the metamorphic properties necessary to sustain itself in today's world. This can be seen in the rise in internet dating, speed dating or gradual exclusivity dating (a.k.a. slow dating). Some theorize that courtship as it was known to prior generations has seen its last days and the next closest thing is gradual exclusivity, where the partners respect and value each other's individual lives but still maintain the ultimate goal of being together even if time or space does not permit it now.
Courtship is used by a number of theorists to explain gendering processes and sexual identity. Despite occasional studies as early as the 1910's, systematic scientific research into courtship began in the 1980s after which time academic researchers started to generate theories about modern dating practices and norms. Both Moore and Perper argued that, contrary to popular beliefs, courtship is normally triggered and controlled by women, driven mainly by non-verbal behaviors to which men respond. This is generally supported by other theorists who specialize in the study of body language, but ignores the ways females are socialized to "gain status" by learning to appear attractive to and demonstrate desire for males. Feminist scholars, however, continue to regard courtship as a socially constructed (and male-focused) process organised to subjugate women. While some criticize Feminist interpretations of courtship by pointing to women's support of courtship and attraction to magazines about marital and romantic experience, such criticisms generally ignore the emphasis on marital and romantic relationships (in many cases as the sole element of women's value in male-dominated societies) embedded within feminine socialization norms, and the widespread empirical demonstration that (especially heterosexual) courtship patterns almost universally privilege masculine interests and privilege.
Systematic research into courtship processes inside the workplace as well two 10-year studies examining norms in different international settings continue to support a view that courtship is a social process that socialises all sexes into accepting forms of relationship that maximise the chances of successfully raising children. This may negatively impact women, particularly those seeking independence and equality at work..
Marriage is a governmentally, socially, or religiously recognized interpersonal relationship, usually intimate and sexual, that is often created as a form of contract. The most frequently occurring form of marriage is between a woman and a man, where the feminine term wife and the masculine husband are generally used to describe the parties to the contract. Other forms of marriage also exist. For example, polygamy, in which a person takes more than one spouse, is present in many societies. (See, for instance, the Kaingang, of Brazil, where close to 40% of the marriages were not monogamous but included multiple spousal partners.) Currently, the legal concept of marriage is expanding to include same-sex marriage in some areas.
The ceremony in which a marriage is enacted and announced to the community is called a wedding. The ways in which marriages are enacted have changed over time. In Europe during the Middle Ages, marriage was enacted by the couple promising verbally that they would be married to each other; the presence of a priest or other witnesses was not required. This promise was known as the "verbum". If made in the present tense (e.g. "I marry you"), it was unquestionably binding; if made in the future tense ("I will marry you"), it would, by itself constitute a betrothal. If the couple proceeded to have sexual relations, the union was a marriage. As part of the Reformation, the role of recording marriages and setting the rules for marriage passed to the state; by the 1600s many of the Protestant European countries had heavy state involvement in marriage. As part of the Counter-Reformation, the Catholic Church added a requirement of witnesses to the promise, which under normal circumstances had to include the priest.
The reasons people marry vary widely, but usually include: to publicly and formally declare their love, the formation of a single household unit, legitimizing sexual relations and procreation, social and economic stability, and the education and nurturing of children. A marriage can be declared by a wedding ceremony, which may be performed either by a religious officiator or through a similar government-sanctioned secular process. The act of marriage creates obligations between the individuals involved, and, in some societies, between the parties' extended families. Marriages are perpetual agreements with legal consequences, terminated only by the death of one party or by formal dissolution processes, such as divorce and annulment.
Schwartz and Mare examined trends in marriage over time and found that the old maxim, "opposites attract" is less accurate of marriage than the maxim "birds of a feather flock together." Their research focused on one specific similarity in marital partners: education. They found that the educational levels of American married couples decreased in similarity slightly after World War II but has since increased substantially. As of 2003, one's level of educational attainment was a significant predictor of the educational attainment of one's spouse. People without a high school diploma are unlikely to marry someone with more educational attainment, and people with a college degree are likely to marry people with a similar level of educational attainment. Part of the reason why education is so influential in determining the level of education of one's spouse is because people tend to form groups based on levels of education. First there are the groups formed in the process of becoming educated (many people meet their spouses in school). But jobs after one completes his/her education also tend to be grouped by level of education. As a result, people spend more time with individuals of a similar level of educational attainment. As most people tend to marry or partner with individuals with whom they spend a lot of time, it is not surprising that there is significant educational similarity between spouses.
One well-known attribute of marriage is that it tends to have health benefits. Happily married people tend to be healthier than unmarried people. However, unhappily married couples may not receive the same health benefits and may actually be less healthy than their single peers.
Kids raised in families with only one parent or with step-parents are more likely to have behavior problems than are kids raised with parents that remain connected throughout the child's life course. Previous research has attributed this to the fact that single-parent households tend to be poorer than dual-parent households and poverty is related to behavior problems. A recent study by Marcia Carlson adds a clue as to why children raised in single-parent households or households with step-parents might have more behavior problems. According to Carlson's study of nearly 3,000 teens, children whose fathers are more involved in their lives are less likely to have behavior problems. When the relationship between a child and the father is missing, children in single-parent and step-parent families are more likely to act out in negative ways. One way to reduce behavior problems in teenagers is to encourage a close relationship between them and their fathers. There is also some evidence that the gender of children increases father involvement in the home. Thus, while having an active father helps improve behavior problems, fathers having sons helps improve their dedication and devotion to their families. Expanding on these findings, longitudinal studies of family development have revealed that active parental involvement - regardless of gender (e.g., by fathers, mothers, and / or other designated parental units) - lies at the heart of this relationship, and thus it is most important to provide children with stable, active parental guardians regardless of the origins of these individuals within the life course of the child.
Another recent finding related to children is that parents have less influence on their childs' mate selections now than they used to. Rosenfeld and Kim found that a new life stage has developed in the latter half of the 20th century that they call the "independent life stage." This life stage is a period of time in which young adults leave home and live alone (often to go to college). Children used to remain in their parents home until they left to start their own family, but the independent life stage is a period of single-living prior to the formation of one's own family. As a result of this life stage, which also overlaps with the time in most children's' lives when they are beginning to look for life partners, parents are decreasingly involved in the decision-making process. Rosenfeld and Kim attribute the increase in interracial and same-sex marriages to the increasing prevalence of this life stage.
How parents raise children and childhood autonomy have also changed over time. Analyzing back issues of Parents magazine, Markella Rutherford found that parents face a difficult task of trying to balance authority with childhood autonomy. Children have gained more autonomy in private spaces in their homes (e.g., they are allowed to decorate their own rooms) but have lost autonomy in public areas outside the home (e.g., they are not allowed to go to the park alone). Some of the loss of autonomy is the result of a growing fear among parents of child predators, which is generally over-stated. This same factor may help explain the increase in autonomy in the home, as parents are trying to compensate for heightened supervision outside the home by allowing children greater freedom inside the home. It is also now known that most parents regularly lie to their children, though this is typically done in the interest of getting kids to behave in positive ways. Known as "parenting by lying," the practice appears to be widespread and ironic, considering most parents also tell their kids not to lie. Another shift in parenting has been a reduction in the use of corporal punishment. A growing body of research has found that corporal punishment is not an effective technique for modifying children's behavior. For instance, one study found that most kids who were spanked began misbehaving within about 10 minutes of having been spanked, suggesting that the efficacy of corporal punishment for changing behavior is quite limited.
Kids are closely connected to a family's socioeconomic status as well. Kids are expensive to raise, and the more kids a family has, on average, the lower the social class (though this is a complicated relationship as the causal direction goes both ways). One illustration of this is the upward mobility of Catholics in the U.S. over the past few decades. Catholics in the U.S. used to be among the lower-middle sector of the population in terms of income and wealth. But as of the 1990s and 2000s, Catholics in the U.S. rank higher, just above the middle. Part of the reason for this has been a decrease in the size of Catholic families; Catholics are having about the same number of children as are non-Catholics in the U.S. With smaller families, Catholics are able to retain more of their income and turn it into savings, improving their socioeconomic status. Thus, the reduction in the number of kids among Catholics has actually improved their socioeconomic status on average.
Numerous studies have tried to determine why close to 50 percent of marriages end in divorce within the first 25 years in the United States. Carrie Yodanis takes a different approach, analyzing marriages that remain intact. Her cross-national study of 22 countries suggests that where there is more tolerance of divorce, there is greater gender equality within marriage. Most researchers think that women are disadvantaged by the ease of divorce. Where divorce is an option, women may feel more insecure and are therefore reluctant to push for change within a marriage. Contradicting these claims, Yodanis shows that the ease of divorce increases women's equality within marriage. Divorce is a negotiating tool for women who seek change in their relationships. In countries with greater acceptance of divorce, there is a more equal division of household work. Men risk losing their wives if they refuse to shape up and help out around the house. Thus, while divorce has helped many women leave unhealthy marriages in which they are at risk of great physical and mental harm, the ability to get a divorce easily may also strengthen marriages.
Another factor that contributes to high divorce rates is the change in laws that made divorce easier in the 1970s in the U.S. The introduction of "No-fault divorce" laws removed the burden of proving that one's spouse had caused irreparable damage to the relationship (through adultery, battery, etc.). Women's rights advocates pushed for this change as it facilitated women's ability to exit unhealthy marriages. Other factors that may have also contributed to the rise in divorces is a cultural mystique that suggests marriage should be blissful and not have any problems. This is a common depiction of marriage in media, but is far from an accurate portrayal. The unrealistic expectations many couples bring to marriage heightens the probability of divorce if things don't align with those expectations.
The increasing participation of women in the workforce has provided women with greater financial security. With financial security comes independence. Thus, women's workforce participation also increases the odds of divorce, though this is similar to Yodanis's argument - it really just empowers women who are in bad marriages to feel like they can leave the marriage and not experience a dramatic decline in quality of life.
Finally, there is a social-psychological component to divorce as well. People have a tendency to unfairly judge other peoples' behavior as being "part of who they are" or part of their identity. However, they do not hold themselves to the same critical judgment; when they do something that is mean, it is situationally determined and doesn't reflect their identity. This is known as the fundamental attribution error and can lead to the dissolution of relationships. This occurs when the parties in the relationship attribute the negative behaviors they dislike to fundamental characteristics of the person rather than to the situation. There is evidence to suggest that specific types of couple therapy can help couples see where they are committing the fundamental attribution error and substantially reduce the odds of divorce.
Divorce and widowhood carry with them the burden of reduced health. Divorced people have 20% more chronic health conditions (e.g., heart disease, diabetes, cancer) than do married people. They also have 23% more mobility limitations (e.g., climbing stairs or walking a block). Divorcees experience declines in health because of two things that accompany divorce: reduced income and stresses over the dissolution of the marriage (e.g., things like negotiating child care). These differences in health remain even after an individual remarries.
Death and Widowing
In most societies, the death of one of the partners terminates the marriage, and in monogamous societies this allows the other partner to remarry. A spouse who outlives the other is referred to as a widow (cis and trans women) or widower (cis and trans men).
Families and Inequality
While heterosexual marriage does increase the socioeconomic status of women, men reap many benefits from this type of living arrangement. For instance, while many women manage a household's finances, men generally retain control of the money. As a result, when heterosexual couples divorce, women are much less affluent and a large percentage of divorced, single women fall below poverty lines. Men also obtain greater mental health benefits from heterosexual marriage than do women and report greater marital satisfaction than do women. The greater marital satisfaction heterosexual men report is likely the result of the benefits they receive from marriage - companionship and household labor - while not having to sacrifice occupational success or career advancement. Heterosexual married women, on the other hand, do often have to sacrifice occupational success or career advancement, leading to many highly skilled women leaving the workforce. Many of these women leave because the work environment does not allow for a balance between work and family; the lack of flexible work options for highly skilled women results in many of them "opting out" of the workforce, which is not a problem for heterosexual men. Heterosexual married women also have higher rates of mental illness than do single, widowed, and divorced women. Women who marry at younger ages generally have lower educational attainment (though the causal direction here goes both ways), have more kids, and are also more dependent on their husbands financially. In short, the benefits of heterosexual marriage tend to favor men over women.
One way in which marriage has begun to shift toward a more egalitarian relationship between men and women is in the influence of education. For much of the 20th century, women who had more education than their husbands were at a greater risk of divorce than were women who had less education than their husbands. However, recent research suggests this is no longer the case. Couples married in the 1990s or later in which both individuals have equal levels of education are now less likely to divorce than are couples in which the husbands has more education and women with higher levels of education are no longer at increased risk of divorce either. This suggests a move away from the breadwinner (traditionally male) and homemaker (traditionally female) family model toward a more egalitarian family model.
Race and Ethnicity
Societies have also at times required marriage from within a certain group. Anthropologists refer to these restrictions as endogamy. An example of such restrictions would be a requirement to marry someone from the same tribe. Racist laws adopted by some societies in the past, such as Nazi-era w:Germany, apartheid-era South Africa and most of the United States in the first half of the 20th century, which prohibited marriage between persons of different races, could also be considered examples of endogamy. In the U.S., these laws were largely repealed between 1940 and 1960. The U.S. Supreme Court declared all such laws unconstitutional in the case of Loving v. Virginia in 1967.
Cultures that practiced slavery might admit that slave marriages formed but grant them no legal status. This was the practice under the Roman empire, so that in the Acts of Perpetua and Felicitas, the freewoman Perpetua could be described as "a married matron" but Felicitas as the "fellow-servant" of Revocatus — even though the Christians regarded, religiously, such marriages as binding. Likewise, slave marriages in the United States were not binding, so that many contrabands escaping slavery during the American Civil War sought official status for their marriages. Among the rights distinguishing serfdom from slavery was the right to enter a legally recognizable heterosexual marriage.
The participants in a marriage usually seek social recognition for their relationship, and many societies require official approval of a religious or civil body. In the Protestant tradition, Calvin and his colleagues reformulated marriage through enactment of The Marriage Ordinance of Geneva, imposing, "The dual requirements of state registration and church consecration to constitute marriage." In England and Wales, it was Lord Hardwicke's Marriage Act that first required a formal ceremony of marriage, thereby curtailing the practice of Fleet Marriage.
In many jurisdictions, the civil marriage ceremony may take place during the religious marriage ceremony, although they are theoretically distinct. In most American states, the marriage may be officiated by a priest, minister, rabbi or other religious authority, and in such a case the religious authority acts simultaneously as an agent of the state. In some countries, such as France, Spain, Germany, Turkey, Argentina, and Russia, it is necessary to be married by the state before having a religious ceremony.
Conversely, there are people who have religious ceremonies that are not recognized by civil authorities. Examples include widows who stand to lose a pension if they remarry and so undergo a marriage only in the eyes of God and the community; lesbian, gay and bisexual couples with same-sex partners (where same-sex marriage is not legally recognized); some sects which recognize polygamy (see, Mormon fundamentalism), retired couples who would lose pension benefits if legally married, Muslim men who wish to engage in polygamy that is condoned in some situations under Islam, polyamorous couples and groups that seek ceremonial celebration of commitment (where polyamory is not legally recognized), and immigrants who do not wish to alert the immigration authorities that they are married either to a spouse they are leaving behind or because the complexity of immigration laws may make it difficult for spouses to visit on a tourist visa.
In Europe, it has traditionally been the churches' office to make marriages official by registering them. It was a significant step towards a clear separation of church and state and advance toward a secular society when German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck introduced the Zivilehe (civil marriage) in 1875. This law made the declaration of the marriage before an official clerk of the civil administration (spouses affirming their will to marry) the procedure to make a marriage legally valid and effective, and reduced the clerical marriage to a private ceremony.
Most of the world's major religions tell people they should marry before having sexual intercourse. They teach that unmarried people should not have sex, which they refer to as fornication. Fornication is sometimes socially discouraged or even criminalized. Sex with a married person other than one's spouse(s), called adultery, is generally condemned by most religions and has even been criminalized in some countries. Despite this condemnation, it is a widespread practice. About 10-15% of women and 20-25% of men in the U.S. engage in extramarital sex.
New Developments in Families
One recent trend illustrating the changing nature of families is the rise in prevalence of single-parent or one-parent households. While somewhat more common prior to the 20th century due to the more frequent deaths of spouses, in the late 19th and early 20th century, the nuclear family (husband, wife, and kids) became the societal norm in most Western nations. But what was believed to be the prevailing norm for much of the 20th century is no longer the actual norm, nor is it perceived as such.
In the 1950s, most people believed that single-parent households were "immoral," but by 1978, only 25% of Americans held that belief. Legal reforms in the 1960s and 1970s expanded the rights of nonmarital children and unwed mothers, breaking down the distinction between "legitimate" and "illegitimate". Additionally, the declining purchasing power of male wages in the 1970s along with the increased levels of education among women led to an increasing percentage of married women (with and without kids) to enter the workforce. This change in the economic structure of the U.S. (i.e., the inability to support a nuclear family on a single wage), had significant ramifications on family life. Women and men began delaying the age of first marriage in order to invest in their earning power before marriage by spending more time in school. The increased levels of education among women - women now earn more than 50% of bachelor's degrees - positioned women to survive, economically, without the support of a husband. By 1997, 40% of births to unmarried American women were intentional, and, despite a still prominent gender gap in pay, women are able to survive as single mothers.
However, despite their ability to support their children, single parents often struggle financially to make ends meet. There is some evidence, however, that when single parents move in with their parents (i.e., the child's grandparents), the odds of the single-parent led family falling under the poverty line are reduced by 80%. Thus, three generation households are more financially secure environments for raising children than are two generation households if it is a single parent who is trying to raise children alone.
Cohabitation is an intimate relationship which includes a common living place and which exists without the benefit of legal, cultural, or religious sanction. It can be seen as an alternative form of marriage, in that, in practice, it is similar to marriage, but it does not receive the same formal recognition by religions, governments, or cultures or the multitude of privileges and governmental benefits granted to officially sanctioned marriages.
The cohabiting population, although inclusive of all ages, is mainly made up of those between the ages of 25 and 34. Several common reasons that lead couples and groups to decide to live together include:
- wanting to test compatibility or establish financial security before marrying
- a desire to live as married when same-sex marriages and / or polyamory are not legal
- living with someone before marriage as a way to avoid divorce
- a way for polygamists to avoid anti-polygamy laws
- a way to avoid the higher income taxes paid by some 2-income married couples (in the United States)
- seeing little difference between the commitment to live together and the commitment of marriage
While cohabitation does address all of the issues above, it does not improve the quality or duration of marriages. Individuals who cohabit before engagement (about 43% of all couples) report slightly lower marital satisfaction, dedication, and confidence as well as more negative communication as compared with individuals who cohabit after engagement (16.4% of all couples in the US) and those who cohabit after marriage (40.5% of couples in the US). Early cohabitors also have a great potential for divorce. The differences are generally small, but are not attributable to demographic differences between the three groups.
Some couples prefer cohabitation because it does not legally commit them for an extended period of time, and because it is easier to establish and dissolve. In some countries (such as Scotland) and some states in the United States, cohabiting is viewed as a legal relationship and is referred to as a common-law marriage after the duration of a specified period or the birth of a child to the couple. In California, such couples are defined as people who "have chosen to share one another's lives in an intimate and committed relationship of mutual caring," including having a "common residence." This recognition led to the creation of a Domestic Partners Registry, which is available to same-sex couples and opposite-sex couples in which at least one of the partners is age 62 or older, granting them limited legal recognition and some rights similar to those of married couples. Today, seven states (North Carolina, Mississippi, Virginia, West Virginia, Florida, Idaho and Michigan) still criminalize cohabitation by opposite-sex couples, although anti-cohabitation laws are generally not enforced.
In most States of the United States, there is no legal registration or definition of cohabitation, so demographers have developed various methods of identifying cohabitation and measuring its prevalence. The most important of these is the Census Bureau, which currently describes an "unmarried partner" as "A person age 15 years and over, who is not related to the householder, who shares living quarters, and who has a close personal relationship with the householder." Before 1995, the Bureau euphemistically identified any "unrelated" opposite-sex couple living with no other adults as POSSLQs, or Persons of Opposite Sex Sharing Living Quarters (these numbers are still reported to show historical trends). Cohabitation often does not have clear start and end dates, as people move in and out of each other's homes and sometimes do not agree on the definition of their living arrangement at a particular moment in time.
In 2005, the U.S. Census Bureau reported 4.85 million cohabiting couples, up more than 1,000 percent from 1960, when there were 439,000 such couples. More than half of couples in the US lived together, at least briefly, before walking down the aisle. In Sweden, Denmark and Norway, cohabitation is very common; roughly 50% of all children are born into families of unmarried couples. In late 2005, 21% of families in Finland consisted of cohabiting couples (all age groups). Of couples with children, 18% were cohabiting. Generally, cohabitation amongst Finns is most common for people under 30. Legal obstacles for cohabitation were removed in 1926 in a reform of the Finnish penal code. In the UK 25% of children are now born to cohabiting parents. In France, 17.5% of couples were cohabiting as of 1999.
While homosexuality has existed for thousands of years among both humans and other animals, formal marriages between gay / lesbian partners is a relatively recent phenomenon - the earliest recorded examples were referred to as Boston Marriages in 19th century America. As of the summer of 2014, 19 states and the District of Columbia allow same-sex couples to legally marry, but - especially following the dismissal of half of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) by the Supreme Court in 2013 - many states are shifting their legal opinions on this matter at present and cases continually work through the legal system. Further, the dismissal of half of DOMA in 2013 created the possibility for the federal government of the United States to recognize same-sex couples and families, which has facilitated steady opening and benefit extensions to same-sex couples via federal agencies and officials since the ruling (see Same-sex marriage in the United States for regularly updated details of these ongoing changes).
Given how recent same-sex marriage is in the U.S., there is very little existing data on marital dissolution rates. There is, however, data on marital dissolution rates (i.e., divorce) in other countries where same-sex marriage has been legally allowed for a longer period of time. Andersson et al. examined precisely this issue in Norway and Sweden, where same-sex marriages or civil unions have been legally recognized since the mid-1990s. Andersson et al. found several ways in which lesbian/gay unions differ from heterosexual unions in these countries:
- the average same-sex couple is older than the average heterosexual couple
- the average same-sex couple is more educated than the average heterosexual couple
- while divorce rates are higher for couples that marry younger generally (see discussion of divorce above), the divorce rate is slightly higher for same-sex couples than heterosexual couples
- female same-sex couples are more likely to divorce than are male same-sex couples
Andersson et al. attribute the higher divorce rate to a combination of factors, including: less support from the community and less encouragement or pressure from family and friends to make the marriage last.
One question often raised about same-sex unions is how it influences any children raised in these households. Are children raised by same-sex parents more likely to be lesbian, gay, or even bisexual or asexual? The answer is surprising to some: No. Children raised in same-sex parented households (or mixed-orientation households - households composed of two or more people of varied sexual identities) are no more or less likely to be homosexual than children raised in heterosexual households. Even so, there are some differences. For instance, children raised in same-sex households have more complex perspectives on sexuality and have well-articulated responses to discrimination. Further, recent findings concerning adolescents raised in planned lesbian families suggests these children do as well or better on all social indicators as children raised in heterosexual and / or mixed-orientation households.
Some couples have made a concerted effort to balance home and work responsibilities so they literally split everything 50/50. Yet, doing so is difficult. This New York Times Magazine article examines this relatively new trend.
Family sociologist Phillip N. Cohen maintains an ongoing blog sharing and discussing the latest issues in family developments, inequalities, and experiences through the dissemination of published findings and the analyses of existing (and at times newly established) data sets that may be useful for further understanding the complexities of family dynamics in the contemporary world. The blog may be found at the following address: http://familyinequality.wordpress.com/
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- Do we need families?
- How do families vary by society and culture?
- What does "family-friendly" mean?
- Why are people increasingly choosing not to marry?
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