Friday, December 05, 2008

It is Hardest to Think Macro About Family Life

One of my most important jobs as a sociologist is to help students move from thinking about the micro to the macro. It is hard to think about big institutions, huge social forces, and society-wide social facts; it is natural to think only about how they affect individuals, especially ourselves and people like us. Sociology is a recent invention because we needed reliable facts from whole societies before we would think about society as a whole. Marx thought about classes before he had any actual measures of the reality of different classes - which is one of the reasons that he was usually wrong. Weber and Durkheim, by contrast, could really begin sociology because they had reliable numbers on such things as the relative wealth of different religious groups in many countries, or comparative national suicide rates.

It is easiest to think about economic life at the macro level. We use collective measures of economic life every day -- the Dow-Jones Industrial Average, the Gross National Product, the national trade deficit, etc., etc. And it is also common to see that political life has a macro dimension, as we obsessively report national elections and have daily notices of international wars. Popular culture produces Billboard charts, best sellers, top grossers for the whole nation each week. Nationwide religious denominations make news as they grow and decline, split and do good.

The hardest institution to think about in a macro way is the family. Sure, everyone knows the divorce rate, the rising age of first marriage, and may even has a sense of the fertility rate. But when we think about family as an institution, we each tend to think about my family. The divorce rate lives as divorces we know; marriage age becomes when I got married; fertility rate is really only interesting as how many kids I have.

Family is the hardest institution to think about at the macrosociological level because each family only exists at the micro level. There is no national family corporation, family state, family culture industry, family church. There are just millions of families whose collective actions add up to a social institution.


halifax said...

You sound almost Thatcheresque here, not in your sentiments but in your unit of analysis. Do you remember this classic from 1987? And I include the long version to point to the similarity (though it looks to me like we're right back where we were when she made this comment, though now it's not merely the unemployed but the wealthy and privileged who are asking for handouts.)

"I think we've been through a period where too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it's the government's job to cope with it. 'I have a problem, I'll get a grant.' 'I'm homeless, the government must house me.' They're casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It's our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour. People have got the entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations. There's no such thing as entitlement, unless someone has first met an obligation."

As you know, I think that she's right about this, but given that we have just witnessed a social conservative transform himself into a conservative socialist, I don't know if there is a lot for me to choose from.

Anonymous said...

Tou should google on Gross Domestic Happiness in the nation of Bhutan. Veryy interesting
Check out article in Time,8816,1016266,00.html