Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Family Sociology: A Centrist Approach

I teach a popular Introduction to Family Life course which I enjoy tremendously. Of all the subjects I teach – indeed, of all of the subjects that anyone teaches in the college – this is one of a handful that is most interesting to students. Almost all of my students expect to marry and expect to have children, though they have not given much thought to the details of parenthood (especially the men).

Finding the right books to use in that class is a constant struggle. The struggle has two parts. The happy part is that a number of excellent books about family life are published every year, and the difficulty comes in choosing among this embarrassment of riches. The less happy part is that many of the books on family life produced by my fellow sociologists are so unbalanced in their criticism of marriage and parenthood that they are unhelpful. As for family sociology textbooks, I find them simply unusable.

Family textbooks suffer from a pervasive bias that can only be described as anti-marriage and oblivious to children. Norval Glenn, in his excellent study of the leading family sociology textbooks, “Closed Hearts, Closed Minds: The Textbook Story of Marriage,” concluded that:

Overall, most of these textbooks remain rather dogmatically dedicated to the proposition that intact marriages are not especially important for raising children. The great majority of Americans who persist in thinking otherwise are, as these authors frequently suggest, merely ignorant. … These textbooks are characteristically uninterested in the effects of family change on children.

So what do I use?

Family sociologists, as a rule, are devoted to the idea that all family forms are socially constructed – and should be reconstructed to increase individual choice and eliminate all gender differences. My thinking about family life went through a complete revolution some years ago, when I became convinced that the sociobiological foundations of mate selection are true. Sociobiology, or evolutionary psychology, argues that there are deep differences in the way men and women as a group approach mate selection and childrearing. Marriage is cultural construction, but it was constructed in almost every culture because it is the most effective compromise between these deep sexual differences and is the best institution raise kids in.

The foundation for my family life course, then, is a sociobiological study of how sexual differences affect family life. I use David Buss’ The Evolution of Desire, which includes his own cross-cultural study of mate selection. This leads naturally to Deborah Tannen’s work on gender differences in communication, which is hugely popular with students. Indeed, every time the class discusses these gender differences in ways of talking, whether the speakers believe Tannen or not, they tend to demonstrate her points.

For marriage I think one could not do better right now than Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher’s The Case for Marriage. This book often has a strong effect on how students think about marriage, especially about cohabitation before or instead of marriage. Discussion of marriage naturally leads to a consideration of divorce. For the past several years I have used The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce, by Judith Wallerstein and her colleagues. This year I am going to use Elizabeth Marquardt’s Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce, though I still strongly commend Wallerstein’s project and will teach it in lectures. This is an example of the embarrassment of riches in this field.

The central discussion of the course is about how families function. Here I have found the work of Robert Beavers in categorizing how family systems function (or dysfunction) to be the most helpful. Beavers’ own books are aimed more at clinicians and graduate students. Maggie Scarf’s Intimate Worlds applies the Beavers scale to a number of representative real families in an engaging way. The crying need of the discipline, I think, is a national-level study of the distribution of functional and dysfunctional family systems.

A book that has a strong effect on my students, especially the women, is Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children. Hewlett details how women at the highest levels of professional achievement often end up with no children, or fewer children than they wanted, not from choice, but from the “creeping non-choice” of waiting too long to get started. For the ambitious, professionally oriented women I teach, this is sobering.

There are many other excellent works that are good for a centrist approach to family sociology. My whole syllabus can be found at http://web.centre.edu/ant/SYLLABI/WESTON/S05FamilyIntro.html. There are a number of conservative and centrist family sociologists who are disaffected with the generally leftist thrust of the field. I believe, though, that this group of sociologists, as well as the larger world of scholarship, will continue to produce excellent material for teaching centrist family sociology.

And the bottom line is this: most students will marry and will have children, and are eager to learn from a pro-marriage and child-oriented family course. For those willing to buck the conventions of the discipline, the market belongs to us.


Unknown said...


It is possible the saying "It takes a village to raise a child" has been transformed to "All you need is a village..."

I hope it is appropriate to inject a little Presbyterian thought into this:

In the baptism of a child the parents are questioned as to their faith and willingness to teach their child what it means to be a part of the household of God. The congregation is also asked to make promises in support of the parent's obligation.

My feelings on this are that the primary responsibility lies with the parents, but the surrounding community is a key support. WIthout either, then the job is that much harder.

Gruntled said...

Indeed. Kids raised by villages alone are hardly distinguishable from those raised by wolves.

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