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Family:A Sociological Perspective

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The family is the central institution in human societies, or as B. K. Malinowski, a renowned twentieth-century anthropologist argued; it is the “basic building block of society”. However it has faced and still faces the same challenges as any other institution in the dynamic world in which we live. This core institution’s structure and function are both vulnerable and susceptible to change often incited by both internal and external factors. While some changes brought on by shifts in economics or demographics are observable through trends, other changes incited by war or catastrophes can be abrupt. Whether changes occur quickly or slowly they affect the dynamics of this complex but essential concept we call family, which is conceptualized and manifests itself in diverse socio-cultural contexts throughout the world. To explore the family and factors that may affect its dynamics a single discipline approach may be insufficient. Instead a more holistic approach using views from sociology, economics, and psychology and how these disciplines study the family will likely provide more insight. This study attempts to incorporate this approach to look at contemporary changes in the family.

However, before this exploration it is vital to first discuss, if only at a macro or superficial level, the definition or concept of family. The definition provided for this research was, “family is a group of people who are related by blood, marriage, or adoption”. After a literature review I think that the definition for family is in constant flux as society changes, so the provided definition may be a little constraining. What was considered family two or three decades ago, does not necessarily reflect some contemporary perspectives. Family, like other institutions, has, within its boundaries, its own sets of values, statuses, roles, and remains a principal environment in which initial socialization takes place. However, these values, statuses, and roles find themselves existing within, and thus influenced, by ever shifting structures and individual roles. These shifts may influence the socialization process too. The ‘ideal family structure’, which was once viewed primarily as biological parents, normally of the same race, raising their children in perfect harmony may not present a realistic outline for much of our society today. Today’s society has many variant forms, families that do not have the ideal structure. Such structures include single parent families, blended families, same-sex families, adoptive families, interracial families, extended families, nuclear families, and the list goes on.

These structures and their effects studied and analyzed by sociologists, often influence the role members of the family play. Sociologists explore these changes in family structure and the functions of its members. Over the decades, the typical role of the father working to pay the bills and the role of the mother to stay home and care for the children has been altered. Now, for some families those roles have been reversed, the mother is now entering the workforce while the father stays at home. This shift in roles can alter the whole structure of an ‘ideal family’, and has shifted the roles within the nuclear family. As these reversed gender roles become more common, people are waiting longer and longer to start families. Our society no longer requires people to have a family to survive. Our society keeps people living longer and dying less, therefore the rush to form a family is no longer there. More people are starting careers than starting families. As more and more women enter the workforce, there is less time to spend on raising a family. “Statistics show that in 1970, the number of nuclear families was at forty-one million, and the number of people living alone was at twenty-five million. Later, as gender roles changed, the numbers shifted dramatically. By 2000, the number of nuclear families dropped to twenty-four million, and the number of people living alone rose to twenty-six million” (Williams & Sawyer).

Along with the reversal of gender roles, divorce and remarriage play their part in the change of family. Divorce rates have increased over the last hundred years, to where by some estimates forty percent of all marriages end in divorce. “Divorces play a crucial role in the nuclear family structure”(Crouch). When a parent separates from the other, children are forced to reside with one parent or the other. This separation does not allow the child to receive the proper raising that a family of two parents can give. Later, if that divorced parent gets remarried to another person with children, the child from the previous marriage will have to compete with his/her new stepbrothers/sisters for affection.

Perhaps another reason for the drop in nuclear families is the fact that children have become an economic liability to their parents. In the past, children

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