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As previous chapters indicated, no society is possible without adequate socialization of its young. In most societies, the family is the major unit in which socialization happens. Parents, siblings, and, if the family is extended rather than nuclear, other relatives all help socialize children from the time they are born. One of the most important functions of the family is the socialization of children. In most societies the family is the major unit through which socialization occurs. Second, the family is ideally a major source of practical and emotional support for its members.

It provides them food, clothing, shelter, and other essentials, and it also provides them love, comfort, help in times of emotional distress, and other types of intangible support that we all need. Third, the family helps regulate sexual activity and sexual reproduction. All societies have norms governing with whom and how often a person should have sex. The family is the major unit for teaching these norms and the major unit through which sexual reproduction occurs. One reason for this is to ensure that infants have adequate emotional and practical care when they are born.

The incest taboo that most societies have, which prohibits sex between certain relatives, helps minimize conflict within the family if sex occurred among its members and to establish social ties among different families and thus among society as a whole. Fourth, the family provides its members with a social identity.

As we have seen in earlier chapters, social identity is important for our life chances. Any shift in this arrangement, they warned, would harm children and by extension the family as a social institution and even society itself.

Types of Families and Family Arrangements

Textbooks no longer contain this warning, but many conservative observers continue to worry about the impact on children of working mothers and one-parent families. We return to their concerns shortly. Conflict theorists agree that the family serves the important functions just listed, but they also point to problems within the family that the functional perspective minimizes or overlooks altogether. First, the family as a social institution contributes to social inequality in several ways. Because families pass along their wealth to their children, and because families differ greatly in the amount of wealth they have, the family helps reinforce existing inequality.

Second, the family can also be a source of conflict for its own members. Although the functional perspective assumes the family provides its members emotional comfort and support, many families do just the opposite and are far from the harmonious, happy groups depicted in the s television shows. Instead, and as the news story that began this chapter tragically illustrated, they argue, shout, and use emotional cruelty and physical violence. We return to family violence later in this chapter. Social interactionist perspectives on the family examine how family members and intimate couples interact on a daily basis and arrive at shared understandings of their situations.

Studies grounded in social interactionism give us a keen understanding of how and why families operate the way they do.

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Some studies, for example, focus on how husbands and wives communicate and the degree to which they communicate successfully Tannen, Tannen, D. New York, NY: Quill. A classic study by Mirra Komarovsky Komarovsky, M. Blue-collar marriage. Such gender differences seem less common in middle-class families, where men are better educated and more emotionally expressive than their working-class counterparts. Another classic study by Lillian Rubin Rubin, L.

Worlds of pain: Life in the working-class family. Other studies explore the role played by romantic love in courtship and marriage. Romantic love , the feeling of deep emotional and sexual passion for someone, is the basis for many American marriages and dating relationships, but it is actually uncommon in many parts of the contemporary world today and in many of the societies anthropologists and historians have studied. In these societies, marriages are arranged by parents and other kin for economic reasons or to build alliances, and young people are simply expected to marry whoever is chosen for them.


This is the situation today in parts of India, Pakistan, and other developing nations and was the norm for much of the Western world until the late 18th and early 19th centuries Lystra, Lystra, K. Searching the heart: Women, men, and romantic love in nineteenth-century America. It is time now to take a closer look at families in the United States today. Using U. Census Bureau, , U. Census Bureau. Statistical abstract of the United States: Washington, DC: U. Government Printing Office.

The census defines a household as being all the people who live together in a dwelling unit, whether or not they are related by blood, marriage, or adoption. About million households exist in the United States. Most of the nonfamily households consist of only one person. About half of all households involve a married couple, and half do not involve a married couple.

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This last figure should not suggest that marriage is unimportant. Population, , Persons 18 Years of Age or Older". Because more than half of the never-married people are under 30, it is fair to say that many of them will be getting married sometime in the future. These figures all indicate that marriage remains an important ideal in American life, even if not all marriages succeed. Population, , Persons 18 Years of Age or Older.

Source: Data from U. Most marriages As small as it is, this figure is 3 times greater than the 1. This increase Chen, Chen, S. Interracial marriages at an all-time high, study says. Qian, Z. Breaking the last taboo: Interracial marriage in America. Contexts, 4 4 , 33— Although only 3. It is interesting to see how the age at which people first get married has changed.

It then rose after and today stands at almost 28 years for men and 26 years for women. Estimated median age at first marriage, by sex: to the present. Cherlin, A. The marriage-go-round: The state of marriage and the family in America today. The changing landscape of love and marriage. Contexts, 9 2 , 32— First, Americans place more emphasis than their Western counterparts on the ideal of romantic love as a basis for marriage and other intimate relationships and on the cultural importance of marriage.

Second, the United States has higher rates of marriage than other Western nations. Fourth, Americans are much more likely than other Western citizens to remarry once they are divorced, to cohabit in short-term relationships, and, in general, to move from one intimate relationship to another, a practice called serial monogamy. This practice leads to instability that can have negative impacts on any children that may be involved and also on the adults involved. The U. It leads people to want to be in an intimate relationship, marital or cohabiting.

Then, when couples get married because they are in love, many quickly find that passionate romantic love can quickly fade; because their expectations of romantic love were so high, they become more disenchanted once this happens and unhappy in their marriage. The American emphasis on independence and individualism also makes divorce more likely than in other nations; if a marriage is not good for us, we do what is best for us as individuals and end the marriage. As Andrew J. Cherlin , p. New York, NY: Vintage.

The United States has about 36 million families with children under Most of these latter families are headed by the mother see Figure The proportion of families with children under 18 that have only one parent varies significantly by race and ethnicity: Latino and African American families are more likely than white and Asian American households to have only one parent see Figure We discuss single-parent families and racial and ethnic differences in family arrangements at greater length a little later, and we will also discuss several other issues affecting children.

Simon, R. The joys of parenthood, reconsidered. Contexts, 7 2 , 40— Children have these effects because raising them can be both stressful and expensive. College education obviously can cost tens of thousands of dollars beyond that. Robin W. Simon Simon, R. She also thinks that the expectations Americans have of the joy of parenthood are unrealistically positive and that parental stress would be reduced if expectations became more realistic.

American families have undergone many changes since the s. Scholars, politicians, and the public have strong and often conflicting views on the reasons for these changes and on their consequences. We now look at some of the most important changes and issues affecting U. Some people who are not currently married nonetheless cohabit , or live together with someone of the opposite sex in a romantic relationship.

The average cohabitation lasts less than 2 years and ends when the couple either splits up or gets married; about half of cohabiting couples do marry, and half split up. More than half of people in their 20s and 30s have cohabited, and roughly one-fourth of this age group is currently cohabiting Brown, Brown, S. How cohabitation is reshaping American families. Contexts, 4 3 , 33— Interestingly, married couples who have cohabited with each other before getting married are more likely to divorce than married couples who did not cohabit.

Social Issues in the News

As Susan I. Brown , p. Sorting out bad relationships through cohabitation is how many people think they can avoid divorce. First, cohabitation may change the relationship between a couple and increase the chance they will divorce if they get married anyway. Second, individuals who are willing to live together without being married may not be very committed to the idea of marriage and thus may be more willing to divorce if they are unhappy in their eventual marriage.

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Apel, R. On the relationship between family structure and antisocial behavior: Parental cohabitation and blended households. Criminology, 46 1 , 35—70; Brown, S. On average, married adults are happier and otherwise have greater psychological well-being than cohabiting adults, while the latter, in turn, fare better psychologically than adults not living with anyone.

Research has not yet clarified the reasons for these differences, but it seems that people with the greatest psychological and economic well-being are most likely to marry. If this is true, it is not the state of being married per se that accounts for the difference in well-being between married and cohabiting couples, but rather the extent of well-being that affects decisions to marry or not marry. Another difference between cohabitation and marriage concerns relationship violence. Among young adults aged 18—28 , this type of violence is more common among cohabiting couples than among married or dating couples.

Relationship violence in young adulthood: A comparison of daters, cohabitors, and marrieds. Social Science Research, 37 1 , 73— The children of cohabiting parents tend to exhibit lower well-being of various types than those of married parents: they are more likely to engage in delinquency and other antisocial behavior, and they have lower academic performance and worse emotional adjustment. The reasons for these differences remain to be clarified but may again stem from the types of people who choose to cohabit rather than marry.

It rose sharply during the Great Depression and World War II, probably because of the economic distress of the former and the family disruption caused by the latter, and fell sharply after the war as the economy thrived and as marriage and family were proclaimed as patriotic ideals.