A Primer on the Family

Here is a primer on the sociology of the family. It departs from my other primers in that some of my definitions are controversial rather than simply the collected wisdom of the field as I express that in terms of role theory. I say this by way of introduction because I always promised my students, when I was teaching, that I would tell them when I was presenting a consensus of thought within the discipline or presenting a controversial issue or even just presenting my own view of the matter being discussed.

A family is a social arrangement whereby members share intimate activities or activities made intimate by taking place only or largely only within the family. So families share meals, share finances, share concerns for the welfare of other members of the family, and aid one another in crises, and the mother and father in the family also share a bed. In these ways, the family is a locus of feeling and community, given that a community is a set of families or maybe even just a set of people that share aspects of life in common, such as wheat fields or a church or a sense of identity. Communities, like families, thereby become the focus of deep emotions. In these modern times, families and communities are at odds with one another because the two loyalties conflict with one another rather than reinforce one another. The family is a nuclear unit in that its members go out into the world to make a living or to seek provisions or social nurture and so the views and interests of the family can conflict with the realm of the church or  the heartless economic world. Moreover, many of the prerogatives of the family have been usurped by the community at large. Education is delegated to the school system; medical care to the hospital system; an income to the office or factory. Indeed, all that seems left to the family is making decisions having to do with the health of its members in that final decisions about ending care for a terminal patient are left to family members, though the state is sufficiently intrusive that it is now the law that a parent seek medical assistance for an ailing child. Families are no longer free to do what they like even after the bond of making a family has been accomplished through a marriage ceremony, and yet it falls to a family to supervise the final days of a loved one or (to the mother alone) what is to be done about a problematic or unwanted foetus.

The nuclear family that emerged after the industrial revolution was a fortress against the world in that it mostly pooled its economic resources, lived under the same roof, prepared and took meals together, tended to one another’s illnesses, presented itself to the outside community as upstanding folks, and felt more loyalty to one another than to other families or even to church or nation. (This view of the history of the nuclear family is the consensus view, references to be made to the historian Lawrence Stone and the sociologist William Goode.) Students often therefore think of the family as the “natural” social unit, the one not to be regarded with the suspicion directed at bosses and politicians, as the place to which one can always return in that blood is always thicker than water. A maiden aunt may be emotionally close or even regarded as part of the family, but it is a deficient role to have in life. As George Ball, the foreign policy contrarian in the Johnson White House put it, males need wives who can criticize them and so make them more human when they deal with occupational subordinates and superiors.

It is understandable, therefore, that the utopian communities which emerged in Nineteenth Century America to liberate people from the Industrial Revolution, whether by regressing to what they thought a pre-industrial ideal or aspiring to a new, post-industrial formation for society, so often associated that intention with a revolution in family structure. The Mormons championed plural marriage, the Oneida Community championed supervised and collective parenthood, and the Shakers provided for celibacy and the separation of the sexes. It was not all that different when communes in the Sixties and Seventies also experimented with forms of sexual license as a way of expressing their displeasure with the confines of bourgeois life, which they identified with the confines of the nuclear family.

It has not always been the case that the family could be defined by the functions it undertook for the people living as a family. Historically, there was only one kind of commonality that was defined by marriage. It was that a married couple had conjugal relations and that the offspring of the union was legally recognized as the legitimate inheritors of the goods and property of the family according to firmly established rules of precedence. Jacob inherited from Isaac only because he (with the help of his mother) fooled Isaac, his father, into giving him the blessing as inheritor rather than giving it to his elder brother Esau. But even so, even if queens were supplanted by mistresses and kings amused themselves with their dogs and talked only with their ministers, the marriage bond created a kind of intimacy that persevered. The first wives could wheedle and needle in a way mistresses could not, whether because of pride of place or because they had known their husbands since they were young men and so knew how to talk to them. Sarah holds her own with Abraham-- and, for that matter, even with God, when He appears to the old couple in the form of an angel. And that seems to remain the case, only the couple who share the marriage bed having more than a glimmer of how they relate to one another. And so, whether talking about kings or peasants, city dwellers or the rural poor, sex is important in establishing an intimacy that goes far beyond sex.

That goes for child rearing too. Here is the first place where I am taking sides in a controversy. Following Freud, who is now in general disrepute, I would suggest the following proposition: children learn their sex roles from the parent of the opposite sex and learn their occupational or social roles from the parent of the same sex. The unconsummated infatuation with the opposite sex parent is safe but it allows a child to sense what the opposite sex is like and how it is to be handled and what are its attractions. So guys marry a version of their mothers and girls marry a version of their fathers, though what aspect of the opposite sex parent is selected as crucial can vary widely, given that even young children make such choices as what to find attractive or charming. A boy finds a certain turn of the head or a degree of flirtatiousness or the shape of a face or figure as what he finds to be agreeable in a spouse-- or decides to want just the opposite, as when Bill Clinton chose a woman very unlike his mother to be his wife while also indulging his tastes for women who did carry some of the same aura as his mother. And the same capacity to choose holds for the parent of the same sex in that a child decides what about that person is to be admired or emulated. A boy finds his father to be quietly reliable rather than just a breadwinner and a girl finds the mother she struggles not to be also to serve as a model for her own feistiness. And that is the way in which I invoke, in terms of role theory, Freud’s idea of childhood sexuality.

Not that such a view strays so far from the conventional wisdom. An old piece of mine, “A Material Family”, urged readers to consider a well to do family in which the girls wanted to be well liked, and so sought to emulate their mother, while the father wanted to toughen up his son to meet the standards of his own Marine Corps background by insisting that his son play Peewee Football. Similarly, the not discreditable portrait of the Huxtables as a model American family presented daughters who were as tough minded as their mother and a son as charming, though not as talented, as his father. It has always been problematic as to how to merge Freud’s radical reinterpretation of family life as a hotbed of sexual repression with our own understanding of what is “normal” in family relationships, but it is an effort worth making.

And here is the second way in which my theory of the family is controversial in that there are opposing camps of scholarship to contend with. Family structure gets distorted or just more complicated when there is not a two parent family to provide two models for two different purposes. The most obvious example of this is the single parent family (which largely meant the single mother family) which received so much attention half a century ago in Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s “The Negro Family”, where the future Senator argued that a household where the only adult family member was a mother would lead to dysfunctional children in that male children would pick up the idea that they could charm their way to success rather than engage in achievement oriented activities and that female children would pick up that they too might well have children at an early age and out of wedlock, neither of which were the ways in which poverty families could come to prosper and so Moynihan had provided an explanation for Black families that had been mired in poverty for generations. That focus on the internal dynamics of families has to be supplemented by, for example, William Julius Wilson’s examination of the contextual forces that lead to the replication of poverty over the generations: residential segregation, gang violence, men incarcerated or dead at a young age and so leaving young women with not very desirable choices for mates. But the combination of Moynihan and Wilson is an argument that still applies to the pockets of deep poverty that still exist for the African American community in Chicago, Baltimore, and Ferguson, Missouri.

The dysfunctionality of the single parent family is not restricted to the African American community. It applies to any set of families that are caught up, for a time, with one spouse away from home. Sometimes it is for work, as when fathers are absent because they are oil drillers who go away to whatever oil field that is then opening up. Sometimes, it is war that does the dividing up of families. Noone has calculated the costs to the American family of eight million men having been away from home during the Second World War, their children raised by claques of women, those upbringings unleavened by the flirtatiousness and admiration that is part of opposite sex parenting.

Again, children are capable of great plasticity. What isn’t provided by a second parent is available, for some, from relatives or even, possibly, from teachers or celebrities known only from the silver screen. The same is true with gay or lesbian parenting. One parent may take on the opposite sex role or the child may respond to some other figure as the one to fulfill that role. Culture can indeed triumph over social structure; it is just harder to do it that way and modern research may show that it is not that difficult to pull off at all. But it is or, at least, was a reasonable concern, given that until recently no society had permitted same sex marriage. A comprehensive review of the literature by Manning, Fattro and Lamidi in 2013 showed that there was no differences between the children of same sex couples and the children of opposite sex couples with regard to academic achievement, cognitive and social development, drug use or psychological well being. That has become, I suppose, the common belief in the fast moving gay and lesbian revolution, but it is nice to see the idea supported by data (and also in support of my observation that people are flexible in finding ways to satisfy their psychological needs). It is always the responsibility of the social scientist to dispassionately consider the evidence and the theorizing that may for a moment seem outrageous or outside the accepted wisdom of the time. Social scientists are, in that sense, inevitably subversive of fads in values and sentiments.