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Chapter 12: Marriage and Families

12.1 Families in Cross-Cultural and Historical Perspectives

Social Issues in the News

“Stabbing Conviction Upheld,” the headline said. In January 2010, the North Carolina Court of Appeals upheld the conviction of a man who had attempted to kill his wife in December 2007 by stabbing her repeatedly in the face and back with a butcher knife. The victim was on her way to deliver Christmas presents to her parents, but her husband attacked her because he thought she was having an affair. With a sentence of almost 21 years, the husband is due to be released from prison 3 days before Christmas in 2027. (Schulman, 2010)

Once upon a time, domestic violence did not exist, or so the popular television shows of the 1950s would have had us believe. Neither did single-parent households, gay couples, interracial couples, mothers working outside the home, couples deciding not to have children, or other family forms and situations that are increasingly common today. Domestic violence existed, of course, but it was not something that television shows and other popular media back then depicted. The other family forms and situations also existed to some degree but have become much more common today.

The 1950s gave us Leave It to Beaver and other television shows that depicted loving, happy, “traditional” families living in the suburbs. The father worked outside the home, the mother stayed at home to take care of the kids and do housework, and their children were wholesome youngsters who rarely got into trouble and certainly did not use drugs or have sex. Today we have ABC’s Modern Family, which features one traditional family (two heterosexual parents and their three children) and two nontraditional families (one with an older white man and a younger Latina woman and her child, and another with two gay men and their adopted child). Many other television shows today and in recent decades have featured divorced couples or individuals, domestic violence, and teenagers doing drugs or committing crime.

In the real world, we hear that parents are too busy working at their jobs to raise their kids properly. We hear of domestic violence like the sad story from North Carolina described at the start of this chapter. We hear of kids living without fathers, because their parents either are divorced or never were married in the first place. We hear of young people having babies, using drugs, and/or committing violence. We hear that the breakdown of the nuclear family, the entrance of women into the labor force, and the growth of single-parent households are responsible for these problems. Some observers urge women to work only part time or not at all so they can spend more time with their children. Some yearn wistfully for a return to the 1950s, when everything seemed so much easier and better. Children had what they needed back then: one parent to earn the money, and another parent to take care of them full time until they started kindergarten, when this parent would be there for them when they came home from school.

Families have indeed changed, but this yearning for the 1950s falls into what historian Stephanie Coontz (2000) once called the “nostalgia trap.” The 1950s television shows did depict what some families were like back then, but they failed to show what many other families were like. Moreover, the changes in families since that time have probably not had the harmful effects that many observers allege. Historical and cross-cultural evidence even suggests that the Leave It to Beaver–style family of the 1950s was a relatively recent and atypical phenomenon and that many other types of families can thrive just as well as the 1950s television families did.

This chapter expands on these points and looks at today’s families and the changes they have undergone. It also examines some of the controversies now surrounding families and relationships. We start with a cross-cultural and historical look at the family.

Defining Family

A defines family as a group of two or more people who are related by blood, marriage or adoption. While this definition still has some merit, sociologists have moved toward a , which defines family as a group of two or more people who are mutually committed to one another and who care for one another. Family is universal or nearly universal: some form of family has existed in every society, or nearly every society, that we know about (Starbuck, 2010). Many different configurations of families have existed, and the cross-cultural and historical records indicate that the family institution serves society by providing practical and emotional support to members and by socializing children.

Types of Families and Family Arrangements

It is important to keep the above discussion in mind, because Americans until recently thought of only one type of family when they thought of the family at all, and that is the : a married couple and their young children living by themselves under one roof. The nuclear family has existed in most societies with which scholars are familiar, and several of the other family types we will discuss stem from a nuclear family. , for example, which consist of parents, their children, and other relatives, have a nuclear family at their core and were quite common in the preindustrial societies studied by George Murdock (Murdock & White, 1969) whose research was discussed in Chapter 9. As indicated below in Figure 12.1 “Types of Families in Preindustrial Societies,” it is common to find a balance between nuclear and extended families in preindustrial societies.

Figure 12.1 Types of Families in Preindustrial Societies


The nuclear family that was so popular on television shows during the 1950s remains common today but is certainly less common than during that decade. Source: Data from Standard Cross-Cultural Sample.

Similarly, many one-parent families begin as (two-parent) nuclear families that reconfigure upon divorce/separation or, more rarely, the death of one of the parents. In recent decades, one-parent families have become more common in the United States because of divorce and births to unmarried women, but they were actually very common throughout most of human history because many spouses died early in life and because many babies were born out of wedlock. Although this is not to say that children whose parents do not reside in the same household, or are not married to one another, necessarily lose all contact with a parent. We will return to this theme shortly.

When Americans think of family, they also think of a monogamous family. refers to a marriage in which there are exclusively two spouses. That is certainly the most common type of marriage in the United States and other postindustrial societies, but in some societies —the marriage of one person to two or more people at a time—is more common. In the societies where polygamy has prevailed, it has been much more common for one man to have many wives () than for one woman to have many husbands ().

The selection of spouses also differs across societies but also to some degree within societies. The United States and many other societies primarily practice , in which marriage occurs within one’s own social category or social group: people marry others of the same race, same religion, same social class, and so forth. Endogamy helps reinforce the social status of the two people marrying and to pass it on to any children they may have. Consciously or not, people tend to select spouses and mates (boyfriends or girlfriends) who resemble them not only in race, social class, and other aspects of their social backgrounds. The tendency to choose and marry mates who are similar to us in all of these ways is called . One of the major variables that drives homogamy is —or social and spatial nearness.

Some societies and individuals within societies practice , in which marriage occurs across social categories or social groups. Historically exogamy has helped strengthen alliances among villages or even whole nations, but it can also lead to difficulties. Some of literature’s most well-known couples involve romances between people of very different backgrounds. As Shakespeare’s great tragedy Romeo and Juliet reminds us, however, sometimes exogamous romances and marriages can provoke hostility among friends and relatives of the couple and even among complete strangers. In the U.S., racial intermarriages, for example, are exogamous marriages, and in the United States they often continue to evoke strong feelings and were even illegal in many states until a 1967 Supreme Court decision (Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. 1) overturned laws prohibiting them, as shown in Figure 12.2 “Dates of Repeal of U.S. Anti-Miscegenation Laws by State,” below. With all that being said, sociologists generally define as a group’s approved mating arrangements.

Figure 12.2 Dates of Repeal of U.S. Anti-Miscegenation Laws by State


Retrieved from:https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:US_miscegenation.svg By Certes – Vector map from Blank US Map.svg Information from Anti-miscegenation_laws CC BY 3.0

Families also differ in how they trace their descent and in how children inherit wealth from their parents. Bilateral descent prevails in the United States and many other postindustrial societies: we consider ourselves related to people on both parents’ sides of the family, and our parents pass along their wealth to their children. In some societies, though, descent and inheritance are (children are thought to be related only to their father’s relatives, and wealth is passed down only to sons), while in others they are (children are thought to be related only to their mother’s relatives, and wealth is passed down only to daughters).

Another way in which families differ is in their patterns of authority. In , fathers are the major authority figure in the family (just as in patriarchal societies men have power over women). Patriarchal families and societies have been very common. In , mothers are the family’s major authority figure. In , fathers and mothers share authority equally. Although this type of family has become more common in the United States and other postindustrial societies, patriarchal families are still more common globally.

Families Before Industrialization

Now that we are familiar with the basic types of family structures and patterns, let’s take a quick look at the cross-cultural and historical development of the family. We will start with families in preindustrial times, drawing on research by anthropologists and other scholars, and then move on to the development of families in postindustrial societies.

People in foraging societies probably lived in small groups composed of several nuclear families. These groupings helped ensure that enough food would be found for everyone to eat. While men tended to hunt and women tended to gather food and take care of the children, both sexes’ activities were considered fairly equally important for a family’s survival. In horticultural and pastoral societies, food was more abundant, and in the case of pastoral societies, families’ wealth depended on the size of their herds. Because men were more involved than women in herding, they acquired more authority in families, and families became more patriarchal than previously (Quale, 1992). Still, families continued to be the primary economic unit of society until industrialization.

Societies without Nuclear Families

Although many preindustrial societies featured nuclear families, a few societies studied by anthropologists have not had them. One of these was the Nayar in southwestern India, who lacked marriage and nuclear families. A woman would have several sexual partners during her lifetime, but any man with whom she had children had no responsibilities toward them. Despite the absence of a father, this type of family arrangement seems to have worked well for the Nayar people (Fuller, 1976). Nuclear families are also mostly absent among many people in the West Indies. When a woman and man have a child, the mother takes care of the child almost entirely; the father provides for the household but usually lives elsewhere. As with the Nayar, this family arrangement seems to have worked well in the parts of the West Indies where it is practiced (Smith, 1996).

Although nuclear families remain the norm in most societies, in practice they are something of a historical rarity: many spouses used to die by their mid-40s, and many babies were born out of wedlock. In medieval Europe, for example, people died early from disease, malnutrition, and other problems. One consequence of early mortality was that many children could expect to outlive at least one of their parents and thus essentially were raised in one-parent families or in stepfamilies (Gottlieb, 1993).

Families in the American Colonial Period

Moving quite a bit forward in history, different family types abounded in the colonial period in what later became the United States, and the nuclear family was by no means the only type. Nomadic Native American groups had relatively small nuclear families, while nonnomadic groups had larger extended families; in either type of society, though, “a much larger network of marital alliances and kin obligations [meant that]… no single family was forced to go it alone” (Coontz, 1995, p. 11). Nuclear families among African Americans slaves were very difficult to achieve, and slaves adapted by developing extended families, adopting orphans, and taking in other people not related by blood or marriage. Many European parents of colonial children died because the average life expectancy was only 45 years. The one-third to one-half of children who outlived at least one of their parents lived in stepfamilies or with just their surviving parent. Mothers were so busy working the land and doing other tasks that they devoted relatively little time to child care, which instead was entrusted to older children or servants.

American Families During and After Industrialization

During industrialization, people began to move into cities to be near factories. A new division of labor emerged in many families: largely, men worked in factories and elsewhere outside the home, while women stayed at home to take care of children and do housework, including the production of clothing, bread, and other necessities, for which they were paid nothing (Gottlieb, 1993). For this reason, men’s incomes increased their patriarchal hold over their families. In some families, however, women continued to work outside the home. Economic necessity dictated this: because families now had to buy much of their food and other products instead of producing them themselves, the standard of living actually declined for many families.

But even when women did work outside the home, men out-earned them because of discriminatory pay scales and brought more money into the family, again reinforcing their patriarchal control. Over time, moreover, work outside the home came to be seen primarily as men’s work, and keeping house and raising children came to be seen primarily as women’s work. As Coontz (1997, pp. 55–56) summarizes this development,

“The resulting identification of masculinity with economic activities and femininity with nurturing care, now often seen as the “natural” way of organizing the nuclear family, was in fact a historical product of this 19th-century transition from an agricultural household economy to an industrial wage economy. “

This marital division of labor began to change during the early 20th century. Many women entered the workforce in the 1920s because of a growing number of office jobs, and the Great Depression of the 1930s led even more women to work outside the home. During the 1940s, a shortage of men in shipyards, factories, and other workplaces because of World War II led to a national call for women to join the labor force to support the war effort and the national economy. They did so in large numbers, and many continued to work after the war ended.


One of the most iconic images from WWII was Rosie the Riveter, which came from an ad campaign to recruit women into jobs I the defense industry during the war. During World War II, many women served in the military, and many other women joined the labor force to support the war effort and the national economy. Image by PublicDomainPIctures from Pixabay.

But as men came home from Europe and Japan, books, magazines, and newspapers exhorted women to have babies, and babies they did have: people got married at younger ages and the birth rate soared, resulting in the now famous baby boom generation. Meanwhile, divorce rates dropped. The national economy thrived as auto and other factory jobs multiplied, and many families for the first time could dream of owning their own homes. Suburbs sprang up, and many families –especially white middle-class families — moved to them. Many white, middle-class families during the 1950s did indeed fit the Leave It to Beaver model of the breadwinner-homemaker suburban nuclear family. Following the Depression of the 1930s and the war of the 1940s, the 1950s seemed an almost idyllic decade.

Even so, less than 60% of American children during the 1950s lived in breadwinner-homemaker nuclear families. Moreover, many lived in poverty, as the poverty rate then was almost twice as high as it is today. Teenage pregnancy rates were about twice as high as today, even if most pregnant teens were already married or decided to get married because of the pregnancy. Although not publicized back then, alcoholism and violence in families were common. Historians have found that many women in this era were unhappy with their homemaker roles, suffering from what Betty Friedan (1963) famously called the “feminine mystique.”

In the 1970s, the economy finally worsened. Home prices and college tuition soared much faster than family incomes, and women began to enter the labor force as much out of economic necessity as out of simple desire for fulfillment. More than 60% of married women with children under 6 years of age are now in the labor force, compared to less than 19% in 1960. Working mothers are no longer a rarity.

In sum, the cross-cultural and historical record shows that many types of families and family arrangements have existed. Two themes relevant to contemporary life emerge from our review of this record. First, although nuclear families and extended families with a nuclear core have dominated social life, many children throughout history have not lived in nuclear families because of the death of a parent, divorce or birth to unwed parents. The few societies that have not featured nuclear families have succeeded in socializing their children and in accomplishing the other functions that nuclear families serve. In the United States, the nuclear family has historically been the norm, but, again, many children have been raised in stepfamilies or by one parent.

Second, the nuclear family model popularized in the 1950s, in which the male was the breadwinner and the female the homemaker, must be considered a blip in U.S. history rather than a long-term model. At least up to the beginning of industrialization and, for many families, after industrialization, women as well as men worked to sustain the family. Breadwinner-homemaker families did increase during the 1950s and have decreased since, but their appearance during that decade was more of a historical aberration than a historical norm. As Coontz (1995, p. 11) summarized the U.S. historical record, “American families always have been diverse, and the male breadwinner-female homemaker, nuclear ideal that most people associate with ‘the’ traditional family has predominated for only a small portion of our history.” Commenting specifically on the 1950s, sociologist Arlene Skolnick (1991, pp. 51–52) similarly observed, “Far from being the last era of family normality from which current trends are a deviation, it is the family patterns of the 1950s that are deviant.”


Key Terms

Egalitarian families – families in which fathers and mothers share authority equally.

Endogamy — marriage which occurs within one’s own social category or social group.

Extended families — consist of parents, their children, and other relatives.

Exogamy — marriage which occurs across social categories or social groups.

Family — a group of two or more people who are related by blood, marriage, adoption, or a mutual commitment and who care for one another.

Functional definition of family — a group of two or more people who are mutually committed to one another and who care for one another.

Homogamy – when people who are similar in social characteristics get married.

Marriage — a group’s approved mating arrangements.

Matriarchal families – families in which mothers are the family’s major authority figure.

Matrilineal – families in which children are thought to be related only to their mother’s relatives, and wealth is passed down only to daughters.

Monogamy — a marriage in which only two spouses exist.

Nuclear family — a married couple and their young children living by themselves under one roof.

Patrilineal — families in which children are thought to be related only to their father’s relatives, and wealth is passed down only to sons.

Patriarchal families – families in which fathers are the major authority figure in the family.

Polygamy — the marriage of one person to two or more people at a time.

Polygyny — one man who is married to more than one woman at the same time.

Propinquity — social and spatial nearness; the variable that mostly drives homogamy.

Traditional definition of family — a group of two or more people who are related by blood, marriage or adoption.


Continue to 12.2 Sociological Perspectives on the Family


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Exploring Our Social World: The Story of Us by Jean Ramirez; Rudy Hernandez; Aliza Robison; Pamela Smith; and Willie Davis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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