Welcome to Module 2: How do Sociologists Look at the Family? (Sept 12-18). In this section, we will read Chapter 1: A Sociology of the Family, p. 2-29.

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1: A Sociology of the Family

Chapter 1: A Sociology of the Family opens with a discussion of how very divergent individuals have discovered each other through DNA tests. Even though they identify as different racial groups or come from very different communities, such DNA tests bring them together based on very distant relatives, making us question: what makes a family? The opening also talks about the importance of pets for American families, even virtual ones that have been created to keep seniors company. Has your family taken a DNA test? does your family have a pet that you consider family? What percentage of American families have the same pets that you do? We want to make sure that we include statistics in our autobiography, as they help us understand the percentage of the population that relates to various demographics that we fit into. Always make a note of the statistics in the textbook, as the exams will focus on this type of information. For example, what percentage of people live alone, according to the textbook?

“In the simplest definition, families are groups of related people, bound by connections that are biological, legal, or emotional” (4). However, the textbook talks about what the label “family” means to people when they refer to individuals outside of the legal definition, what does it say? The author defines the family into three different types. What are these types and their definitions? What are the legal implications of these various definitions?

The U.S. Census

Understanding the work of the U.S. Census is centrally important for sociologists, because this provides the main government collected statistical information that we have on American families. The section in the chapter on the U.S. Census (p. 9-11), tells us that the U.S. Constitution in 1789 ordered that the population be counted every ten years, which is a huge feat for a country as large as ours. In 2010, the Census cost more that $13 billion and employed more than a million people (p. 9). How has the Census defined families, and who was left out of the definitions? What other demographic information is not captured by the Census questions, such as mixed race people? Has your family ever answered the Census?


Image of a diverse family comprised of multi-generations and genders.

The Family as an Institutional Arena

The family is an institution, just like the military or the government or the church. This means that there are standards of expectations created and this institution interacts with other institutions, and creates expectations for individuals’ behavior. How does your family both conform, and not conform, to the typical expectations of family and the various roles that each member plays? How has your behavior as the child in the family both upheld family expectations, as well as challenged them?

How have the other social institutions impacted with your own family, as the chapter discusses in relation to the state and the market (economy)? How has religion, the military, or the health care industries impacted your family and its history? Incorporate this into the discussion on your sociological autobiography.

The Family in Sociological Theory

Sociology has a foundation in theories established by theorists prominent at the very beginning of the discipline, over a hundred years ago. These theories provide a framework for sociological understandings and approaches, and so it is important to understand what these theories are and apply their in your understanding of the social world. Do any of these theories help explain your own family dynamics? How do these theories provide insight into your own life that you may not have considered before?

  • The consensus perspective: “projects an image of society as the collective expression of shared norms and values,” also known as “structural functionalism” and based on the work of Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) (16).
  • The conflict perspective: “opposition and conflict define a given society and are necessary for social evolution” (17). This perspective is most closely associated with the theorist Karl Marx (1818-1883).
  • The feminist theory: “seeks to understand and ultimately reduce inequality between men and women” (18).
  • The exchange theory: “sees individuals or groups with different resources, strengths, weaknesses entering into mutual relationships to maximize their own gains” (20).
  • The symbolic interaction theory: this theory focuses on the roles people play in their life (daughter, student, teacher, manager) and how they interact with other individuals to uphold these various roles (20-21).
  •    The modernity theory: “concerns the emergence of the individual as an actor in society and how individuality changed personal and institutional relations”(22).

By using these different theories, what insights do you learn about your own family and those in your community? The chapter also includes two other perspectives, not necessarily theories, “demographic perspective” and “life course perspective.” What information do these perspectives provide about family life?

Studying Families

1375381914372The chapter overviews various methods that sociologists use to gain their information and data about U.S. families. These methods were:

  • sample surveys
  • longitudinal surveys
  • in-depth interviews
  • observation
  • time use studies

Be able to define and understand how each of these methods collect data and what kind of insight each method provides, as well as the information that each method would not capture. Which method would be best for studying various social issues related to the family? If you were going to do a historical analysis of your family, what method would you use and why?

OPTIONAL comments:
In the comments section below, share with us your response to the topics covered in this chapter and how you would use these perspectives to gain further insight into your own family dynamic? How would these theories help you understand families that come from very different backgrounds than your own? What stood out to you about the chapter?