Alternative Family Structures
This article focuses on alternative family structures. It explores the sociology of alternative family structures in four parts: an overview of the history of alternative family structures; a description of the history of the nuclear family unit; a discussion of the ways in which sociologists study alternative family structures, such as cohabitation, gay and lesbian families, single parents by choice, family networks, affiliated family, and communes; and an exploration of the issues associated with participation in alternative family lifestyles. Understanding how sociologists conceptualize and study alternative family structures is vital for all those interested in the sociology of family and relationships.
Keywords Affiliated Families; Alternative Family Structures; Cohabitation; Communes; Family; Family Networks; Gay & Lesbian Families; Gender; Nuclear Family; Society; Sociology; Values
Social scientists, both in academic and government settings, work to define the parameters and composition of the family unit and the household. Definitions and perceptions of family vary across cultures and life phase. Factors that influence definitions and perceptions of family include the socialization process, social movements (such as civil rights and feminist movements), women in the workforce, divorce rates, adoption, coparenting, and homosexuality. The decrease of extended kin or family relations has resulted in the expansion and rise of alternative family structures, such as family networks, communes, affiliated families, gay and lesbian families, and single parent families (Kempler, 1976).
Child Definitions of Family
In the early twentieth century, social psychologist Jean Piaget developed and popularized the concept that children define their families through a three-stage process.
- First, a child recognizes his or her family as those who live in the same dwelling as the child.
- Second, a child recognizes biological ties within their immediate and extended family.
- Third, a child recognizes their family to include all those biological and nonbiological relations who perform parenting roles.
Piaget recognized a connection between a child's psychocognitive development and their conceptualization of their family. According to Piaget, children, by the time that they have moved through the three stages of family definition, recognize the existence of alternative family structures, such as postmodern alternative family forms. Factors that influence the definition and perception of family may include gender, education, age, geographic location, and family composition.
Census Bureau Definitions of Family
In contrast to the lived experience of children as described by Piaget, the United States Census Bureau exclusively defines family as a group of two or more persons connected by blood, marriage, or adoption. According to the U.S. government, families may or may not reside together. Households are characterized as either family or nonfamily. Family household types or structures include married couples, female-headed households, and male-headed households. The U.S. Census Bureau counts households outside the government's definition as family to be nonfamilies. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, nonfamilies include nonnuclear, postmodern, or alternative family structures. Nonfamily households are divided into single-person households and other nonfamilies such as same-sex couples on nonmarried heterosexual couples (Ford, 1994). Examples of alternative family structures, some of which are classified as nonfamilies by the U.S. Census Bureau, include cohabitating couples, gay and lesbian families, single parents by choice, family networks, affiliated family, and communes.
Understanding how sociologists conceptualize and study alternative family structures is vital for all those interested in the sociology of family and relationships. This article explores the sociology of alternative family structures in four parts:
- An overview of the history of alternative family structures;
- A description of the history of the nuclear family unit;
- A discussion of the ways in which sociologists study alternative family structures, such as cohabitation, gay and lesbian families, single parents by choice, family networks, affiliated family, and communes;
- An exploration of the issues associated with participation in alternative family lifestyles.
History of Alternative Family Structures
Mid-Century Alternative Family Studies
During the 1960s and 1970s, researchers developed conceptual schemes or perspectives to explain changing family roles, behaviors, and functions. In the 1960s, family sociology, led by Harold Christensen and Ira Reiss, became increasingly liberal. For instance, researchers studied the function and effects of women's paid work outside of the home. In the 1970s, family sociology recognized and studied the changing trends in families such as coparenting, daycare, premarital sex, cohabitation, divorce, extramarital sex, homosexual relationships, childlessness, single mothers, stepfamilies, open marriage, group marriage, and new divisions of household responsibilities. Sociologists developed the idea of an alternative lifestyle or family. Family sociology began to recognize the importance of applying integrated models, theories, and perspectives to understand complex family relationships in society. In the 1980s, family sociology continued to focus on alternative families, individuation, and hedonism. Multiple competing family models emerged to account for the diversity of modern families. In the 1990s, family sociology recognized the existence of the postmodern family that defies categorization with diffuse boundaries and an evolving composition.
Twentieth-Century Alternative Family Studies
Family sociology's changing subjects over the course of the twentieth century reflect the changes occurring in society. Families changed throughout the twentieth century as a result of immigration, modernization, World Wars, civil rights movements, and women's rights. Sociologists have analyzed and reported on the evolution of the traditional or functional family, liberal family, alternative family, and postmodern family. Sociologists study areas of family relations such as marriage across life span, mate selection, sexual behavior, parenthood, family planning, retirement, sex roles, divorce, premarital sexual relations, contraception, cohabitation, extramarital sexual relations, homosexual relationships, group marriage, open marriage, adoption, voluntary childlessness, communal living, single-parent households, and stepfamilies (Jallinoja, 1994).
Traditional vs. Alternative Family Structure
Sociology's traditional view of the family unit functioning to serve society and economy, a view represented by the work of Talcott Parsons and Robert Bales, is challenged by the existence of alternative family structures. Alternative family structures may be born of economic necessity, as in the case of lower economic classes that cannot afford the nuclear family lifestyle of one income, or personal need and values, as in the case of single-parent-by-choice families. For instance, in the United States, families of low socioeconomic standing usually cannot afford to subsist with one wage earner and, as a result, rarely adhere to a traditional family structure (Miller & Browning, 2000).
History of the Nuclear Family Unit
The tension between traditional family forms, such as the nuclear family, and the lived experience of families across cultures is represented in the sociological literature. Up until the 1960s, sociologists studied and wrote almost exclusively about the nuclear family unit. The field of family sociology, also referred to as family science or family sociology, was established in the early twentieth century by prominent sociologists such as Ernest Burgess, Talcott Parsons, Florian Znaniecki, William Thomas, Willard Waller, and Reuben Hill. For instance, sociologist Ernest W. Burgess (1886–1966), the 24th president of the American Sociological Association, developed schemes to predict marriage success and outcome in nuclear families. Burgess's work on the study of marriage and family remains influential. The family, as an object of study for sociologist, became extremely popular and important in the early twentieth-century (Spanier & Stump, 1978).
In the 1950s, Parsons advanced the idea that the isolated nuclear family contributes to the functioning of economy and society. The isolated nuclear family socializes and educates its young but remains mobile and able to move should the man's employer require. In industrialized societies, social institutions such as schools, libraries, community centers, and government programs take over some roles that were once served by families. Parsons believed that the family performed very clear functions for its members and society as a whole. Family functions included socialization of children and stabilization of adult personality. Parsons argued that a full-time mother was responsible for the family needs, while the father/husband was responsible for income and thus could move between home and work contexts. Women were limited to their roles of wives and mothers. Parsons predicted increased gender role segregation in the future. According to Parsons, the marriage becomes the source of feminine and masculine role socialization. Sociologists in the 1950s believed that young girls were given mixed messages by providing the girls with a full education and then offering marriage and motherhood as the best or only roles available (Breines, 1986).
Functionalist View of Family Structure
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