Household Diversity: The Starting Point for Healthy Families in the New Century

John Scanzoni. Handbook of Contemporary Families. Editor: Marilyn Coleman & Lawrence H Ganong. Sage Publication. 2004.

Despite its many virtues, the rise in the West of the individualistic, nuclear, child-oriented family that is the sole legitimate context for sexual bonding and a primary context for affective bonding is not an unmixed blessing. It is no more permanent a phenomenon than were the economic ties of property and interest that united families in the past, even if it exemplifies the rough general direction in which Western society has been moving over the last 300 years (Stone, 1979, p. 427).

Today’s quest for household diversity represents an unfolding stage in the progression of Western thinking about sexuality, gender, relationships, households, marriages, children, and families. It is the current manifestation of a metamorphosis that, although accelerated in the late 1960s, had been occurring for at least two centuries. During the era after World War II, the accepted wisdom was that the isolated nuclear family style of that period was the culmination of a long journey: the end point of changes in families that had been occurring for several hundred years. Accordingly, that style was commonly regarded as the standard the ultimate gauge against which all other forms of families were measured and, invariably, found wanting. “The normal American family” was how Parsons (1965) characterized it.

The standard family had two linked aspects: the internal structure of the household and the household’s relation to its external context. In terms of internal structure, the household consisted of a heterosexual, and parenting, couple, only ever married to each other. The man’s principal roles were good provider and instrumental task leader, and the woman’s were good wife/mother and expressive guide. Externally, the household was structurally isolated that is, independent from the day-to-day control and ultimate authority of its blood kin. Its autonomy was indicated by a high degree of privacy. And because its boundaries were deemed sacrosanct, happenings within the household were concealed from the prying eyes of outsiders. Nonetheless, despite the hegemony of the standard, citizens were (and are) experimenting with a variety of ways to reconfigure the internal structure of the household. By comparison, revising its external structure remains a low priority.

In this chapter, I trace the progression of internal changes over the past 40 years and examine the changes both from the vantage point of the citizens doing them and from the reactions and advocacy of professionals studying them. I suggest that notwithstanding their growing pervasiveness, the behavioral variations remain perceived (in the United States) as temporary options that are less significant than today’s (neo)standard (“neo” in the sense that it is now common for wives and mothers to be engaged in paid labor). As a result, in most research on families, diversity does not yet convey the essential meaning that it does in the realm of plant/animal ecology, from which the label was borrowed in the first place. I argue, however, that diversity of families ought to convey that same essential meaning. To facilitate this approach to diversity, I suggest a model that modifies the household’s external structure by connecting the household more closely with its neighborhood. The model seeks to combine the freedoms now characteristic of internal household patterns with linkages to a neighborhood, linkages characterized by the notion of social capital. The chapter contrasts the remarkably tenacious functionalist perspective on families with a constructionist perspective that synthesizes core insights from several approaches, notably symbolic interaction.

Alternate Families

In his preface to the book arising from the first (1971) Groves Conference on “variant family forms” and “experimental marriage styles,” Sussman (1972) observed that such topics were rapidly becoming the “salient investigative issue of the 1970s” (p. 3). The conference theme was a response to newly emerging behaviors that departed from the standard script in realms such as sexuality, marriage, divorce, cohabitation, and women’s employment. Very few professionals (e.g., researchers, clinicians) had publicly called for changes in those and related spheres before their actual emergence. However, as citizens themselves began to depart from the script, and as the media publicized those behaviors, some professionals assumed an advocacy role and justified it on the bases of freedom and justice. Those twin themes lay, after all, at the core of both the 1960s civil rights and women’s liberation movements. Hence, advocating shifts in gender relations and in families was viewed as the moral equivalent of advocating freedom and justice in racial and ethnic relations.

Given that proponents of the status quo have now overrun the high moral ground in the policy debate over families (e.g., Popenoe, 1996), it seems unimaginable that in the 1970s advocates for change once occupied that same position of moral advantage (Steiner, 1981). The eager anticipation felt by some professionals of that era is today virtually impossible to convey. They were sublimely confident that families were on the cusp of a genuinely new era, moving toward a bright future that contrasted sharply to what they viewed as a bleak past. Otto (1970a), for example, asserted that “[a]fter five hundred thousand years of human history, man is now at a point where he can create marriage and family possibilities uniquely suited to his time, place, and situation” (p. 9). Reflecting back on that era, the 1971 Groves Conference chair Catherine Chilman (1983) mused, “What adventurers we, and others like us, thought we were! So enlightened, brave, honest, sincere, possessors of a higher morality” (pp. 15-16). The grand hopes of many professionals that families of the future would be better were set against a landscape strewn with disappointments over the standard family of the post-World War II era.

Some professionals had in fact expressed their disappointments even before it became fashionable to do so. Mead’s critique of the standard family appeared in an anthology aimed at forecasting a wide range of social trends stretching ahead to the year 2000. Her assessment that the postwar family was “a massive failure” (1967, p. 871) was stark indeed. Consequently, she advocated family change so that as many citizens as possible “would be free to function, for the first time in history, as individuals” (p. 872). Specifically, Mead argued that by squelching women’s creative potential, the standard family deprived society of their contributions: “We are so urgently in need of every form of creative imagination to meet the challenges already before us” (p. 875). As far as she was concerned, family change resulting in greater personal freedom would lead to “better ways of drawing on feminine constructive creativity in social inventions” (p. 875). Her suggestions for changes centered on creating what anthropologists called fictive kin clusters of interdependent households “such as are formed in kinship societies [and] in large extended families” (Mead, 1967, p. 873).

As far as I can tell, Mead was alone in anticipating that changes in families would cause severe negative reactions: “Radically new styles of [family] behavior may engender counter-revolutions that may be ideological or religious in character” (p. 874). She predicted that women would be the prime targets of the counterrevolution, which would be framed in terms of the overriding need for social order. To help mute that reaction, she argued that family changes must be carried out in a “socially responsible” manner that addressed the particular vulnerabilities of women, men, and children alike.

Before Mead and close to the zenith of the standard family type, Nisbet (1953) delivered his own critique of the standard family. Whereas Mead proposed alterations in both the internal and external structure of the household, Nisbet focused chiefly on the latter. His central complaint was that the family in isolation was “too small” a structure to do everything society expected it to do: “[The] family is a major problem in our culture simply because we are attempting to make it perform psychological and symbolic functions with a structure that has become fragile and an institutional importance that is almost totally unrelated to the economic and political realities of our society” (p. 62). Like Mead, he argued that the interests of women, men, and children would be optimally achieved by experimenting with fictive kin, “groups and associations lying intermediate to the individual and the larger values and purposes of his society” (p. 73). Nisbet was as radical as any of the subsequent 1970s advocates for family change in his assertion that “[t]here is no single type of family, anymore than there is a single type of religion, that is essential to personal security and collective prosperity” (p. 70).

Nisbet and Mead were visionaries, contending that change ought to occur. But after it became clear that change was emerging, many 1970s professionals sought to account for it and to advocate its continuation. They reasoned that citizens’ previous acquiescence to the norm of the standard family had obscured a flaw in that arrangement, namely that the standard family constricted the freedom of women, men, and children. “To what extent does the American family structure contribute to the optimum … [development, actualization, and fulfillment of [its members’] human potential?” asked Otto (1970a, pp. 4-5), to which a chorus of professionals replied, “Not much” (Otto, 1970b). As a result, they perceived the emergence of new kinds of family behaviors as healthy and called for further “innovation, experimentation and change” (Otto, 1970a, p. 9). Sussman and Cogswell (1972) struck a similar note when they observed that “[t]he underlying theme of [articles from the first Groves Conference] is that individuals today are searching to find themselves” (p. 13).

Significantly, Sussman and Cogswell (1972) elaborated their argument by raising the issue that has since become pivotal to defenders of the status quo (e.g., Popenoe, 1996). They claimed that “[t]he focus on parental roles … has resulted in an unhealthy neglect of the interaction, needs, and dynamic processes of the marital dyad. Marital roles are considered secondary to parental ones…. The ideology of the new[ly emerging family] forms holds that adults must live for themselves and not only for their children” (pp. 7-8). Likewise, noted Olson (1972), “[I]ndividuals are seeking a relationship that will provide growth for them as individuals and as a couple … There is a search for an authentic and mutually actualizing relationship [,…] [one in which the] growth and development of both partners is facilitated to a greater extent than it could be for either of these individuals outside the relationship” (p. 22). If there was a single complaint about the standard family around which all its critics could rally, it was that it inhibited the possibility for women and men to be mutual confidantes, capable of peering into and touching each other’s innermost being. The dearth of the “soul mate” phenomenon in both middle-class (Seeley, Sim, & Loosley, 1956) and working-class (Rainwater, Coleman, & Handel, 1959) marriages of the 1950s had been empirically documented. Olson observed that the youth of his day sought to upgrade Burgess’s companionate couple to include far more than mere shared leisure time activities. Youth’s demand, galvanized by both the feminist and the human development movements, was that one’s dyadic-love partner must also give and receive emotional intimacy.

Having matured in the nuclear family’s “Golden Age,” these youth were painfully aware of and deeply frustrated by perhaps its most ubiquitous characteristic: “Marriage as a relationship … is less often cherished than simply tolerated and endured” (Olson, 1972, p. 22). Zablocki’s (1980, p. 346) respondents were merciless critics of postwar marriage patterns, making such comments as “Marriage is institutionalized neurosis”; “Marriage is a trap, an artificial commitment toward a limited life-style”; “It’s an unnecessary bondage that limits people’s creative, intellectual, and community growth”; and “I don’t think much of my parents’ marriage.” These youth, as well as some mature citizens, were growing increasingly restive over the “quiet desperation” (Goode, 1963) that characterized all too many standard marriages. It is safe to say that more than anything else, the quest for mutual emotional intimacy and the linked pursuit of gender equity were the two most fundamental reasons for the varieties of family experimentation begun at that time (Marciano, 1975, p. 408).

To place those yearnings in perspective, we must discriminate between the advocates’ agendas and what was in the hearts and minds of most citizens. There is little indication that the latter were self-consciously seeking to invent new ways of doing families. Instead, their manifest intent corresponded to that of 19th-century citizens divesting themselves of the ancient bonds of kin control and authority. Back then, and again in the 1960s and 1970s, most citizens sought merely the modest objective of making life better for themselves and their children, as they perceived or constructed it. Nonetheless, at both junctures in history, “few grasped the full implications” of what they were doing (Dizard & Gadlin, 1990, p. 14). Despite their limited aim, citizens were and are inadvertently constructing very different ways of doing families. Two centuries ago, people were shaping both the external and internal features of the nuclear family style that eventually came to predominate. In recent decades, growing numbers of citizens are finding that style to be as unworkable as the extended family style it replaced. And like their 19th-century counterparts, today’s citizens are in a transitional period in which prevailing cultural norms reinforce yesterday’s family pattern, whereas their own behavioral struggles indicate movement toward something different.

The Clash of Competing Theories

By the 1970s, functionalist theory was abandoned by virtually every specialty in sociology. In studies of families, it was no longer fashionable to use functionalist jargon overtly in journals or books. Nonetheless, functionalism has never been totally expunged from studies of families. Despite the range of theories that ostensibly replaced it (Doherty, 1999; Vargus, 1999), the ghost of functionalism will not go away no matter how much we wish it to (e.g., Popenoe, 1996). Put in its simplest form, a functionalist model assumes that a society’s wellspring is its culture its beliefs, values, and norms (Kingsbury & Scanzoni, 1993). If the culture is sound, then persons, families, and society are healthy; but if the culture is not sound, then all is in jeopardy. For functionalists then and now, the standard family script is thought to be inextricable from sound culture. Hence, when the 1972 Congress passed the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), the lawyer Phyllis Schlafly led her successful charge to defeat it, arguing that it “would take away the marvelous legal rights of a woman to be a full-time wife and mother in the house supported by her husband” (quoted in Blumenthal, 1996, p. 32). In their analysis, Matthews and DeHart (1990) concluded that the fundamental cause for the ERA’s defeat was its perceived affront to cultural norms regarding gender: “Proponents [of the ERA] were comfortable with malleable gender roles; opponents [secular and religious] felt such malleability to be threatening. Cultural patterns, the latter believed, were part of the givens’ of life” (p. 223).

On the other side, the sorts of changes advocated by the 1960s and 1970s professionals were informed (often implicitly) by what was then called process theory, an approach that subsumed the central tenets of a variety of perspectives including (but not limited to) symbolic interaction, exchange, and conflict (Buckley, 1967). Giddens (1984) elaborated that tradition and called it structuration theory. Alexander (1988) developed it still further and labeled it new action theory. Maines (2000) and Glassner (2000) built on it as well but used the label constructionist in a broad sense to embrace a number of contemporary perspectives that hold several (but by no means all) assumptions in common. One is that they reject culture as the ultimate source of social patterns. Hence, they repudiate the functionalist inclination to reify patterns such as the family. Instead, they argue that families (like any other social patterns) are produced and created by the actions of persons operating within the social structure and cultural milieu that surrounds them (Maines, 2000).

The surrounding environment may motivate persons to conform willingly to its opportunities, may enable them to innovate, may force them to comply to its demands unwillingly, or may constrain them by shutting out alternative options. If it enables them to innovate, the new social patterns that persons create are themselves subject to alterations because of shifts in their surrounding context, changes in the persons’ objectives, or both. The essential dynamic of a constructionist model is best illustrated by a contrast with what Selznick (1961) described as a major flaw of Parsons’s functionalist approach: “In Parsons’ writing there is no true embrace of the idea that structure is being continuously opened up and reconstructed by the problem-solving behavior of individuals responding to concrete situations” (p. 934).

Many theorists in the constructionist tradition wish to convey an insight that was central to the work of a number of early-20th-century sociologists, principally Simmel (Levine, Carter, & Miller, 1976): that although social patterns might seem fixed (or reified) if viewed as a snapshot, the reality is that they are continually changing at a pace ranging from barely perceptible to very rapid. Hence, one aim of social scientists is to capture that motion picture-like action. In doing so, they challenge the functionalist view that family change is determined by economic and demographic forces in the face of which individuals can do little but submit (e.g., Taubin & Mudd, 1983). To be sure, such forces represent external risks that may sometimes engulf individuals (Giddens, 1994). Nevertheless, from a constructionist perspective, individuals can and do make choices that may place them at some risk (i.e., may engage in what Giddens called manufactured risk), thus rendering the notions of choice and personal control not so meaningless after all.

Another discarded bias of functionalism is that the standard family style predominating in the 1950s represented the summit of social evolution in the same manner that “American society has reached the maximum level of industrialization” (Pitts, 1964, p. 88). Parsons (1955) used the term differentiation to describe the centuries-long process of extricating the nuclear unit from the extended family. Unfortunately, he could not imagine that the post-World War II family style might not be the end of the line. In no way did he anticipate that there might be life after the standard script. For functionalists of that era, the notion of a possible transition from industrial to postindustrial societies and the notion of a possible accompanying transition from industrial to postindustrial families seemed equally preposterous.

Finally, constructionist models reject the functionalist obsession with deviance. Cuber (1970) argued that even before the ferment of the late 1960s and 1970s any new modes of organizing families were invariably designated as deviant. Innovation was unthinkable because of the prevailing functionalist view that the standard family script was immutable. Failure to conform to it could only be construed as deviance. Deviant behavior is defined as “‘aberrant’ (and negatively evaluated, overtly or implicitly)” (Marciano, 1975, p. 407). Hence, the behavior is perceived as substandard, inferior, distasteful, and irresponsible, even abnormal (Marciano, 1975).

Cuber (1970) noted that once a certain behavior pattern was designated as aberrant, the designator offered ways to correct or counteract such behaviors, suggesting that these were mere transgressions of the verities, not that they might herald the shape of “better things to come.” Correcting behaviors reflected the dominant functionalist bias of that era. Heralding better things indicated the views of process theorists, who were then in the minority. In short, the deviance-labeling process was firmly in place before the upheavals of the 1970s. The notion that one might set about to modify existing family behaviors was met by stiff resistance in the form of deviance labeling, followed by unctuous homilies on how to maintain the status quo. Cuber added that any professional who dared to recommend ways to “replace the current marriage-family-kinship system is suspect among many of his peers … for his downright subversive intentions” (p. 12).

At that time, African Americans were the favored targets of deviance labeling: “Many statistical studies which compare Negroes and whites fall into the almost inevitable position of characterizing the Negro [family] as deviant” (Billingsley, 1968, p. 200). Billingsley’s response to functionalist critics using that label and offering homilies was that although family patterns among blacks were indeed distinctive, it was utterly inappropriate to view them as deviant, aberrant, and irresponsible. Cazenave (1980) held that the deviance label, as applied to poor black lone mothers, was inappropriate and mean-spirited. Ironically, what few observers at the time foresaw was that many of the patterns that were then distinctive among blacks would eventually surface in white society.

Following Marciano (1975), Buunk and van Driel (1989) asserted that the word deviant should be banished from the literature. Their preferred label was variant “a neutral term instead of ‘deviant’ or ‘alternative’” (p. 19). They applied “variant” to any sort of household composition that differed from the standard family. Most importantly, Buunk and van Driel reasoned that the professional should construct household patterns in the same manner as the persons who were actually living them. They noted, for example, that persons living in a household different from the standard family would readily perceive their own behaviors as variant. But because the persons would not perceive the patterns as deviant, the professional should follow suit. In effect, Buunk and van Driel rejected functionalist reasoning that household behaviors should be measured according to an external standard, regardless of how the persons engaging in them might feel. Apart from Gupta and Cox (1987), and Jurich and Hastings (1983), the deviance tag nearly disappeared from literature on families in the 1980s. In its place, Buunk and van Driel’s type of reasoning gradually gained a large number of adherents among professionals (Chilman, Nunnally, & Cox, 1988), and the deviance label gradually became a politically incorrect embarrassment.

The Uneasy Embrace of Alternate Families

Nonetheless, by the 1980s, professionals who had previously embraced household variety slowly became anxious and perplexed over some of its unforeseen consequences, aftereffects having to do with the management of freedom. Like many other citizens, professionals were to some degree swayed by the counterrevolution being mounted by the New Right (Scanzoni, 1989, 1991). Recall Mead’s (1967) warning that if freedom was not exercised in a “socially responsible” manner, “intense efforts might be made to nullify the effect of innovations in life styles” (p. 874). Chilman (1983) reflected the uneasiness of professionals who some years earlier had vigorously endorsed experiments with families. She cited the complaints of the Right that “more and more families were involved in a series of disasters… [that] included rising rates of divorce and separation, nonmarital births and abortion” (p. 18). Although the Right seldom used the label deviant, they nonetheless successfully conveyed that the emerging phenomenon of household variety was aberrant, distasteful, and irresponsible. In effect, they shrewdly conveyed the impression of its deviance without ever making the tag itself a matter of contention.

Although Chilman (1983) by no means approved of the Right’s call to resurrect the standard family, she felt that the 1970s quest for individualism, freedom, and self-fulfillment might have moved too far too fast: “Most of us need some normative … support. Left totally on our own, we tend to lose control” (p. 19). The Right’s fundamental accusation was that feminists and advocates for alternate families had “separated liberation from obligation” (Matthews & DeHart, 1990, p. 152). Chilman responded by endorsing variety citizens, she said, would never relinquish their “arduously achieved freedoms” but she underscored her discomfiture by wondering whether citizens would be clever enough to reinvent responsibility in order “to turn back the dangerous forces of today’s reactionary politics” (p. 24).

Inspired by Chilman, the several contributors to the Macklin and Rubin (1983) anthology (drawn from the 1981 Groves Conference on variant families) imbued their work with the sense that the citizens creating variant families sought to be socially responsible. But the contributors consistently observed even when citizens strove to behave responsibly, the larger society failed to support their efforts to create innovative patterns of commitment. A decade earlier, Cogswell and Sussman (1972) had also observed that citizens trying to effect changes in families got no social support, either tangible or intangible. Recently, Acock and Demo (1994) reported that the current situation is pretty much the same-there remains a huge chasm between citizens’ innovations and supportive public policy.

To explain that chasm, one need look no further than the persistent notion that despite all the variants, the reified standard family style is still the best and that it sets forth clear ideals for which citizens should strive (Popenoe, 1996). Given these cultural ideals, there is no political support for policies or programs aimed at supporting variants (Skolnick, 1998). To the contrary, even the 1996 Welfare Reform Act (which, ironically, lent tacit government sanction to the feminist belief that a woman should be able to support herself and any children apart from a man) declared in its preamble that the married two-parent family is the “foundation of a successful society” and “an essential institution … which promotes the interests of children” (quoted in Clawson, 1997, p. vii).

Further, in 2002, while Congress was debating changes in the Welfare Reform Act, President Bush and his spokespersons frequently declared publicly that the law should be modified to more strongly encourage marriage (Goldstein, 2002). Those officials reasoned that the best way for a mother to avoid poverty was to be married.

Thompson and Gongla (1983) showed why the failure of public policy to support variant families is so insidious. They argued that lone parenthood was viewed as a “temporary condition… The conventional wisdom is that… [it] will ‘go away’ when the single-parent (re)marries…. Single-parent families are [thus] not recognized as ‘real’ families” (p. 112). Real or genuine means the two-parent household of the standard script. Because no variant was or is perceived as genuine, policy makers are justified in ignoring the lone-parent household: They are under no compulsion to devise programs aimed explicitly at enhancing its viability. Unfortunately, the absence of intangible and tangible reinforcement has exacerbated the alleged weaknesses of lone-parent households, in turn strengthening the perception that these households are not “real” families. Currently, the United States, in contrast to, say, the Scandinavian societies, has no policy that reinforces the notion of the lone-parent household as a desirable, ongoing status. Instead, in the United States the de facto policy is that the best strategy to solve this social problem is to insist on marriage (Council on Families in America, 1995; Popenoe, 1996; Waite & Gallagher, 1999).

Reasoning from a constructionist perspective, Thompson and Gongla (1983) argued that when a “society tacitly defines a group as being outside the mainstream, members of that group will fare badly” (p. 112). Because society strongly believes that “two parents are better than one,” it is virtually inevitable that lone-parent families will falter when compared with dual-parent households.

Mainstream implies that there are tributaries of lesser importance. That remains the principal distinction between the reified standard family and variant families.

A New Standard Family

Ignoring the angst of Chilman and others, some professionals today reject constructionist thinking and have instead embraced functionalist models. They perceive household variety both as cause for solemn hand-wringing and as reason to intone the ancient mantra, “In many ways, ‘things are not as good as they were when I was growing up’” (Popenoe, 1996, p. 254). Rather than “heralding variety as] the shape of better things to come” (Cuber, 1970, p. 11), their fear is that the “endless negotiation [required to maintain variety] is no way to run a family or a culture” (Popenoe, 1996, p. 247). The basic flaw in Popenoe’s reasoning arises from his preoccupation with a cultural script (see Stacey, 1999, for an incisive critique of his work in general). Given that the script for the old (and reified) standard family is now ignored, his intention is to rewrite the script for a new (but just as reified) standard family. But like Parsons he mistakenly presumes that economic, political, and technological forces stand still long enough for anyone to write a family script to fit them.

Although Popenoe (1996) borrowed the metaphor of the cultural script from the conventional theater, the situation confronting us today is rather like improvisational theater: Neither the behaviors of the players nor the interventions of the patrons can be reliably predicted. Maximum enrichment of players and patrons rests on their shared skills in navigating an uncertain course. Those skills include the ability to think critically and creatively and to engage in imaginative problem solving and negotiation. Furthermore, those same skills are the sine qua non for effective and rewarding participation in all realms of postindustrial society, including the household. The increasingly dynamic nature of adult dyadic-love relationships marriage, cohabitation (straight, gay/lesbian), and boyfriend-girlfriend as well as of parent-child relationships requires that we analyze them using some sort of constructionist model (Cowan & Cowan, 1998). The element that Popenoe (1996) dismissed, negotiation, lies at the core of today’s relationships and households (Scanzoni, 1983; Scanzoni & Godwin, 1990; Scanzoni, Polonko, Teachman, & Thompson, 1989; Scanzoni & Szinovacz, 1980).

To shore up his faith in the efficacy of a fixed cultural script, Popenoe employed the same contrivance as Parsons when justifying the rationale for his cultural givens. Parsons claimed a powerful congruence between his model of the standard family and “the psychological and biological characteristics of the human species” (Pitts, 1964, p. 57). Popenoe (1996) similarly offered a new functionalist model that he said “represents a ‘best fit’ with biosocial reality” (p. 248). His new standard family would retain “relatively traditional gender roles, but only at the stage of marriage when children are young” (p. 254). His cultural givens were “based on the requirements of optimal child development, [and] on the biological differences between men and women” (p. 254). He aimed to replace the prior uniformity with a different uniformity. The new standard is somewhat less onerous but ultimately just as oppressive.

Popenoe drew quite selectively from the biological literature to support his case. He interpreted the research findings to mean, among other things, that children’s well-being, as well as their later well-being in adulthood, is strongly influenced by the full-time presence of their mother, especially during their earliest years. He and other neo-functionalists appear to have been seduced by what Skolnick (1998) called the “new biologism, a growing sense that the true essence of a person is rooted in the primordial differences of gender, race, ethnicity, genes” (p. 240). Kagan (1999) coined the term infant determinism to highlight faulty reasoning such as Popenoe’s. On the basis of Bruer’s (1999) review of the literature, we may conclude that Popenoe’s ideas belong to the now discredited myth of the first 3 years. In the light of new childhood development research, Popenoe’s insistence on the ubiquitous presence of the mother during the child’s early years is naive: “Psychological development is coming to be understood as not so much a direct outcome of early events as a complex, transactional process, involving a changing child, a changing environment, and an ongoing series of life events and transitions” (Skolnick, 1998, p. 249). Developmentalists are increasingly skeptical of the notion that early experiences govern children invariably for ill or for good throughout their entire life. Although obviously important, these are but one group of a series of complex lifelong encounters between the individual’s genetic makeup, personality, and social context (Corsaro, 1997; Harris, 1998).

Popenoe (1996) sought to make a case for his new script not only on the basis of biology but also on the basis of the alleged sufferings of children growing up in family variants. But thoughtful scholars examining the same data are much more tentative regarding the implications of variants: “We really don’t know whether children are worse off today than they were at mid-century, or especially 25 years ago, or just how much children’s development has been compromised by changes in the family … A recent [federal] publication … shows that in many important respects children’s circumstances have been improving over the last decade or so despite the fact that the nuclear family has been in decline” (Furstenberg, 1999, p. 16).

Similarly, on the basis of their analyses of data from the National Survey of Families and Households, Acock and Demo (1994) reported that, when comparing varieties of households, they found no empirical support for the thesis that the neostandard family is “the optimal environment for marital happiness and for rearing healthy, adjusted children” (p. 231).

The ultimate defect in the strategy of using social science data to compare the neostandard family with “others” and then to conclude that the latter are falling short is glaringly apparent when we recall Thompson and Gongla’s (1983) reasoning regarding the lone-parent household. Despite the growing pervasiveness of behavioral variations, there seems little doubt that most U.S. citizens still believe that the (neo) standard model is preeminent and thus more desirable than any other household arrangement (Furstenberg, 1999; Sugarman, 1998). How valid can it be to compare Households A and B to determine their relative efficacy in child rearing when their social, cultural, and political context invariably favors A? See, for instance, Waite and Gallagher’s (1999) flawed attempt to prove the superiority of marriage.

Citizens grow up learning that although they should be tolerant of household variants, only one form of family is the culturally affirmed and socially supported ideal. Consider, for example, the huge sculpture of a family group (father, mother, boy, girl) “placed on a busy street corner in Philadelphia.” “Because the bronze will endure,” said a local art critic, it “stands as a moral statement, a celebration of the family’” (quoted in Taubin & Mudd, 1983, p. 258). However, according to Taubin and Mudd, the critic noted a “‘disquieting element’ in this ‘conservative message’” (p. 258). The message is that there is indeed a standard family to be celebrated and that variant families are not to be praised: Uniformity, not variety, is extolled. Even the maligned Hollywood media leave little doubt that uniformity is the approved ideal persons should eventually strive for. The fact that most citizens firmly believe that the neostandard model is more desirable, even when they fall short of it, must surely have consequences. The dissonance between their efforts at household innovation and the lack of social approval and support for their efforts is likely to rouse feelings of self-doubt, inadequacy, shame, and guilt. Their ambivalence, in turn, is bound to hamper their attempts at creative experimentation and to check their struggles for effective innovation.

Diversity: The Starting Point for Healthy Families

Accordingly, if our goal is to develop public policy that buttresses citizens’ efforts at experimentation and innovation, we must reconstruct the meaning of household diversity, reconsider the relative social worth (status, prestige) assigned to practicing diversity, and consider the possibility that household diversity is ultimately more desirable than household uniformity. After almost five decades, the term diversity still draws our attention to the household’s internal composition and continues to trigger the sense that compositional variety of any type (though now widely tolerated) possesses less social worth (status, prestige) than the neostandard family and is less healthy (for children, adults, and society).

On the other hand, by noting that the theme of the 1973 Groves Conference on variant families was “Letting Many Flowers Bloom,” Macklin and Rubin (1983) suggested quite a different attitude toward diversity. Rather than merely tolerating it, they appeared to be following the lead of plant and animal ecologists by celebrating it. In ecology, diversity means not only that a variety of species (“many flowers”) flourish, among which none is considered to be the “best,” but also that each species belongs to an ecosystem, a community of interconnected living things. Because the health of each species is inextricable from that of the others in the ecosystem, variety indicates, and cannot exist without, interdependence, or symbiosis. Each species makes its own distinctive contribution to its peers, and each must give as well as receive in order to thrive. Thus, the healthier A’s peers are, the healthier A is likely to be. These exchanges, however, are seldom, if ever, simply between two species. In certain instances, Species A might contribute to B, B might benefit C, and so on, until A eventually gets its required inputs. Such complex interdependence is foundational to the health of each species. The flip side is that the health of each species is the basis for a thriving symbiosis.

Because ecologists believe that the health of an ecosystem is inseparable from the health of each species, they argue that public policy should endorse both variety and interdependence. Hence, in a similar vein, is it too outrageous to suggest that public policy for families might in certain respects adapt an ecological approach? Can we glean a useful insight from the ecologists’ recognition of a vital connection between the interdependence of all distinctive living things within a system and the health of each?

Such a policy would be based on the premise that household diversity might be more desirable than household uniformity. Household diversity here would encompass the ecological concepts of both variety and interdependence. In terms of variety, policy would be guided by the assumption that it would be healthier to have households of dissimilar compositions than households uniformly patterned on the neostandard model and that society would be better off developing a culture of household variety than anxiously holding onto what some (Council on Families in America, 1995) call a marriage culture. In terms of interdependence, the assumption would be that it is healthier to develop a network of connectedness among households of varying compositions than to retain the current levels of household non-connectedness. Consequently, household health and network health would be seen as closely aligned.

This approach to diversity would require that we define both types of health and describe the characteristics of household connectedness, or interdependence. It would also be helpful to identify the distinctive contributions that households of varying compositions might be able to make to each other.

Several observers have already begun to grapple with the prickly issues involved in trying to get citizens to engage with each other outside the boundaries of their own households. Dizard and Gadlin (1990), for instance, observed that if it is credible to speak of a “crisis of the family [it] is less about the trials and tribulations of individual families, or even the form the family takes, than it is about the steadily shrinking range of social contexts that call forth our capacities to cooperate, love, and make sacrifices for one another” (p. 8).

In an anthology dedicated to developing new policies for families, Heclo (1995) remarked that middle-class citizens throughout Western societies are now asking, “Why should we care for each other? Why should I not just live as I like?” (p. 686). He concluded that the “emerging debate [about families] is not simply about a policy problem … [It is instead] about a moral problem” (p. 687). The puzzle is, “What is the right thing we should want to be?” (p. 686). The answer might be forthcoming, he added, if we could somehow recreate “‘[a] sense … [t]hat we need one another… [to engage in] a giving and receiving activity which is appropriate to what I am as a human being’” (p. 686).

Both sources implicitly endorse the dual aspects of diversity cited above. Both have come to terms with the reality that household variety is a social given. Not only is it here to stay, but its incidence is likely to increase, and the appropriate response is not to try to squeeze households into the neostandard form. Further, both sources indicate the need to develop some sort of symbiosis across a range of household forms so that both they and society might benefit.

Accordingly, let us assume that we are debating the guidelines for public policy aimed at cultivating household diversity. The predominant cultural message now presumes that the health of adults, children, and society flows from homogeneity conformity to the self-contained, stably married household. But if uniformity reigned in a biological ecosystem, it would not be long before that dull sameness led to the system’s decline. The social fact is that for several decades household uniformity has steadily dropped in the face of expanding household variety. The policy we are debating accepts that continuing expansion of this variety is a permanent feature of Western society. Further, it suggests that household innovations are healthy because they reflect the freedom of persons to explore who they are and to be fulfilled while also contributing to others.

Although personal freedom, growth, independence, and exploration were burning issues in the 1960s and 1970s, they have more recently come to seem quaint in the context of the counterrevolution that Mead (1967) anticipated. Nonetheless, the quest for individual freedom lies at the core of Western society, and the continuing drift toward household variety suggests that, at the behavioral level, individualism is by no means dormant.

Hence, a policy of household diversity would celebrate innovation and variety because that is a prime indicator of personal health. By no stretch of the imagination, however, does diversity begin and end with freedom and exploration. That assumption, noted Mead (1967), was one of the serious mistakes of earlier activists. The health of the household and its members is also indicated through its symbiotic connections with other households.

Consequently, let us assume that we have the task of proposing research to cast some empirical light on household diversity: what its characteristics are and how it might operate. Our broad objective is to target urban neighborhoods currently characterized by a good deal of household variety. The households range in composition from the neo-standard to the several forms described throughout this book. At the same time, the neighborhood households exhibit typical levels of social nonconnectedness. Next, let us say that a more specific aim is to focus on a particular neighborhood and to identify households of varying compositions that might have an interest in cultivating a certain degree of household connectedness. Any such linkages would serve to affirm their compositional differences and to facilitate their cross-household contributions.

To achieve our specific aim, let us say that the researchers adopt an action research methodology (Greenwood & Levin, 1998; Hasell & Scanzoni, 2000). Among other things, researchers in this tradition believe that we achieve a scientific understanding of social reality more fully by attempting to change it than by merely describing it. In this instance, the strategy is to carry out a field experiment to see if a team of action researchers (friendly outsiders) and neighborhood householders (insiders) might together be able to construct a certain level of social connectedness across households of varying composition, including the neostandard.

Neostandard households in the neighborhood are attuned to the prevailing cultural message that they are at the top of the household totem pole in terms of social worth, honor, status, and prestige. Because their elevated position leads them to ask what they could gain by altering the status quo, they may feel less inclined to participate in our field experiment.

On the other hand, households whose compositions differ from the neostandard receive numerous cultural signals that they are lower down on the totem pole. Today’s cultural messages tell them that to move upward in the household status hierarchy, they must take all appropriate steps to conform to the neostandard. Cohabiting couples, for example, continually receive not-so-subtle messages from kin, friends, and media that they should marry or split. Network participation, however, unlocks an innovative option. By increasing their range of choices, the network relieves the unremitting pressure to conform to the neostandard. The network celebrates differences by asserting that each type of household, just as it stands, has something worthwhile to contribute. Hence, because the network lends symbolic affirmation and social legitimation to variety, nonconforming households may feel more inclined to participate.

Although that type of social legitimation is by itself a keen incentive for nonconforming households to participate in our field experiment, both they and especially neostandard households will surely require more. Whether households participate will ultimately depend on the nature of the proposed linkages. Consequently, to clarify what such linkages might be and how they might benefit participants, it may be useful for researchers to appropriate and adapt the broad construct of social capital (Coleman, 1990).

That construct appears extremely useful for illuminating the complexity of connectedness among households of varying compositions (Scanzoni, 2000, 2001a, 2001b). We begin with the assumption that the presence of a well-functioning social capital network is both beneficial and healthy. The promise of benefits and health is a mechanism to attract households, both neostandard and nonconforming, to experiment with the network. Households will stay with the experiment as long as they believe it is fulfilling its promise but will drop out if they lose faith. Hence, a principal goal of our team of action researchers and householders will be to try to cultivate a healthy social capital network across households. Although the definition and description of such a network can be ambiguous (Edwards & Foley, 1997; Lin, Cook, & Burt, 2001; Portes, 1998), it generally incorporates the following dimensions:

  • A social capital network relies on the giving of contributions and the getting of inputs among members of a group of delimited size, sometimes known as a primary group (Scanzoni & Marsiglio, 1993). Reluctance to take from the group tends to chip away at it as much as a failure to give.
  • Those ongoing exchanges are not constructed as mutual (i.e., two-way between A and B). The usual idea of payback to a particular person for a favor does not play much of a role in those sorts of exchanges. Nor are the exchanges restricted to certain relationships, as, for instance, between two persons who have agreed to be sexually monogamous.
  • Instead, the exchanges are constructed principally as generalized reciprocity A to B, to C, and so on (Ekeh, 1974; Levi-Strauss, 1957). The basis of generalized reciprocity is that one contributes to one’s group by giving to another member. For example, by making an input to Ed, Sharon contributes to their group through Ed. Although Ed benefits, Ed is not first and foremost in Sharon’s debt. Instead, Ed is mainly indebted to their group.
  • Because there is no quid pro quo accounting scheme, one can neither fully repay the group nor be certain that one has ever been fully repaid. In effect, one’s giving and getting tend to be open-ended. As a result, argued Coleman (1990), the giving and getting take on the character of a moral obligation to continue one’s participation in the group. Said another way, because one cannot be certain either that one owes or that one is owed, the right thing is simply to continue giving and receiving.
  • More specifically, one is obliged to demonstrate via receiving and giving that one is indeed a trustworthy group member. The significance of trustworthiness underscores that the absence of a tit-for-tat schema in no way implies that one is not accountable to the group. There is hardly anything more important to a group member than being perceived as trustworthy, as someone who can be relied on to give and to receive.
  • Persons demonstrating that they are trustworthy are accorded status, esteem, and prestige from their group and, as a result, gain influence within it.
  • Failure to be trustworthy stigmatizes one as a free rider, and that incurs the risk of being placed, to one degree or another, outside the group’s ongoing exchanges (Rivers & Scanzoni, 1997; Wilson & Pahl, 1988).
  • When group members perceive that they and their peers are uniformly trustworthy, they develop a sense of solidarity, or esprit de corps. They perceive themselves as a “we-group,” and this sense of “we-ness” is a prime constituent of the social glue holding a primary group together (Faris, 1957). Without reifying it, members construct their group as an entity that is perceived as lying beyond themselves and their interactions. In any case, they grasp that it is in the best interest of all members to ensure its continued solidarity.
  • A major threat to the group’s feeling of solidarity is a complaint by one or more members that they are being treated unfairly and that they are not receiving the group inputs they should. In response, persons with influence in the group must take steps to alleviate, either through implicit problem solving or by explicit negotiation, the members’ sense of inequity.
  • Both adults and children/youth participate in both the giving and the getting aspects of their network’s ongoing exchanges. Coleman (1990) argued that one of the major deficiencies of today’s nonconnected household style is its inability to supply a structural mechanism within which children/youth feel obliged to make contributions to persons and entities beyond themselves and their immediate household.
  • The primary group’s generalized reciprocity can be recognized across at least three realms: 1) Services child care, transportation, household chores, and so on. 2) Intangible inputs such as providing support and encouragement in times of distress; celebrating in times of joy; or being a sounding board during periods of transitions in household composition, when problems arise with partner and/or children, or when insights are needed into educational and occupational choices. This category would also include unique intangible inputs stemming from compositional variety. Adults and children/youth from varying household forms are likely to have a great deal to share with one another about their experiences either of being different or of conforming. As a result, persons in particular kinds of households might gain insights into the difficulties as well as the gratifications of other kinds of household arrangements. Adults and children in the network would thus acquire an appreciation of why and how others live as they do and an awareness of ways to affirm and assist them in doing so. 3) Tangible inputs, such as the borrowing of household goods, tools, and other items and the passing on of clothing items. Occasionally there might even perhaps be limited financial assistance.

The three realms of generalized reciprocity show why the term fictive kin could be applied to this type of primary group (Rivers & Scanzoni, 1997). Stoller’s (1970) preferred label is intimate network.

The literature (Coleman, 1990; Putnam, 2000) suggests that a neighborhood with a social capital network of this sort will be healthier than a neighborhood without it. Social health is indicated by the presence of these interrelated components, and a social capital network marked by these components would be judged as robust. Still more broadly in terms of social health, it can be argued that households that participate in the cultivation of a social capital network are contributing to the weaving and/or repairing of the social fabric, or to the construction of what Bell (1990) called the public household. If our action research team of professionals and householders is able to cultivate social health in this manner, we may say that they have carried out a successful field experiment.

Further, our action research team will probably find that network health and the emotional health of the adults and children/youth in its households are correlated. The literature (Friedman & Lackey, 1991) suggests that psychological well-being is correlated positively with a sense of control over the circumstances of one’s life. A sense of control can be viewed as a proxy for a feeling of empowerment that Giddens (1994, p. 15) defined as people’s sense that they can “make things happen rather than have things happen to them” (p. 15).

Thus defined, our action research team will explore the ways in which network participation might enable persons to feel empowered. We expect that one of the consequences of participation in a social capital network will be that it enables persons in a variety of household types to make things happen, things they might not otherwise have been able to do. Empowerment of that sort becomes an additional component of the emotional health of those persons.

For example, let us assume that the social capital network includes at least one lone-parent household and that the network supplies both symbolic and actual support for her household. That support both enables her to achieve and maintain economic self-sufficiency and meets her children’s interest in having adult attention. As a result, she and her children feel more empowered than comparable non-networked lone mothers and their children. Due to their empowerment, she and her children can be expected to score higher than comparable non-networked mothers and children on measures of emotional well-being.

To take another example, will wives in neostandard households belonging to a social capital network feel more empowered, and thus emotionally healthier, than wives lacking such a network? Specifically, will networked wives discover that their participation provides them with a degree of informal support from group members (unavailable to non-networked wives) in their ongoing negotiations with their husbands? Will they, as a consequence, be able to negotiate more effectively with their husbands than economically comparable non-networked wives (Scanzoni & Godwin, 1990)? As a result, will networked wives feel emotionally healthier than economically comparable non-networked wives?

Our action research team would explore other potential linkages among participants in a robust social capital network marked by household variety, personal empowerment, and the emotional health of adults and children/youth. Such investigation would contribute to a hoped-for public debate over the wisdom of continuing to pursue social policy aimed ultimately at family uniformity. The debate would consider whether, given what is being learned about empowerment and health, it might not make more sense to think instead about social policy aimed at household diversity.


Before the 1960s, the 20th-century family was characterized by internal uniformity and external nonconnectedness. But since that time, households have become increasingly marked by a great deal of internal variety, although external nonconnectedness has persisted. Given the trend toward growing internal variety, will the 21st century witness a gradual change away from external nonconnectedness? If so, what is the likelihood of devising public policy whose broad objective is to implement household diversity in both of its dual senses?

A diversity approach requires that we come to terms with the social fact that varieties of households exist and that their incidence will almost certainly increase in the new century. Variety is not viewed as a problem to be solved by putting pressure on households to conform to the neostandard model. Instead, it is celebrated as an indicator of freedom. But because responsibility is the flip side of freedom, variety is likely to thrive in a social context marked by a degree of household interdependence achieved through a social capital network.

To be sure, not all adults now experiencing household variety have chosen it. They may feel that circumstances beyond their control have constrained them and that they would much rather live, for instance, in a neostandard household. This issue is particularly salient for poor mothers with children but no resident male. Hence, a policy of household diversity would need to operate in tandem with policies that provide a sound education and meaningful occupational opportunities for all citizens of all ages. It has been recognized at least since the mid-19th century that a woman who is not economically autonomous (self-sufficient) cannot truly be a free person.

That said, the benefits (tangible and intangible) to a lone mother (whether poor or not) of participating in a social capital network would seem to be considerable both for her and her children. At the very least, network participation provides a viable alternative to the political nostrum that marriage is a cure for poverty. Network participation also relieves the pressure to marry merely to gain an adult male role model for one’s children. It enables a woman or man (poor or not, with children or not) to avoid being swept into an ill-advised marriage (or any relationship) for any reason. By the same token, the network might also enable a person to make the difficult transition out of a relationship (including marriage) that was no longer desired. Furthermore, the network might serve as a resource for couples (including married couples) wanting to sustain their relationship during times of conflict and/or stress.

Finally, a policy of household diversity resting on interdependence as well as variety might eventually dislodge the Right from the high moral ground it has recently come to occupy regarding families. Those on the Right reason that the most ethical, virtuous, and righteous thing a person can do is to commit him- or herself to a heterosexual marriage that produces children and remains stable. But by no means is household uniformity the cure-all they make it out to be. Hence, what if the 1960s and 1970s critics of uniformity were on to something after all? What if diversity is not only more honest than uniformity but also healthier? At the very least, such an approach obliges the defenders of uniformity to explain why diversity is not a more compelling option for the new century.