Sociology of the Family: Global Advances and Challenges

Barbara H Settles. The International Handbook of Sociology. Editor: Stella R Quah & Arnaud Sales. Sage Publications. 2000.

Sociology of the family as a field of research, education and action faces many challenges and critics, both within academic institutions and in the larger society. This paper focuses on recent developments in international family sociology in the context of the discipline of sociology, and its connections to interdisciplinary family studies. Some attention is given to the processes of communication, including publications, collaboration, and innovation. International family sociology is connected to historical and current sociological trends and has been affected by the rise of other specializations in sociology.

The study of family is one of the oldest and most active fields in sociology (Park and Burgess, 1924). In his analysis of the impacts of the discipline of sociology, Gans (1989) noted the ASA study showing that family, along with introductory and social problems, is one of the most frequently taught courses in sociology. A number of comprehensive assessments of the family field were made at the end of the decade of the 80s and beginning of the 90s. The Handbook of Sociology (Smelser, 1988), Handbook of Marriage and the Family (Sussman and Steinmetz, 1987), “Family Research in the 1980s: The Decade in Review” (Booth, 1990) and the Sourcebook of Family Theories and Methods A Contextual Approach (Boss, Doherty, LaRossa, Schumm, and Steinmetz, 1993), provide comprehensive analyses of family sociology research up to the early 1990s.

In Smelser’s volume, Huber and Spitze (1988) were not impressed with where family sociology stood, seeing it as lacking in theories to explain world patterns. Their review of new trends focused on changing structures and relationships as a function of altered costs and benefits, drawing upon the new paradigms in social history, anthropology, and the women’s movement to examine several family domains in the field: technology and family patterns, divorce and remarriage, untraditional dyadic relationships, and parents and children’s effects on each other.

Sussman and Steinmetz (1987) selected scholars from a wide range of disciplinary backgrounds and focused more attention on family diversity than had the earlier handbook edited by Christensen (1964). The growth of other sources of theoretical and methodological reviews in family studies allowed them to condense those topics and add power, violence, divorce, work, and sex roles as chapters. It took them nine years to bring it together and they immediately started to generate the next handbook published in 1999 with Peterson as a co-editor. New areas in the book include: economics, health, qualitative methodology, measurement, life course development, spirituality, adolescence, early and middle adulthood, social thought, and communication (Sussman et al., 1999).

Booth (1990) used his editorial board to identify the most important topics for integrative essays reflecting the work of the 1980s. Family sociologists are well represented both as authors of essays and in references, however, the Journal of Marriage and the Family also draws heavily from family science, social work, health, and developmental fields among others. Not only are life course and family research reviewed, but attention is also given to social problems, policy, and practice.

Boss, Doherty, LaRossa, Schumm, and Steinmetz, (1993) undertook to integrate the major developments in family theory and methods based on the interest of the Theory Construction and Research Methodology Workshop of the National Council on Family Relations. They emphasized the multi-disciplinary nature of the editorial group and the collaboration of contributors. Again family sociology was represented among the authors, citations and reviewers, but was by no means the major contributor. Broadly based interdisciplinary departments, family and developmental departments, research institutes and centers, and private and governmental agencies are among the niches where these family scholars find their support. They identified and critiqued trends for the 1990s on such theoretical issues as feminist and ethnic perspectives, ethics, values and religion concerns, and the breakdown of the private/public dichotomy in family spheres. They also noted changes in the activities of family scholars in greater inclusiveness of family forms, professional participation, constructionist and contextual approaches and limitations. Sprey (1990) in examining new approaches to family theory sees the field of family studies as appropriately pluralistic and diverse.

Global issues are represented in these compendiums. Research and theoretical issues are discussed comparatively in some of the essays. Several projects in the 1990s directed attention to the status of family research world wide. Not only has there been a firm foundation for a global family sociology, there are now resources in communication and analytic tools to link people and projects. Various events during the nineties provided family sociologists with options for integrating family studies. The activities surrounding the International Year of the Family in 1994, the International Sociological Association-Committee on Family Research conferences, the development of the European Observatory on National Family Policies, and a number of specialized conferences and projects gave the field impetus in realizing the scope and substance of a global family sociology. The process of preparing for the celebrations of the year and following up on the policy and program recommendations developed in each country made family sociologists aware that family studies have become an interdisciplinary field in which sociologists need to work with other scholars and practitioners. One project arising from this dynamic was the book of Sussman and Hanks (1996), which collected essays from 23 countries about the status of family studies. While each author chose to approach the topic differently, significant bodies of work were reviewed globally. Although countries throughout the world in both hemispheres were included, major gaps in reporting were found in Africa, parts of Asia, and Latin America. Lack of translation in many languages creates a barrier even when there are interesting scholarly materials such as French and Spanish speaking sociologists have generated.

Several concerns have been expressed about the progress of family sociology. Some critics find the work in family sociology lacking in sophistication and significance (Huber and Spitz, 1988) and failing to provide status or distinction to the scholar (Davis, 1949; Christensen, 1964). Others worry about the narrow scope of the field as a specialty that may undercut sociology in general (Collins, 1989). The importance of family either as a fundamental unit in society or a survivor of reform and change is often acknowledged. Handling the many family forms and processes is a practical problem for the theorist of social systems. Typically it is handled by reduction to a nuclear or maternal dyad. As a technique for simplification this choice is analogous to the physical study of matter of atoms or simple molecules. Perhaps the study of family is more the study of families, with the biological analog of the DNA molecules with many permutations being a more useful metaphor.

The study of a sociology of families is no longer viable from a strictly nationalist or local orientation. Globalization can make any family study a part of a larger understanding of families if scholars acknowledge and address the importance of context and connectedness. To illustrate these concerns and the process of developing an international families sociology, some themes will be examined and the trends of current and future work and activities are suggested. These topics represent, but do not exhaust the interesting and important studies that make the field so exciting at the millennium. Three themes of global family sociology will be examined: rapid social and economic change and its impact on the opportunities for families and scholars; mobility and stability shaping individual, family, ethnic and national identities; and the political dimension of family research including uses and misuses of family studies and concepts. In each section there is a statement of main issues, a few of the historical views in family sociology and some examples of interesting work to illustrate advances and challenges.

Rapid Social and Economic Change: Impact on the Opportunities for Families and Scholars


Rapid social change provides scholars the opportunity to observe how families handle the challenges of adaptation and manage survival issues in a reasonably short and intense period. It forms an envelope creating the effect of a longitudinal study within an abbreviated moment in the social system. Cseh-Szombathy and Somlai (1996: 199) see this as a moment in time when one can study under laboratory like conditions the interdependence of family and society in a changing world. What might take generations to emerge as a shift in how families behave or are structured may occur immediately and transparently. Political realignments and economic crisis may be the driving forces for family change, mobility, and innovation. The past decade has been rich in opportunities to see such changes. The end of the cold war, the implementation of the European union, the fall of apartheid in South Africa, the expansion of world trade and business, the rise of democratic governments in Latin America are among the many changes that have opened communication and exchange. It is not simply that the old politics have gone away, but also that new politics must be understood. In South Africa, the sociologists have seen family reconstruction as a process to be examined in the new social and political context (Steyn and Viljoen, 1996). The growth of ethnic, ethnic-religious, tribal, and internal violence in many countries has challenged many of the assumptions about globalization and adoption of a world perspective at the local community level. In the former Yugoslavia there had been a history of interchange with western family sociologists and a considerable body of family studies had been accumulated, however as the political conflicts have devolved the country into enclaves and mini-states, and with the economic collapse of the region, it is difficult to imagine what family sociology may be possible in the immediate future (Petrovi, Petrovi, and Simi, 1996). The reconstruction of society in the future could be aided by sociologists in promoting an understanding of social process and gaining a more sophisticated outcome (Coleman, 1993). Whether and which families will benefit or suffer from rapid change is a question to be investigated both in the short term and over the life course all over the world.

Historical Views

In order to study changing global systems, it is necessary to develop reliable base lines to identify changes in families and their social contexts. As with many other specializations in sociology, much of the family research fell well within a positivistic, quantitative tradition of social thought emphasized in western developed societies. Theoretically, family sociology has been thought to be essentially part of mainstream sociology, especially as theory has developed from the mid-century (Thomas and Wilcox, 1987). Family sociology has many ties to both substantive areas in sociology and to interdisciplinary study of families. In the early years of founding the discipline of sociology, an adherence to statistical treatments of data was used to help create disciplinary boundaries (Camic and Xie, 1994).

In sociology there has been an over-emphasis on stability that families offer their members. Change in family structure and process has been seen as disintegration or dysfunction rather than as strength (Parsons and Bales, 1955; Zimmerman, 1972; Etzioni, 1977; Huber and Spitze, 1988). In contrast, in the family developmental and marital therapy literature, change is perceived as a normal characteristic of family process (Burgess and Locke, 1950; Carter and McGoldrick, 1980; Mederer and Hill, 1983). Therefore, families that fight change are more likely to be dysfunctional than those that embrace it. White (1991) uses and expands family developmental theory in designing and analyzing a study of Canadian families, suggests that the similarity of norms of family process may be increasing cross culturally and that it may be possible and useful to test this proposition. Doherty and colleagues (1993) discussed how systems create relationships among institutions and moderate the effects of cultural and societal level of change on families. Major paradigmatic shifts have altered the understanding of the alternatives that effect families survival and change in their relationships. That is not to say that broadly international and cross cultural issues were left unaddressed, but rather that frustration and unease were often the result of such efforts.

Advances and Challenges

Assuring comparable data continues to be problematic, because of the difficulties faced in replicating one model of investigation and interpretation in differing cultures and academic traditions. Kain (1993) presented comparative data on rates of change in the developing and developed nations with caveats about comparability and the underlying structure of the data gathering, carefully laying out how he had attempted to handle these problems. For both sampling and measurement it is not necessarily the case that identical procedures produce identical outcomes (Lee and Haas, 1993: 123). Careful translation and back translations are not sufficient to claim that the items are the same. Finding the concept that can be understood in each culture with a similar meaning is necessary. Although the problems of meaning are easily recognized in cross-national or sub-cultural studies as important, especially in sensitive topics or complex issues, in family sociology it is not as well developed as it is in other social science and interdisciplinary studies (Rosenblatt and Fischer, 1993).

Larzerele and Klein (1987) call for attention to the need in comparative analysis to address the difficulties of separating or finding the boundaries between cultures or within cultures to sub-cultures. Lee (1987) suggests that family sociology may not be comparative simply because the sociology is done elsewhere. Even if the samples are large, they could amount only to a case study that may or may not contribute to a subsequent secondary analysis that is comparative at the social systems level. Rossi (1989), in describing units of analysis in sociological studies, suggests that kinship groups are not used frequently in western societies because of the fuzziness of their definitions and that household has become the contemporary unit of choice for overcoming this ambiguity. Kinship dyads are also of some importance and are often used as a stand-in for family as a concept or in conjunction with household. He questions whether the increasing number of single person households and homeless may make this unit less appropriate as a micro-social unit of analysis. Bulcroft and White (1997) posit that several levels of analysis and appropriate units of analyses are necessary in family studies.

Descriptive studies are still useful for understanding the range of families and policy issues. Analytic opportunities within a descriptive approach were identified in the newly available data on the demography of former Eastern block countries and the Soviet States (Juozelinien, 1993; Taljnait, 1993; Laja, 1993). Previously, some governments had treated data on age and gender groups and families/households as classified security material. These policies have shaped both the data and impressions about the trends. As political and economic changes make policy makers aware of their need for information, the lack of past base line data and interpretive work puts the contemporary analysts under some strains. Descriptive reports are badly needed to be able to build more complex analyses across these countries and in comparison to other areas. At the same time continuing political and state sponsorship of almost all funding of studies suggests that researchers will be unlikely to continue doing independent research about the family (Zvinkliene, 1996). In Poland the investment in family studies under the state socialism had been relatively high with several schools of family research producing a considerable array of integrated studies. While the social and political changes suggest that new topics and approaches could build insights free of censorship, narrow methods, or political control, there are still issues of conservatism about the choice of issues, open access to publication outlets and funding that serve as a brake on reforms (Wejnert, 1996).

Even when there is a large investment in careful research in developed countries there are gaps. In the detailed study by Nauck (1993) which examined differences in the family situation of a wide spectrum of youth from the former east and west Germany, the social and political context resulted in some of the potentially interesting families being excluded from the original study because they were not citizens of Germany. More recently he has been able to address these groups in another project (Nauck, 1997). The scholar works within and around the merging changes, and studies how these changes are being processed by society. When a project has limits in comparability, strategic decisions about techniques and approaches up front, allow for later comparisons to be practical. Examining the dynamics of social change and family analysis with equivalent or relatively similar data is a continuing challenge.

New values, tastes and preferences may be either a fashion or a fundamental change across a nation or a region of the world. Small details may have important symbolic meanings. Names can convey symbolic meanings. In the United States the fashions around naming children have for the most part reflected current media stars or family traditions. Social movements such as the women’s rights and civil rights movements have returned to historical sources and use these symbols to provide rationales for building common understandings for the need for change. In the women’s movement, hyphenated surnames or new merged names have been popular. In analyzing distinctive African-American names, Leiberson and Mikelson (1995) note the upswing of unique names that followed the increased awareness of cultural roots, but also recognized that there are parameters within that shape the choices to be connected to the societal context linguistically and to convey gender. Clothing is another example of change encompassing symbols. In China the blue and gray of Maoist clothing was reflective of the philosophy of the revolution and the policies of the government, but the radical changes of the past twenty years saw fashionable clothes as symbolic of ideological change and a new status symbol (Kunz, 1996). It is easy to document the fashion or fad, but understanding the meaning of the underlying change itself is more difficult.

Comprehending families in larger social context requires attention to the relative impact and response to change. Careful social accounting would examine who bears the costs for social decisions made at the broad societal level. In the United States of America, the reasonable investments made in our elderly have not been matched by attention to children’s needs and we have not really assessed those long-term costs (Aldous and Dumon, 1990; Fuchs and Reklis, 1992). The impact of a family member’s unemployment on family life has been shown through current studies and comparisons made to the findings of the studies of the great depression (Targ and Perrucci, 1990). Similar attention is needed to identify the total costs of local competition within and across national boundaries to attract investment and jobs, including tax and other subsidies and the loss of wages across communities. Haas and Hwang (1995) have studied in detail how the company family policies in Sweden have worked out in practice with fathers still finding the corporate culture less than father friendly. Funder (1993) recounted of the consequences of divorce reform in Australia and the continuing lag in women’s earnings and lack of regular paternal support as marginalization of fathers. She observed that the social value of children is itself the underlying problem in crafting good family policy and law.

Kamerman and Kahn (1991) have effectively used cross national studies and analyses to challenge thinking around issues of children’s welfare within the United States system. Their approach countered the claims of those who would protect children and families by neglecting them. They have attempted to draw the US states into a similar dialogue about welfare reform and its impact on children as variously conceived and administered (Kamerman and Kahn, 1997).


Recent social and political changes have created opportunities for families to make adjustments and create innovations in condensed time lines. Major interventions have encouraged a reconfiguration of family forms and supports. Developing comparable family data bases and statistics is more practical, but requires scholarly consensus and action across national lines. Distinguishing superficial global commonalties from essential changes in family life requires sensitivity to the meanings of symbols. When the larger social institutions undertake a cost and benefit assessment, the costs to families are usually marginalized in the accounting.

Mobility and Stability: Shaping Individual, Family, Ethnic and National Identities


Identity is fundamental in everyday life and has implications for the study of family. Legitimacy and recognition of one’s right to exist in a place and to make choices about one’s life style are at the core of individual and family survival. Until a reasonable level of security is achieved little else matters. The right to move, travel and to be in contact with persons you value, is connected to how identity is defined and licensed. Citizenship and passports are indicators of how these rights are negotiated, legitimized and dispersed. Family has been used to provide an assignment of identity and a context for personal worth.

Historical Views

From feudalism to corporate loyalty to a market economy, the relationships among the individual, family, and the larger economic system are central to the freedom and control the family or individual may acquire. Formerly social control included tying a person to a location and a hierarchy. At the familial and individual level, mobility has been a strategy for survival. Most barriers to movement have been dysfunctional to family betterment in a changing economy. National and international agreements are made with minor attention to consequences for families. The influence of the Cambridge group in training scholars in techniques of record linkage and the development of family history and life course analysis have made studies across time and cultures more viable (Laslett, 1972, 1995; Hareven, 1996; Sussman and Hanks, 1996). Changes in the way social practices are viewed globally have had an impact on families and the approach of family scholars. Social movements have brought to the forefront issues of equity, personhood, and essential human rights.

Advances and Challenges

Social and political conflict has been a feature of current mobility controversy. Smelser (1996) sees the movement toward greater internationalization of economic processes and population migration as accelerating. Xenophobic reactions toward new immigrant groups and over-solicitous beliefs about the success of other groups are still quite typical of over generalization about immigration and changing social values (Caplan, Choy, and Whitmore, 1992). There is a sense that to be without an identity in the clan or party is to be vulnerable and that the nation state can not be a protector for individuals and families against such ethnic and racial group rivalry (O’Sullivan and Wilson, 1988). Three areas will be used to illustrate how individual, family, ethnic and national identities are interdependent: economic and social development, homelessness, and fertility and sexual expression.

Families carry most of the transitional costs for implementing economic and social development. Market forces may eventually provide a better quality of life, but many barriers keep families, from taking effective action to improve themselves. Common family economic problems include: the separation of families so that either or both spouses can find work (Steyn, 1998); the employment of women in domestic or nonwaged work, which separates them from their children and husbands (Aymer, 1993); the dependence on other relatives and friends for child care; the growth of the markets for the exploitation of women and children. Exploitative conditions in some businesses, and the offshoring of production and jobs from one country to another, undercut wages and benefits (Settles, 1993). At a fundamental level, individuals and families are micro-systems dealing with macro-systems for their survival and right to exist. The free movement of labor, hypothesized by some economic paradigms, is highly limited and regulated.

The rights of individuals have been expanding and more people are seen as having a right to influence their own destinies. The expansion of voting rights throughout the world documents this expansion of personhood. The various civil rights acts have solidified these opportunities for the people in the United States of America. The order and sequence of this expansion have been different in other countries and many impediments remain in the world to universal suffrage. Personhood in this context means that an individual is thought to have capacity for choice, responsibility, and contribution to the society. Racial, gender, ethnic, and religious barriers to participation have begun to drop away. However, the markers of class are subtly shifting and many scholars believe that for those in poverty, the class and environmental barriers are becoming more stringent (Wilson, 1991). The present economic climate is threatening to the middle class who are marginal. When the discouraged poor and disadvantaged racial and ethnic groups have no vision of how mobility could become a reality for them, the potentiality for violence and despair is heightened (Lacayo, 1993). Hallinan (1997: 4) sees that current global theories of social change fail to explain the responses of social systems to disruptive events because such theories do not specify the links between macro and micro-level processes.

Home is both a concept and context for family life. By defining home in ever escalating and exclusive terms the poor are left without housing and are denied basic rights. Public spaces are no longer leisure or work places when they become camps for the dislocated and “homelessness becomes part of our everyday lives” (Vaness in Frawley, 1992: 7). Learning to ignore or avoid eye contact may help in getting by each day, but the quality of life for everyone is impaired (Axelson and Dail, 1988). For many individuals and families, home is an elusive concept to establish in their real worlds. Being homeless in community of origin, in a refugee camp, not having valid papers to travel, or not being allowed to bring your family as you define it when you migrate, immigrate, or move within your community are common problems. Facing a change in the government where you have lived may leave you and your family out. Being told to go home to a country, your family has not seen in many generations, and where the local government and community do not recognize your claims may leave you homeless. It is troubling to analyze the relationship between home and country. No one should be homeless or without a country, but current change that suggests a new era for international relationships is having a huge fall-out in a large number of displaced persons (Berger, 1990).

Choices in social expression of sexuality have shown how identity and personal entitlement have changed. The gradual shift in beliefs about sexuality and its expression outside of marriage has been reflected in wider range of personal choices. Thornton’s (1989) analysis of the relationship between norms and behavior over the twentieth century shows a general movement in attitudes toward accepting premarital sexual expression and acknowledgment of the occurrence of extramarital sexuality. Although these trends were identified at least by the 1920s (Francoeur, 1987), public debate was not enlightened by the new norms of behavior (McNamara, 1988; Brown and Mann, 1989; Furstenberg, 1991). Social myth has obscured the differences in the timing of physical sexual maturity and delaying of marriage in the twentieth century (Miller, 1987; Miller and Moore, 1990). Not only are youth sexually interested, but also fertile at a much earlier age on average with a much longer time before cohabitation or marriage.

The impact of a contraceptive technology controlled by women on identity and personal freedom can be seen in the studies of female sexual attitudes and behavior. “One important theme to emerge from this analysis [changes since 1960s] is the relaxation of social prescription and an expansion of individual choice” (Thornton, 1989: 887). Modifying sexuality and fertility behavior has been widely studied and principles identified. Education for women, availability of reliable contraception with lower maternal and infant death and morbidity rates, and employment opportunities in the money economy for both men and women tend to accentuate the changes especially for women (Keyfitz, 1989). Fox (1993: 30) suggested that these factors translate into four strategies for population growth reduction: reducing infant and child mortality, increasing educational opportunities… providing access to safe, affordable and effective family planning services, and improving family income. Women have more opportunity to be independent in their choice of activities and family decision making. The expansion of personhood to include women has been encouraged by mobility opportunities.


When choosing theoretical models for studies useful to a global sociology of families, family sociologists could pay attention to the approaches families develop to cope with dynamic and normal change. Barriers to mobility may be dysfunctional for families. The loss of mediating institutions in a world market economy puts each family at risk to global economic decisions and conflicts. What is new about the current restructuring is that it does not affect only the classically vulnerable, but also undermines skilled and white collar workers (Cheal, 1996). The ways in which families create alternatives and moderate their own perceptions of globalization will be worth documenting.

In the future families may be the initiators of innovations and as leaders in change. Where change in sexual and fertility norms and behavior has happened, the critical importance of skills and knowledge and access to technology has been demonstrated. The sum of the micro-level decisions in families that involve fertility, mobility, and obtaining and using resources provide a total picture to the macro-processes of society (Huber, 1990). Certainly demography is found in the couple’s bed and change in the woman’s head. Macro-level meets micro-level.

The costs that accompany individual success and class mobility have been ignored, while encouraging achievement has been emphasized. Less is known about coping and adjustment for both those who succeed and those who are left behind. Understanding the systemic relationship among limited resources, increased population density and demands, social conflict and violence is an important challenge to sociologists (Homer-Dixon et. al., 1993). These problems have been studied by sociologists in Asia where the impact of labor migration on family is evident (Cho and Lee, 1993; Yi, 1993; Quah, 1993a; Quah, 1993b).

Political Uses and Misuses of Family Studies and Concepts


The role of family sociologists in interpreting their knowledge to the public discourse has become more central. Not only practical programs, policy analysis, and evaluation research have policy implications, but the most basic descriptive statistics and family process studies fuel debate. Sociologists do not agree with each other about interpretation. The hope of many, who love basic research activities, has been that good research would speak for itself. Using a value free or value explicit model was thought to protect the individual from politics. The consequences of applying theory to practice were not the scientists responsibility. Some of this distancing came from a naive view of how other sciences do their work. Gans (1989) worries that the current technologies and criteria for advancement encourage scholars to do piece work that may be chosen because of the convenience of secondary data and computer programs. He suggests that interpreting research and writing for the public should also be considered relevant to promotion and tenure decisions.

In family sociology the increasingly hostile and divisive political climate around the meaning and value of families for society has dominated the 90s. This is not a new problem, but rather that reluctance of mainstream sociologists to interpret findings has allowed a few highly politicized academics with marginal family credentials to take the leadership in speaking for and about families. In the following section two examples of issues, that seem at first glance to be relatively cool topics, will serve to show how current family sociology has become politically charged. The definition of family and the legal regulation of families have been examined closely by researchers in the 90s and connections to the political process have been identified and analyzed.

Historical Views

Within sociology professional status and prestige have tended to be allocated to those doing macro-level theories and analysis. Application and uses of sociological findings are either seen as work for other professionals or less interesting activities for less prestigious scholars. Davis (1949) suggested that perhaps because the family is a small and intimate unit that is linked to moral and ultimate ends, it has seemed not to be rewarding to study to the sociologist who would like to explain instrumentality in social systems. Huber and Spitz (1988) saw family sociology in the United States as a field persistently criticized for its lack of sophistication and significance in the problems addressed, theories proposed, and data quality.

The use of the family as a building block or a dependent variable has been common in sociological theory development. Murdock’s functions and findings were used to support the universality of the nuclear family (Lee, 1987). Parsons use of this imagery and concepts from Freud dominated the discussion of what is family (Kingsbury and Scanzoni, 1993). Scholars early challenged this perspective with data about the modified extended ties of small families and international family studies showed the close connections among households that have relatives. However, the simplest versions of families still are featured in common perspectives in sociology. In the 1980s controversies about definitions had come to the forefront as research documented a variety of families and their claims to be families (Settles, 1987). In the 1990s this area of theoretical refinement was developed and discussed globally (Settles, Steinmetz, Peterson and Sussman, 1999; Becker, 1991; Singly, 1993; Bawin-Legros, 1999).

Understanding the family from a legal perspective has focused on the changing codes with the advent of women’s rights and civil rights movements. Concerns with age of consent, property rights, divorce and custody, inheritance and responsibilities have been a long-standing area of legal interest. The relationship between the practices of everyday life and legal codes may be seen in a topic like gender role changes of the twentieth century that are not institutionalized completely (Bernard and Chilman, 1970; Huber, 1990) in either the national or international value schema. There has been a trend toward legalizing egalitarian treatment, following role preferences, as has been reported in the United States by Thornton (1989).

The secular trend has been consistently toward an overt and institutionalized commitment for equity and now is recognized by international bodies such as the United Nations and the European Community. The United Nations commitment to human rights and the inclusion of women in setting their own destinies has provided a solid foundation for policy and legal reforms world wide (Sokalski, 1992). While actual behavior has not always followed law, attitudes and expectations have been altered. Nader (1986) suggested that male dominance is expressed somewhat differently in various cultures and was not completely captured in many feminist critiques. Adams (1993) found that for men the situation was even more complex in Africa. Many men who were well educated and who had reliable employment were able to continue with traditional role arrangements for a longer time because the powerful families to which they belonged could find women who are willing and interested in the trade-off.

Challenges and Advances

One of the major controversies in this century has been the conflict among scholars and the legal, service, religious, economic, and political systems over how family and household could or should be defined. This issue is not just an interesting theoretical and conceptual problem, but its consequences for the quality of life, the social acceptance, and the availability and access to services, economic, and social goods.

Institutions have scope in selecting some families over others in distributing rewards and costs. The legal system sets boundaries, responsibilities, and privileges officially for specific relationships. The continuing responsibilities for family members over the life course are regulated. Eligibility for insurance, programs, tax breaks, and services are determined by bureaucratic definitions. Dependency and care are usually a matter of legal as well as normative expectation. Responsibility, legal mandates, parenting obligations, spousal expectations are useful tools for understanding the definition’s impact on policy outcomes. Incentives for certain family forms and households may be built into codes, benefits, and contracts. Scholarship and professional practice in related disciplines such as family therapy, microeconomics, family science, and child development provided interdisciplinary connections. Ganong, Coleman, and Mapes (1990) find in a meta-analysis of studies that family as a concept remains for many people a conservative view of family structures despite increased family diversity.

Institutions may lag behind the society in recognizing diversity in family structure as normal. These concerns about family forms and functions may lead to the need to negotiate among institutions and the misuse of familial definitions may lead to inadequate or inappropriate service. Grubrium and Holstein (1990) and Forsberg (1995) have documented how practitioners may operationally define families around their perceptions of functionality and normality and then show how action may be guided by these perceptions. Medical institutions serve individuals, but use families as surrogate decision-makers and supportive caregivers in a way that earlier in the century sociologists like Burgess never anticipated (Burgess and Locke, 1950). Some patients may not receive treatment or benefits if there are no appropriate family members to support during the intervention and to handle the post-hospital treatment: single people (Goldman, 1993), AIDS patients (Anderson, 1989; Tibler, Walker and Rolland, 1989); gay and lesbian partners (Larson and Edmondson, 1991; Zicklin, 1995).

Family sociologists have been refining what familial relationships mean in the context of theory. Levin and Trost (1992) used dyadic analysis to reveal family construction as a personal process. Trost (1993) reported gender differences in perceptions with women including more dyads in their families. Quah (1998: 219–246) suggested that the parent child dyad, especially the resiliency of the mother’s ties, is critical to conceptualizing family from a more classical sociological theoretical foundation. Women and children increasingly form more households which function as families no matter what the traditional definition or legally preferred family form remains. Dealing with this fact, in the political situation within the United Nations and among the countries participating, was a challenge in promoting the International Year of the Family in 1994 (United Nations, 1994; Boyden, 1993).

Depending on the stage of life, the likelihood that several households will be involved in one family network is quite high. Household is not a substitute for family either statistically or theoretically. Family ties and living arrangements provide an arena to explore how family is defined and redefined in real life. Theory can be enhanced by encompassing such negotiations as: young adults returning to their parents home (Jones and Wallace, 1992; Levy and Michel, 1991); the increased participation of grandparents in raising their grandchildren (Kivett, 1991; Purnell and Bagby, 1993); custody transfers following divorce and continued relationships of the divorced and their children (Kitson and Morgan, 1990; Coleman and Ganong, 1990; Duran-Aydintug and Ihinger-Tallman, 1995); and living together apart (Trost and Levin, 1997). Residency, affection, and intimacy are then dimensions in familial relationships, not household features.

Currently several political groups, which claim to have family values, have been reasserting a preference for two-parent families by citing sociological, psychological and economic findings that show advantages of the greater income and social power of these families. The Communitarian Network has been particularly effective in presenting the two-parent nuclear family of western nineteenth and twentieth centuries as a universal truth while denying they propose a narrow definition of family (Elshtain, et al., 1993). Poponoe (1993) has presented a criticism of family policies and practices that uses the 1950s as a baseline and suggests that families have changed negatively from the ideal family of that period. Stacey (1993) counters his claim by noting that this decade is an anomaly not typical of past or present family forms. Glenn (1997) criticized family research and families as portrayed in family textbooks from his conservative view. His approach was twofold attacking texts on: (a) scholarly grounds of balance, accuracy of presenting contrasting views, and arguments from evidence; and (b) attention to the treatment of selected issues of the importance of marriage, effects of families, especially solo parents on children, and analysis of the debates on family change and feminism. As Skolnick (1997) notes in her rejoinder to Glenn, at the center of the culture wars is the issue of defining the family, who is to be included and who is to be excluded from our world view and moral visions. The shaping of secondary level family texts by conservative political forces has already been achieved (Jones and Safrit, 1992; Spinner, 1992), so this debate may limit collegiate texts as well.

The legal and policy encoding and regulation of families are vested at the most local of the governmental units and have been difficult to integrate into a comparative analysis because of the great variety of specific differences and outcomes. However, international interest and leadership in purposeful change has lead to a framework of best practice recommendations from international organizations and advocates. The effects, both intended and unintended, of legal reform have gained the attention of sociologists (Donzelot, 1977; Grotber, 1981; Cherlin, 1988; Moen, 1989; Quah, 1990).

The bench law of different judges and courts provides wide latitude in the interpretation of the laws regarding family. In the United States questions of jurisdiction and inter-state cooperation have lead to a belief that there will be nationalization of family law (Buehler and Gerard, 1995; Erickson and Babcock, 1995), and more comparability in enforcement (Courtney and Collins, 1994). Internationally, the problems of legal definition of family and familial rights and responsibilities are similar to the United States, although France still has a more lengthy process and considerable judicial control (Fine and Fine, 1994). In the emerging eastern European countries questions about how these new nations will continue or digress from previous family practice, policy, and law are being examined (Juozelinien, 1993; Taljnait, 1993; Laja, 1993). In the European community the effects of differing family laws and regulations are being tracked and monitored as change in the European community affects such policy (Dumon, 1991; Ditch, Barnes and Bradshaw, 1996). The likelihood for practical cooperative effort in research and policy analysis is enhanced when regional groups are nurtured. The challenges of appropriate comparative study and reporting of projects must be addressed so that global study of families is advanced.

The perception of fairness is a measure of effective legal codes and controversy over the values embedded in the code. A case of conflict can be seen in the way the adoption of no-fault divorce legislation across the United States has given rise to political and personal turmoil. Fairness and equity for various family members in the court and legal system nationally are concepts that are now being described from the participants perspectives (Rettig, Magistad and Tam, 1994; Frazer and Stum, 1994). Acrimony over fault seems now to be playing itself out in the custody and property settlement arena and reduced awarding of alimony (Fine and Fine, 1994). Re-litigation or abduction of children following divorce is a common happening when there are children’s issues of support, property, custody and visitation or combinations of these issues being important (Koel, Clark, Straus, Whitney and Hauser, 1994; Greif and Hegar, 1994).

Legal reform internationally includes some of these same dynamics. Arising out of the work, in the celebration of the International Year of the Family in 1994, many countries have initiated programs for legal reform especially in domestic violence, elder abuse, and children’s rights. As countries achieved a consensus for change in their legal structure to incorporate United Nations statements on human rights, a real need for model legislation arose. While there are many expressions of desire for new laws, there is not a thorough study of which type of laws and how they should be drafted to be most effective (Sokalski, 1992).


Defining the role of international scholarship in policy and legal reform requires some consensus be developed. When sociologists leave their work uninterpreted for policy makers it invites misuse and grave misunderstanding of our studies. When there is not adequate data available, unsubstantiated estimates will be made and rumor will substitute for substance. Advocates may shape debate with anecdotes and data out of context. Decisions are being made at local, national, and international levels that affect families futures and their claims upon society. Sociologists need to build coalitions and cooperative arrangements in order to have influence in defining, studying, and advocating for change. In their review of the consequences of family change, Mancini and Orthner (1988: 366) state, “If family professionals are to behave responsibly, then they must be committed to intervening in family and societal life”.


In this chapter three themes have been presented which illustrate where barriers have been overcome and advances have been made that illustrate a growing global family sociology. The first is the impact of rapid social and economic change on the opportunities for families and scholars. The second theme is the discussion on how mobility and stability shape individual, family, ethnic and national identities. And the third theme focuses on the political dimension, that is, the uses and misuses of family studies and concepts. Rapid social change has been a primary feature of the situation for many families and family sociologists in the nineties. The wider interchange and communication among sociologists have given energy to more global interests in interpretation. There have been and still are opportunities for quasi-experimental and brief historical studies because of rapid social change and mobility of families.

With rapid social change and the mobility that goes with it, the concept of stability for many families ceases. However, with change has come immense challenges and opportunities for families to improve their lives. Interplay of boundaries and markets affects everyday life for both families and scholars. Scholars have many new openings for creating better data bases and more comparative analysis. For families, challenges to protect or expand personal freedoms and unite or reunite families are fundamental. Political processes are not only part of the funding and priority setting in family research and evaluation, but also are part of the agenda for setting policies and programs affecting family life. Both the legal and programatic regulation of and services to families are affected by the findings and interpretation of family research.

Today family sociologists live in interesting times. There is an accumulation of a vast literature, that is more inclusive of interdisciplinary and international findings, and is accompanied by the techniques to search it. Advances in information services aid while barriers of language and culture hinder today’s sociologists. Taking the responsibility for the outcome of one’s research still has not been totally accepted as an expectation for family sociologists.

The advances in communication and technology and an interest in academic institutions international connections have made it easier for scholars earlier in their careers to be more able to be independent of their local situation and more involved with those of similar interests across the world. While technology makes sending of messages easier, gaps in meaning and language challenge a discourse that is inclusive and objective. Advancing the state of scholarship and support in diverse settings requires some new manners for the academy. Sometimes setting aside hierarchies of what is sophisticated and what provides status to the academic discipline or organization is necessary. Still today methods for evaluating scholarly work have shaped local agendas of research and publication (Shangmar-Handleman, 1996; Quah, 1998: 1–33), and even the importance to publish in English shapes the discourse (Smelser, 1988).

Many interesting ideas arise from contrasting qualitative observations and data crunching and looking behind these measures to find the theoretical and political assumptions buried in our work and support. In order to promote collegial projects cross-nationally or cross-culturally, the needs of participants to meet the expectations of their home institutions and professional peers must be addressed. At a practical level recognizing the underlying organizational differences in academic and national settings is profoundly difficult, and the cultural differences in what reports and documentation are needed are immense. The differences in institutional settings in demands and rewards and in daily uncertainties of cooperative work are considerable (Kohn, 1987; Sussman and Hanks, 1996). At a basic entry into projects, clear communication about these matters is difficult because the differences are so embedded in the everyday life in society that one may not recognize potential conflict.

Separating the body of knowledge in international family sociology from the process of creating it is a delicate operation that may not be the strategic approach to understanding. Advances in family theory and analytic tools are more widely disseminated so that studies may have clearer links with each other. Comparative analysis is usually easier if the higher level abstractions are incorporated into the planning of studies and a foundation is laid for gathering data that has some unifying constructs. That is not to say that a single master theory must be bought into by everyone, but rather that comparability not be handled at the level of specific social variables that appear similar. Conceptual clarity will recognize that the same behavior may have different meanings and different behaviors may speak to the same idea. Lee and Haas (1993) note that the focus on statistical differences may be misplaced in comparative research. They suggest that Kohn’s argument to pay more attention to explaining similarities is well taken. The investment in attempting to do some of this theoretical work in study design may pay off over and over again in a complex program.

Internationally, sociology as an area of study at the university level has had different levels of acceptance and development. In Europe, North America, and now the Far East there are well-developed programs (Bak, 1996; Tolkii-Nikkonen, 1996; Eriksen and Wetlesen, 1996; Trost, 1996; Shen, 1996; Chow, 1996; Cho and Lee, 1993; Yi, 1993; Quah, 1993a). One of the challenges faced in family sociology is the relative lack of representation of some large areas of the world. Large parts of Africa and Latin America are not regularly heard from in international venues. Underrepresented groups are often isolated from communication and technologies in the developing educational, medical, and economic institutions. Work place technologies such as computers, for word processing, graphic applications and accounting, and transportation have been less accessible to underrepresented populations.

There are many other barriers to international exchange, nevertheless people do get together and some major advances have occurred and many opportunities exist to improve the field globally. In order to extend and advance this process the discipline requires some changes in the ways that we do our work. Special efforts to expand our viewpoints to include a global perspective are needed. Respecting each other’s work and paradigms is a challenge for international family sociology. Reviewing each other’s work for funding or publication is especially crucial because quality standards may be used to mask discrimination or confused with other values and distinctions. When the opportunity to launch cross-national and cross-cultural studies is available, the challenge is to design a practical and equally rewarding implementation. Comparative studies have many logistic and resource demands that make it impracticable for many studies unless there is a strong foundation in theory for the comparison (Lee and Haas, 1993). Kohn (1987) argues for the importance of cross-national studies. He also recognizes the considerable costs not just in financial outlays, but also in developing the collaborative relationships. Much of the work to be considered in understanding an international family sociology is in analyzing what of each nations family research can contribute to a larger sociological perspective on families.

Sociologists differ among themselves over their responsibility to interpret their work and increasingly differ over the meaning of their studies for policy and program discussions. However, if the field of public opinion is not informed by scholars, misguided and even wrong headed outcomes are likely to occur. Building reasonable inferences from findings and consensus around principles is not just a goal for family sociology and general sociological theory, but is needed in the changing societies.

Sociology of the family is more than just a field of research, education and action. Family sociologists have a stake in the welfare and quality of life of families and households. We are not above the fray only documenting and commenting. The problems we choose to investigate, the recommendations we promulgate, the theories we propose to explain phenomena are part of the social and political discourse that leads to how issues that affect families are addressed.