Chapter 14. Marriage and Family

14.2 Variations in Family Life

The combination of husband, wife, and children that 80% of Canadians believes constitutes a family is not representative of the majority of Canadian families. According to 2011 census data, only 31.9% of all census families consisted of a married couple with children, down from 37.4% in 2001. Sixty-three per cent of children under age 14 live in a household with two married parents. This is a decrease from almost 70% in 1981 (Statistics Canada, 2012a). As noted above, this two-parent family structure is known as a nuclear family, referring to married parents and children as the nucleus, or core, of the group. Recent years have seen a rise in variations of the nuclear family with the parents not being married. The proportion of children aged 14 and under who live with two unmarried cohabiting parents increased from 12.8% in 2001 to 16.3% in 2011 (Statistics Canada, 2012a).

A woman walks through a forest holding the hand of a young girl.
Figure 14.15 One in five Canadian children live in a single-parent household. (Photo courtesy of Ross Griff/Flickr.) CC BY 2.0

Single Parents

Single-parent households are also on the rise. In 2011, 19.3% of children aged 14 and under lived with a single parent only, up slightly from 18% in 2001. Of that 19.3%, 82% live with their mother (Statistics Canada, 2012a).

In some family structures a parent is not present at all. In 2016, 83,145 children (1.4 per cent of all children) lived with a guardian who was neither their biological nor adoptive parent. Of these children, about 4 in 10 lived with grandparents, less than 1 in 3 lived with other relatives, and 1 in 3  lived with non-relatives or foster parents (Statistics Canada, 2017). If families in which both parents and grandparents are present are included, (about 2.9 per cent of all private households), this family structure is referred to as the extended family, and may include aunts, uncles, and cousins living in the same home (Statistics Canada, 2019b). Foster children account for about 0.5 per cent of all children in private households.

In the United States, the practice of grandparents acting as parents, whether alone or in combination with the child’s parent, is becoming more common (about 9 per cent) among American families (De Toledo and Brown, 1995). A grandparent functioning as the primary care provider often results from parental drug abuse, incarceration, or abandonment. Events like these can render the parent incapable of caring for their child. However, in Canada, census evidence indicates that the percentage of children in these “skip-generation” families remained more or less unchanged between 2001 and 2016 at 0.6 per cent (Statistics Canada, 2012a; 2017).

Changes in the traditional family structure raise questions about how such societal shifts affect children. Research, mostly from American sources, has shown that children living in homes with both parents grow up with more financial and educational advantages than children who are raised in single-parent homes (U.S. Census Bureau, 2010). The Canadian data is not so clear. It is true that children growing up in single-parent families experience a lower economic standard of living than families with two parents. In 2008, female lone-parent households earned an average of $42,300 per year, male lone-parent households earned $60,400 per year, and two-parent families earned $100,200 per year (Williams, 2010). However, in the lowest 20% of families with children aged four to five years old, single-parent families made up 48.9% of households while intact or blended households made up 51.1% (based on 1998/99 data). Single-parent families do not make up a larger percentage of low-income families (Human Resources Development Canada, 2003). Moreover, both the income (Williams, 2010) and the educational attainment (Human Resources Development Canada, 2003) of single mothers in Canada has been increasing, which in turn is linked to higher levels of life satisfaction.

In research published from the National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth (a long-term study initiated in 1994 that is following the development of a large cohort of children from birth to the age of 25), the evidence is also ambiguous as to whether having single or dual parents has a significant effect on child development outcomes. For example, indicators of vocabulary ability of children aged four to five years old did not differ significantly between single- and dual-parent families. However, aggressive behaviour (reported by parents) in both girls and boys aged four to five years old was greater in single-parent families (Human Resources Development Canada, 2003). In fact, significant markers of poor developmental attainment were more related to the sex of the child (more pronounced in boys), maternal depression, low maternal education, maternal immigrant status, and low family income (To et al., 2004).

The data shows that the key factors in children’s quality of life are the educational levels and economic condition of the family, not whether children’s parents are married, common-law, or single. For example, young children in low-income families are more likely to have vocabulary problems, and young children in higher-income families have more opportunities to participate in recreational activities (Human Resources Development Canada, 2003). This is a matter related more to public policy decisions concerning the level of financial support and care services (like public child care) provided to families than different family structures per se. In Sweden, where the government provides generous paid parental leave after the birth of a child, free health care, temporary paid parental leave for parents with sick children, high-quality subsidized daycare, and substantial direct child-benefit payments for each child, indicators of child well-being (literacy, levels of child poverty, rates of suicide, etc.) score very high regardless of the difference between single- and dual-parent family structures (Houseknecht and Sastry, 1996).

Cohabitation

Living together before or in lieu of marriage is a growing option for many couples. Cohabitation, when a man and woman live together in a sexual relationship without being married, was practiced by an estimated 21.3% of all census families) in 2011, which shows an increase of 13.9% since 2006 (Statistics Canada, 2012a; Statistics Canada, 2019b). This surge in cohabitation is likely due to the decrease in social stigma pertaining to the practice. In Quebec in particular, researchers have noted that it is common for married couples under the age of 50 to describe themselves in terms used more in cohabiting relationships than marriage: mon conjoint (partner) or mon chum (intimate friend) rather than mon mari (my husband) (Le Bourdais and Juby, 2002). In fact, cohabitation or common-law marriage is much more prevalent in Quebec (39.9% of census families) and the Northern Territories (from 36.6% in Yukon to 50.3% in Nunavut) than in the rest of the country (an average of 15.7%, excluding Quebec and the three territories) (Statistics Canada, 2019b).

Cohabiting couples may choose to live together in an effort to spend more time together or to save money on living costs. Many couples view cohabitation as a “trial run” for marriage. In 2016, approximately 39% of men and women aged 25 to 64 cohabited before their first marriage (up from 25% in 2006). Those who had lived common law with their spouse had done so for an average of 3.6 years prior to marrying, up from 2.5 years in 2006 (Statistics Canada, 2019a).

While couples may use this time to “work out the kinks” of a relationship before they wed, research from 2006 showed that cohabitation has little effect on the success of a marriage. Of the 2 million Canadians who went through a breakup between 2001 and 2006, approximately half were ending a marriage and the other half were dissolving a common-law relationship. This was despite the fact that there were far fewer common-law couples than married couples in 2001 (Statistics Canada, 2012b). Those who do not cohabit before marriage have better rates of remaining married for more than 10 years. Those in common-law unions had lived together for an average of 4.3 years, whereas those in marriages had been together for an average of 14.3 years. Cohabitation may contribute to the increase in the number of men and women who delay marriage. The average age of first marriage has been steadily increasing. In 2008, the average age of first marriage was 29.6 for women and 31 for men, compared to 23 for women and 25 for men through most of the 1960s and 1970s (Milan, 2013). In the data for 2016, (which is not exactly comparable), the average age of entering into their current marriage was 28 for women and 30 for men, but 31 for women entering into their current common-law union and 32 for men (Statistics Canada, 2019a).

 

A comparison of the marital status of men and women in 1981 and 2011 based on their age.
Figure 14.16 As shown by these population pyramids of marital status, more young people are choosing to delay or opt out of marriage. (Milan, 2013, p. 2; Population pyramids courtesy of Statistics Canada, censuses of population, 1981 and 2011.) Statistics Canada Open Licence

Blended Families

Stepparents are an additional family element in two-parent homes. A stepfamily or blended family is defined as “a couple family in which at least one child is the biological or adopted child of only one married spouse or common-law partner and whose birth or adoption preceded the current relationship” (Statistics Canada, 2012). Among children living in two parent households in 2011, 10% lived with a biological or adoptive parent and a stepparent (Statistics Canada, 2012). In 2011, 12.6% of all Canadian families with children under the age of 25 were stepfamilies (Vézina, 2012).

Historically, stepfamilies formed most often because of the death of a spouse, like in the 1970s TV sitcom The Brady Bunch. Contemporary stepfamilies are more commonly the result of the conjugal break down in previous relationships. The introduction of no fault divorce in Canada in the 1980s and the increasing prevalence of common-law relationships, which are more unstable than formal marriages, contributed to the growth in numbers of the stepfamily. But since 1995, the number of parents living in stepfamilies has remained relatively stable (Vézina, 2012).

Stepfamilies come in two forms: simple and complex (Vézina, 2012). In simple stepfamilies, only one spouse has a child or children from a previous union. In complex stepfamilies, both spouses have at least one child from a previous union, or else children are born into a family with at least one child from a previous union. In 2011, 49% of stepfamily parents were members of simple stepfamilies and 51% lived in complex stepfamilies.

Figure 14.17 Blended families became more common in the 1970s. (Photo courtesy of Adam/Flickr). CC BY ND 2.0

The stepfamily form is interesting to sociologists because of its relative newness and the particular social, economic, legal and family issues it poses. As Judith Stacey (1990) noted in her research on divorce extended families (see above), blended families are trail blazers when it comes to figuring out new norms of family life. The division of household assets, the sharing of household expenses, the apportionment of parenting duties (and who parents whom), the public identity and status of the family group, and the complexity of visitation arrangements for exes and both sets of children are issues that blended parents have to negotiate. Children also have to deal with what to call their new stepparents, how to relate to new siblings, and how to manage time and emotional life between at least two different households. These are all elements of daily family life that symbolic interactionists would say require negotiation and interpretation, sometimes under duress when court proceedings and their financial aftermath are involved.

Same-Sex Couples

The number of same-sex couples has grown significantly in the past decade. The Civil Marriage Act (Bill C-38) legalized same sex marriage in Canada on July 20, 2005. Some provinces and territories had already adopted legal same-sex marriage, beginning with Ontario in June 2003. In 2011, Statistics Canada reported 64,575 same-sex couple households in Canada, up by 42% from 2006. Of these, about three in ten were same-sex married couples compared to 16.5% in 2006 (Statistics Canada, 2012a). These increases are a result of more coupling, the change in the marriage laws, growing social acceptance of homosexuality, and a subsequent increase in willingness to report it.

In Canada, same-sex couples make up 0.8 per cent of all couples. Unlike in the United States where the distribution of same-sex couples nationwide is very uneven, ranging from as low as 0.29 per cent in Wyoming to 4.01 per cent in the District of Columbia (U.S. Census Bureau, 2011), the distribution of same-sex couples in Canada by province or territory is similar to that of opposite-sex couples. However, same-sex couples are more highly concentrated in big cities. In 2011, 45.6% of all same-sex sex couples lived in Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal, compared to 33.4% of opposite-sex couples (Statistics Canada, 2012). In terms of demographics, Canadian same-sex couples tended to be younger than opposite-sex couples. 25% of individuals in same-sex couples were under the age of 35 compared to 17.5% of individuals in opposite-sex couples. There were more male-male couples (54.5%) than female-female couples (Milan, 2013). Additionally, 9.4% of same-sex couples were raising children, 80% of whom were female-female couples (Statistics Canada, 2012a).

While there is some concern from socially conservative groups (especially in the United States) regarding the well-being of children who grow up in same-sex households, research reports that same-sex parents are as effective as opposite-sex parents. In an analysis of 81 parenting studies, sociologists found no quantifiable data to support the notion that opposite-sex parenting is any better than same-sex parenting. Children of lesbian couples, however, were shown to have slightly lower rates of behavioural problems and higher rates of self-esteem (Biblarz and Stacey, 2010).

Staying Single

Gay or straight, a new option for many Canadians is simply to stay single. In 2016, the most common type of household was the one-person households or single (28.2%).(Statistics Canada, 2019b). In 2011, never-married individuals accounted for 73.1% of young adults in the 25 to 29 age bracket, up from 26% in 1981 (Milan, 2013). More young men in this age bracket are single than young women — 78.8% to 67.4% — reflecting the tendency for men to marry at an older age and to marry women younger than themselves (Milan, 2013).

Although both single men and single women report social pressure to get married, women are subject to greater scrutiny. Single women have to deal with the stereotypes of the unhappy “spinster” or “old maid” who cannot find a man to marry them. Single men, on the other hand, are typically portrayed as lifetime bachelors who cannot settle down or simply “have not found the right girl.” Single women report feeling insecure and displaced in their families when their single status is disparaged (Roberts, 2007). However, single women older than 35 report feeling secure and happy with their unmarried status, as many women in this category have found success in their education and careers. In general, women feel more independent and more prepared to live a large portion of their adult lives without a spouse or domestic partner than they did in the 1960s (Roberts, 2007).

The decision to marry or not to marry can be based a variety of factors including religion and cultural expectations. In the United States, Asian individuals are the most likely to marry while Black North Americans are the least likely to marry (Venugopal, 2011). Additionally, individuals who place no value on religion are more likely to be unmarried than those who place a high value on religion. For Black women, however, the importance of religion made no difference in marital status (Bakalar, 2010). In general, being single is not a rejection of marriage; rather, it is a lifestyle that does not necessarily include marriage. By age 40, according to census figures, 20% of women and 14% of men will have never married (U.S. Census Bureau, 2011).

Three people sitting at a bar.
Figure 14.18 More and more Canadians are choosing lifestyles that do not include marriage. (Photo courtesy of Glenn Harper/Flickr.) CC BY 2.0

Theoretical Perspectives on Marriage and Family

Sociologists use a variety of theoretical perspectives to explain events that occur within and outside of the family. Structural functionalism, critical sociology, and symbolic interactionism have been prominent paradigms for gaining insight into the family.

Functionalism

When considering the role of family in society, functionalists uphold the notion that families continue to be an important social institution that plays a key role in stabilizing society. They also note that family members take on roles within a marriage or family, which are determined by the functions required to keep families operational and viable. The family and its members are functional components in a social system whose performance facilitates the continuity, prosperity and development of society.

Anthropologist George Murdock defined the family as “a social group characterized by common residence, economic cooperation, and reproduction,” which “includes adults of both sexes, at least two of whom maintain a socially approved sexual relationship, and one or more children” (Murdock, 1949). In a survey of 250 societies, Murdock determined that despite the wide variation and complexity of family forms, a nuclear family unit — two parents and their dependent children — was at the core of each kinship system.  He further deduced that there were four universal functions of this nuclear family core: sexual, reproductive, educational, and economic. In each society, although the structure of the family varies, the family performs these four functions.

  1. According to Murdock (1949), the nuclear family (which for him includes the state of marriage) regulates sexual relations between individuals. He does not deny the existence or impact of premarital or extramarital sex, but states that the family offers a socially legitimate sexual outlet for adults (Lee, 1985). Although societies differ greatly to the degree that they place limitations on sexual behaviour, all societies have norms governing sexual behavior. The function of the family is to regulate sexual behaviour according to the stated norms around sexual gratification.
  2. This outlet for legitimate sexual relations gives way to reproduction, which is a necessary part of ensuring the survival of society. Each society needs to replace the older people with new generations of young people. Again, the institution of the nuclear family provides a socially legitimate and regulated form in which children are produced and given recognized status in society. Societies which practice celibacy, like the religious community of the Shakers — an offshoot of the Quakers who believed in the second appearance of Jesus Christ — were dysfunctional in this regard as they were unable to maintain sufficient population to remain viable. By the 1920s there were only 12 Shaker communities left in the United States.
  3. Once children are produced, the nuclear family plays a vital role in training them for adult life. As the primary agent of socialization, the family teaches young children the ways of thinking and behaving that follow social and cultural norms, values, beliefs, and attitudes. Parents teach their children manners and civility. A well-mannered child (presumably) reflects a well-mannered parent. In most societies, the family unit is responsible for establishing the emotional security and sense of personal self-worth of its members, which begins in childhood. When families fail to do this they are seen as dysfunctional.
  4. The fourth function of the nuclear family Murdock identified is economic. The family is understood as a primary economic unit where the economic well-being of family members is provided. In premodern family forms, the extended family itself is the basis of the economy. As a unit it produces the basic needs of its members including food, shelter, health care, and comfort in general. In modern society, some of these economic functions, like production and health care, are taken over by other social institutions, but the family remains the principle unit of consumption. Family members coordinate their incomes to provide economically for the rest of the family. In Canada, this is institutionalized in the taxation system for example. Revenue Canada taxes the family as a single unit, rather than recognizing that some blended families and “confluent couples” seek to maintain the financial independence of wage earners. When the family fails to perform its economic function, the effect ripples out into the rest of the economy.

One of the socialization functions of the family is to teach children gender roles. Gender roles are also an important part of the economic functioning of a family. The functionalist Talcott Parsons (1943) emphasized that in each family, there is a division of labour that consists of instrumental and expressive roles. Men tend to assume the instrumental or breadwinning roles in the family, which typically involve work outside of the family that provides financial support and establishes family status. Women tend to assume the expressive or nurturing roles, which typically involve work inside the family, including providing emotional support and physical care for children (Crano and Aronoff, 1978). According to functionalists, the differentiation of the roles on the basis of sex ensures that families are well-balanced and coordinated. Each family member is seen as performing a specific role and function to maintain the functioning of the family as a whole. Each family member has a socially recognized role that reduces internal competition for status within the family, and ambiguity about the status of the family in the external community.

When family members move outside of these roles, the family is thrown out of balance and must recalibrate in order to function properly. For example, if the father assumes an expressive role, such as providing daytime care for the children, the mother must take on an instrumental role such as gaining paid employment outside of the home. Stay-at-home dads are becoming more common today but their non-traditional role still produces ambiguity and uncertainty in their claim to status in the community. Women often find themselves pulled in different directions between expectations from work and expectations that they continue their homemaker roles within the family.

At Home Fashions for the Hostess or Homemaker
Figure 14.19 At home fashions for hostess or homemaker from Sears Catalogue. Corduroy and Cotton (left): “This little outfit stays at home, in beautiful comfort.” (Image courtesy of Adam/Flickr.) CC BY-SA 2.0

Parsons (1943) argued that in modern North American society, the differentiation between these roles created tension or strain on individuals as they tried to adapt to the conflicting norms or requirements of the North American occupational and kinship systems. There was an “asymmetrical relation of the marriage pair to the occupational structure” (Parsons, 1943). In the North American kinship system, based on bilateral descent, spouses are regarded as equal and their roles are of equal value to the survival of the family.  But this role equality in the family system was undermined by the inequality of role status in the occupational system between paid employment outside the home and unpaid domestic work inside the home.The asymmetrical relation of the marriage pair to the occupational structure created a tension within the family that needed to be resolved.

One result of this division, argued Parsons, was strain in relation to the patterning of sex roles. While men became narrow instrumental specialists, incapable of a full expressive life, women “neurotically” over-emphasized expressive tasks. To compensate for the untenable inequality between the occupational roles, women created a functional equivalent to demonstrate their skills and fundamental equality to their husbands, leading to the “glamour girl” pattern, compulsive domesticity, or exaggerated interest in fashion or taste.

There is also, however, a good deal of direct evidence of tension in the feminine role. In the “glamour girl” pattern, use of specifically feminine devices as an instrument of compulsive search for power and exclusive attention are conspicuous. Many women succumb to their dependency cravings through such channels as neurotic illness or compulsive domesticity and thereby abdicate both their responsibilities and their opportunities for genuine independence. Many of the attempts to excel in approved channels of achievement are marred by garishness of taste, by instability in response to fad and fashion, by a seriousness in community or club activities which is out of proportion to the intrinsic importance of the task. In all these and other fields there are conspicuous signs of insecurity and ambivalence. Hence it may be concluded that the feminine role is a conspicuous focus of the strains inherent in our social structure, and not the least of the sources of these strains is to be found in the functional difficulties in the integration of our kinship system with the rest of the social structure (Parsons, 1949)

Critical Sociology

Critical sociologists adopt a historical perspective to examine the economic structures and power relationships that influence family forms and processes (Comacchio, 2000). Sociologists working in the Marxist tradition emphasize the ways in which family relationships are entwined with the changing structures of work.  Firstly, until the 20th century families were the principle site of economic production and consumption. As economic activity separated from the home, families became dependent on the fluctuations of wage labour while still remaining a principle unit of consumption and economic collaboration.  Secondly, families continued to play a key role in the reproduction of labour power — feeding, clothing, replenishing, raising, and socializing. The ability of family members to do work depends on the family, (see the discussion of Friedrich Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884) in Chapter 4. Society and Modern Life). Dorothy Smith therefore described home and family as “integral parts of, and moments in, a mode of production” (Smith, 1985). For sociologists like Smith, the dynamics of home and family can not be analyzed independently of the capitalist economic and political structures that organize them and give them their particular forms.

For example, work does not structure family in the same way for all families, nor for all family members (Comacchio, 2000). Class is a key social division in determining the nature of family life. In the separation of family and work over the 20th century, middle class family strategies increasingly focused on maintaining life style, respectability, standards of living, cultural capital and children’s prospects rather than struggling for economic subsistence. By the mid-20th century, the middle class family became a prime candidate for various “technologies of normalcy” and the “cult of domesticity” that extolled the virtues of the single-breadwinner family. On the other hand, working class strategies of domestic management remained tied to subsistence and survival, “making do” and stretching resources during periods of joblessness and precarious employment. Their survival and reproduction depended on a family economy where all family members often had to work. The difficulties experienced by racialized families, who faced residential segregation and restrictions on where they could seek employment, impacted family structures even further. Black Caribbean families often adopted extended and matriarchal forms as they struggled to hold family units together (Christensen et al., 1993). Even as the concept of “the family” in the popular imagination and public policy came increasingly to resemble Parsons’ breadwinner-homemaker model, in working class culture “the continued importance of mutual assistance among kin, children’s contributions of wages or services, and the domestic production entailed in sewing, canning, vegetable and fruit growing and small animal husbandry, is notable even past the mid-point of the 20th century” (Comacchio, 2000).

Another development in the transition from the feudal family unit, as the basis of production and consumption, to the capitalist family, where economic life moves outside of the home, was the redefinition of public and private spheres. North American families came to be defined as private entities, the consequence of which (historically) has been to see family matters as issues concerning only those within the family. Serious issues including domestic violence and child abuse, inequality between the sexes, the right to dispose of family property equally, and so on, have been historically treated as being outside of state, legal, or police jurisdiction. The feminist slogan of the 1960s and 1970s — “the personal is the political” — indicates how feminists began to draw attention to the broad social or public implications of matters long considered private or inconsequential.

As women’s roles had long been relegated to the private sphere, issues of power that affected their lives most directly were largely invisible. Speaking about the lives of white middle-class women in mid-century North America, Betty Friedan (1963) described this problem as “the problem with no name”:

The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the 20th century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night — she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question — “Is this all?” (Friedan, 1963).

The problems were equally invisible but less vague for racialized women. Observing the current prevalence of lone parent families among Blacks in Canada for example, Livingstone and Weinfeld (2015) note that “many factors that militate against the formation and stability of unions may be at work: labour market inequalities; the pressures of racism; poverty and economic insecurity; immigrant stresses that lead to marital dissolution; the unequal sex ratio and inter-racial marriage patterns.”

The focus of critical sociology therefore is to highlight the political-economic context of the inequalities of power in family life. Families replicate the power relations of patriarchy and capitalism. The family is often not a haven but rather an arena where the effects of societal power struggles are felt. This exercise of power entails the differentiation and performance of family status roles. Why are women expected to perform the “expressive” roles in the family while the men perform “instrumental” roles, and what are the implications of this division of labour? Critical sociologists therefore study conflicts as simple as the enforcement of rules from parent to child, or more serious issues such as domestic violence (spousal and child), sexual assault, marital rape, and incest, as products of power structures in broader society. Blood and Wolfe’s classic (1960) study of marital power found that the person with the most access to value resources held the most power. As money is one of the most valuable resources, men who worked in paid labour outside of the home held more power than women who worked inside the home. Disputes over the division of household labour tend also to be a common source of marital discord. Household labour offers no wages and, therefore, no power. Studies indicate that when men do more housework, women experience more satisfaction in their marriages, reducing the incidence of conflict (Coltrane, 2000).

The political and economic context is also key to understanding changes in the family form over the 20th and 21st centuries. The debate between functionalist and critical sociologists on the rise of non-nuclear family forms is a case in point. Since the 1950s, the functionalist approach to the family has emphasized the importance of the nuclear family — a married man and woman in a socially approved sexual relationship with at least one child — as the basic unit of an orderly and functional society. Although only 39% of families conformed to this model in 2006, in functionalist approaches, it often operates as a model of the normal family, with the implication that non-normal family forms lead to a variety of society-wide dysfunctions.

On the other hand, critical perspectives emphasize that the diversity of family forms does not indicate the “decline of the family” (i.e., of the ideal of the nuclear family) so much as the diverse response of the family form to the tensions of gender inequality and historical changes in the economy and society. The nuclear family should be thought of less as a normative model for how families should be, and more as an historical anomaly that reflected the specific social and economic conditions of the two decades following World War II. Major determinants of the diversification of the family form include the shift from the Fordist high-wage economy to Post-Fordist precarious economy in which survival on a single breadwinner’s wage becomes increasingly difficult for working class and middle class families alike. Demographic changes brought about by urbanization and the birth control pill have affected the size of families as well as the delays in getting married or cohabiting. The feminist movement, changes in the socioeconomic status of women and the laws governing property and divorce have realigned power structures and gender roles within the family and economy. Changing relations between the private sphere, represented by “the family,” and the public interest represented by the state, also result in public policies like healthcare, fertility options, senior care, childcare, parental leave, employment insurance, etc. that affect family strategies, decisions and domestic arrangements.

Symbolic Interactionism

Interactionists view the world in terms of symbols and the meanings assigned to them (LaRossa and Reitzes, 1993). The family itself is a symbol. To some, it is a father, mother, and children; to others, it is any union that involves respect and compassion. Interactionists stress that family is not an objective, concrete reality. Like other social phenomena, it is a social construct that is subject to the ebb and flow of social norms and ever-changing meanings.

Consider the meaning of other elements of family: “parent” was a symbol of a biological and emotional connection to a child. With more parent-child relationships developing through adoption, remarriage, or change in guardianship, the word “parent” today is less likely to be associated with a biological connection than with whoever is socially recognized as having the responsibility for a child’s upbringing. Similarly, the terms “mother” and “father” are no longer rigidly associated with the meanings of caregiver and breadwinner. These meanings are more free-flowing through changing family roles.

Interactionists also recognize how the family status roles of each member are socially constructed, which plays an important part in how people perceive and interpret social behaviour. Interactionists view the family as a group of role players or “actors” that come together to act out their parts in an effort to construct a family. These roles are up for interpretation. In the late 19th and early 20th century, a “good father,” for example, was one who worked hard to provide financial security for his children. Today, a “good father” is one who takes the time outside of work to promote his children’s emotional well-being, social skills, and intellectual growth — in some ways, a much more daunting task.

Symbolic interactionism therefore draws our attention to how the norms that define what a “normal” family is, and how it should operate, come into existence. The rules and expectations that coordinate the behaviour of family members are products of social processes and joint agreement, even if the agreements are tacit or implicit. In this perspective, norms and social conventions are not regarded as permanently fixed by functional requirements or unequal power relationships. Rather, new norms and social conventions continually emerge from ongoing social interactions to make family structures intelligible in new situations, and to enable them to operate and sustain themselves.

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