Chapter 2: Studying Marriage and the Family

Marriage & Families 3/E

Based upon their reading and careful consideration of Chapter Two, students should:

  1. understand why theories and research are important in our everyday lives.
  2. understand the role of theory and be familiar with the six theoretical approaches mentioned in the text: structural functionalism, conflict, feminist, symbolic interaction, social exchange, developmental theories, and family systems theory, and be able to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of each.
  3. understand the relationship between research and social issues.
  4. be familiar with the five categories of social research (survey research and focus groups, clinical research and case studies, observation, secondary analysis, and evaluation research); be able to provide examples of the various methods of each category; and be able to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of each.
  5. be able to explain how the input of women and minorities has affected social science research.
  6. understand the ethical and political issues associated with social science research and be able to list the guidelines for professional conduct.


The very words theory and research often intimidate people. Many Americans distrust quantitative data because statistics challenge comfortable beliefs and people fear that research results may perpetuate unpopular policies. Many aspects of our everyday family lives can be explained by theoretical perspectives or research. The text encourages the reader to be an "informed consumer": In order to understand marriage and family, you need to understand the most influential theories that guide social science investigation.

Theoretical Frameworks for Understanding Families

A theory is a set of logically related statements that try to explain why a phenomenon occurs. The most influential theoretical approaches to the study of marriage and family are examined. In sociology, the ecological perspective studies the relationship and adaptation of human groups, such as families, to their physical environment. Note that ecological theory proposes that individuals' roles and environmental settings are highly interrelated. The structural-functionalist approach examines the relationship between the family and the larger society as well as the internal relationships among family members. Anything that interferes with the fulfillment of social functions is seen as dysfunctional. Functions can be both manifest-recognized or intended-or latent-not recognized or intended. This approach has been criticized for being so conservative in its emphasis on order and stability and that it ignores social change.

According to conflict theories, family conflict can take many different forms. Rather than seeing change or conflict as bad or dysfunctional, conflict theorists see conflict as natural and inevitable. On a macro level, conflict theorists see society not as cooperative and stable, but as a system of inequality in which groups compete for scarce goods and services. Conflict theorists have been criticized for overemphasizing conflict and coercion at the expense of studying order, stability, and consensus.

Conflict theories provided a springboard for feminist theories (the fourth of the macro theories discussed in this section). Feminist theories include a wide range of theories including liberal feminism, radical feminism, and global feminism. They focus on the ways in which socially constructed categories of sex and gender roles shape relations between men and women in such institutions as the family, politics, and the economy. Criticisms of feminism include the fact that feminist analysis by an "old girl network" hasn't always welcomed conflicting points of view from African-American, Asian-American, Latino, Muslim, working class, or disabled women in either research or therapeutic settings. Another criticism is that most feminist research uses qualitative (rather than quantitative) methods.

Unlike structural-functionalism and conflict theories, symbolic interaction is a micro theory. Interaction is the mutual and reciprocal influencing of our behavior and attitudes; our definitions of the situation are learned through interaction with significant others; and family members play different roles. One of the most common criticisms is that because this approach emphasizes micro relationships, it ignores the impact of macro social structures.

The social-exchange theory posits that people make decisions and choices based on perceived costs and rewards and try to maximize rewards and reduce costs. Social exchange theorists argue that most decisions are based on cost-reward considerations. Exchange theorists have been accused of emphasizing the rational to the exclusion of spontaneous behavior and that it doesn’t explain how rewards and costs come to be defined as such or how their values are determined.

The developmental perspective covers a very broad area and incorporates several approaches: structural-functionalism, symbolic interaction, and social psychology; it examines the stages the family goes through from marriage to widowhood; these stages are called the family life cycle; as family members progress through it, they fulfill role expectations and responsibilities called developmental tasks. Developmental theories have been criticized because some critics feel that the stages are artificial; that because these theories are generally restricted to nuclear and stable families, they neglect families that take other forms; that gay and lesbian families are excluded from family life cycle theory; some critics question why life cycle theories ignore sibling relationships; and that developmental theories are not very useful in comparing family life cycles across historical periods.

The family systems theory views the family as a system, a functioning unit that solves problems, makes decisions, and achieves collective goals. The systems approach is compatible with symbolic interaction theory and is especially useful for clinicians and social workers who rely on symbolic interaction to examine the patterns of interaction among family members. Some critics argue that the family systems theory is too general to be a real theory and that it has a "sterile record."

Methods and Techniques in Family Research

Social scientists employ a variety of social research methods in order to study marriage and family related topics; most research comes from five major sources: surveys and focus groups, clinical research and case studies, observation, secondary analysis, and evaluation research. Surveys typically rely on questionnaires, interviews, or some combination of these techniques. Questionnaires, especially if mailed, are inexpensive and can target large numbers of respondents. Weaknesses of questionnaires include low response rates and respondent misinterpretation, leading to a self-selected sample. Interviews have the advantage of high response rates and respondent misinterpretation is low, but this technique is expensive and time-consuming and respondents may be less willing to discuss sensitive issues. Telephone surveys are inexpensive, effective in obtaining representative samples, and the researcher can deal with problems as they present themselves; on the other hand, respondents are free to discontinue the interview at any time. In recent years, researchers have been using focus groups to explore issues before they engage in a large survey project; usually 6 to 12 members of a focus group participate in a guided discussion of a particular topic.

The case-study or clinical-study method is the traditional approach used by those researchers who work with families on a one-to-one basis. A major strength of clinical research and case studies is that they are typically linked with long-term counseling. Weaknesses include the fact that these techniques are time-consuming and expensive and the results are not necessarily applicable to the average person or even to other troubled families.

In observation, researchers collect data by systematically observing people in their natural surroundings. In participant observation, researchers interact normally with the people they are studying but do not reveal their identities as researchers. In nonparticipant observation, researchers study phenomena without being part of the situation. Studies that use observation have the strengths of offering a deeper understanding of behavior than "one-shot" data-collection methods; they are flexible; and they do not disrupt a "natural" situation. Weaknesses include the expense involved and the fact that it may be very difficult to quantify the observations of variables, including difficulties with control.

Secondary analysis refers to the analysis of data that have been collected by someone else. This type of analysis is accessible, convenient, inexpensive, and it makes it possible to analyze longitudinal data. On the other hand, public usage may be restricted; concessions may have to be made, and the materials may be incomplete or difficult to determine in terms of accuracy.

Evaluation research measures a program's effects against its goals as a means of determining its future and the future of other programs; unlike the other methods described in this chapter, evaluation research is very applied and has important practical applications. Evaluation research can be frustrating, however, because politics plays an important role in what is evaluated, for whom the research is done, and how the results are appraised.

The inclusion of women, minorities, homosexuals, and other powerless and peripheral groups into sociological research, including family studies, is a relatively recent phenomenon. In fact, research in these areas is not a high-priority concern.

Ethical and Political Issues in Family Research

Researchers are sometimes found to have plagiarized, concocted data, or outright lied. Because so much research relies on human subjects, the federal government and many other professional organizations have set up codes of ethics. Politicians mare particularly distrustful of social science research, with human sexuality as one of the most sensitive research areas. Research guidelines are particularly difficult to follow when there are both ethical and political conflicts.

© 1995-1998 by Prentice-Hall, Inc.
A Pearson Company
Distance Learning at Prentice Hall
Legal Notice