The world has been undergoing great changes in different spheres of life just in the past several decades. One of the most amazing and quick changes seems to be happening within the institution of the family. I have a special interest in this topic, as soon as I witness the radical change going on literally before my eyes: my home country, which was a country with traditional society, after the collapse of the Soviet Union went and is still going through the process of transformation, which introduces completely new phenomena to the Albanian society and changes the traditional relationships sometimes to the opposite.
Hence my interest in this topic. And therefore I aim this essay to delineate the “family decline” versus “family change” debate and then to provide reasons, which will support my conclusion that the perspective of change is a better way to think about the family today. In order to present a clear distinction of both terms “decline” and “change” of the family, I will first investigate the concept of the family. There has been very little consensus on the definition offered to the concept of family by different scholars.
Koerner and Fitzpatrick (2004) gathered all the definitions into three perspectives, which thus include the structural definition, psychosocial functional perspective and transactional definition. The first one defines the family as “presence of people related through blood and marriage”. To supplement this, Murdock (1949) introduced the term “nuclear family” and defined it as: A social group characterized by common residence, economic cooperation, and reproduction.
It includes adults of both sexes, at least two of whom maintain a socially approved sexual relationship, and one or more children, own or adopted, or the sexually cohabiting adults (Weigel, Daniel. J, 2008). The second perspective defines the family in relation to the functions is may perform, like possessing a household, influencing the integration and socializing of children, supporting the emotional feelings, material needs and demands, and completing the roles.
Basing on this view, Parsons (1955) introduced his version of family definition by presenting two crucial ideas: he considered the family a stabilizing force for the personality of the adults, and also for the socialization of children. As we see, functionalists consider the family as a unity to provide a kind of “give and take”, mutual emotional and material reinforcement. Whereas the third perspective defines the family as “intimate groups who through their behavior generate a sense of family identity with emotional ties and an experience of the history and future” (p.
177). However, the opinions whether it is structure or functions that determines the essence of the family in a better way still vary. At the same time, we need not forget that the family is a concept that has been socially constructed. The public discourse refers to the family in the framework of the language and the experiences it has in relation to the family. Gergen (1994) maintained that individuals shape their own way of living regarding their accomplished relations, integration and communication.
Being socially constructed, the concept of the family went through many changes through history. The emergence of the industrial era, the evolution of society, the demographic, cultural and political changes deeply affected people’s views on the family (Lammana, Riedmann, 2008). It is now common to think of the family out of the patriarchal context, which prescribes for the husband to strive to be the breadwinner of the family and for the wife to be a housewife looking after the household, her husband and the children.
The perception of the family now has become much broader and more open-minded, as the society has offered many new choices. There are now families run by a single parent, gay partners living together, gay parents, couple cohabiting, families where the children care about the elder members of the family. Thus, there are varieties of social entities that apparently look like a family and actually perform the duties of the family, as they provide care, look after, have a state of love and affair, and above all are devoted to raising children and socializing them.
On the other hand, these different kinds of units make it difficult for all to fit into a solid definition of the family (Goode, 2007). Apart from the debate on the clear definition, which still leaves space for different assumptions, there has also been a long debate going on about whether the modern development of the family should be defined as “decline” or “change” of the family. Popenoe (1993) believes that family decline has been astonishingly sharp since the beginning of the 1960s and regards its social outcomes as very serious and threatening, particularly for children.
Many factors can be cited here that lead to the argument that the family is declining. For example, the ease, quickness and lower cost of the divorce, more families cohabiting, legal abortion, increasing number of single parents, illegitimate births and women having many more possibilities to work. If we accept this point of view on the family decline, then these factors contribute to the idea that the principles of people are collapsing and the institution of family is in crisis.
It is agreed that “decline” as a term originated forcefully from the conservatives who still believe that there is an ultimate need to go back to the traditional nuclear type of family and who correspondingly see all social changes influencing the family as negative (Dobson, Bauer, 1990). The conservatives argue that the family has lost its real meaning in the process of weakening its power, authority and functions. When asked about what kind of family decline is predominant today, Popenoe (1993) mentions two aspects that, according to him, are alarming: the first concern is the collapse of the nuclear family.
Popenoe considers it in the way that, despite anything else, the nucleus is the root of every single thing, and when it is destroyed, it becomes a real serious trouble. And secondly, he maintains that childbearing and the stipulation of affection and company to its members, as two main basics of the family, are threatened by the growing individualism: Public and scholarly concern that the family has eroded as an institution and no longer takes care of its members, has been a dominant feature of family discourse in recent years (Popenoe, 1993, Skolnick, 1991).
However, data suggest that it is not total withdrawal of care and tenderness towards the elderly. The fact is that due to the economic difficulties and busy lives, children buy care for their elder parents or even elder relatives. The definition given by Murdock at the beginning of the essay was obviously based on the period he lived, that is mostly the social structure of older times. Nowadays it is hard to accept it as convenient for the 21-century family structure. Apparently, the functions of the family today are performed in different family types.
The nuclear family was a family mostly suited to the men`s needs, as they needed a wife who would be a servant, a slave and an educator as well. The scholars have used the term “collectivism” to refer to those families where the family needs and demands are met by the family, thus securing a stability feeling, a sense of continuity, belongingness and identity (Pyke, Bengston, 1996). Whereas individualistic families, on the contrary, highlight independence, autonomy, self-reliance, weak kinship relations, personal achievements, while family relations are build upon voluntary will and equality.
Nowadays, both partners, man and woman, learn what to expect from marriage. They try to adapt to the new rules and norms of the society and, at the same time, try hard to employ better ways to raise their children, often differently than the way their parents and grandparents did. The family decline also occurred because the women themselves realized the exploitation they had in traditional nuclear families, judging from the feminists` perspective (Cancian, 1987; Harding, 1981). In addition, women started to have more job opportunities, and often farther than their location of the family.
There has been a dramatic increase in the number of those women entering the labor market worldwide. As a result, the family role changed into an egalitarian one, as soon as the parents had other different responsibilities. Individualism emerged, and the collective consciousness of the family members sounded no longer as “we will” but “I will. ” However, even if women now are free to chose among facilities and do them, these are still less paid facilities, and still it seems that real jobs with a proper high status are out of reach yet.
This happens partly because of the fact that women need to raise children as well, thus having less time for career. On the other side, the freedom of women, their desire and will to reach heights in their professions, make them spend less time with their family and children, which simultaneously may crack the family relationship and lead to separation or divorce. Another factor, which is derived from the changing of the society, is cohabitation. It has become very widespread in the last decades. Statistically this state of relationship affects the marriage indicators.
The marriage is in decline because the couples now prefer to live legally unconditioned from one another. The increase of non-marital childbearing is positively correlated to the increase of cohabitation. Since the 1960s, the percentage of births given by unmarried mothers was 5%, whereas in the 1990s it grew to 30%. The number of cohabitations has increased significantly, from less than 500 000 in the 1960s to nearly 4 million in the recent years (Spain&Bianchi, 1996). These numbers also indicate the change of the attitude towards the idea of admitting sex out of matrimony.
It is a fact as well that fertility in these cohabiting couples is higher, but now fertility is not only a factor to save the relationship and perhaps lead it to marriage, but it rather indicates a choice made (and planned) by these unmarried women (Brown, 2000). There are more lone or single parent families now, which is also a result of the family breakdown. Single mothers sometimes strive to work hard by combining two or three jobs, or sometimes being part of the welfare system; both cases influence the breeding of children negatively.
Somehow, the children raised in these households, which are labeled as “low and poor slum areas”, are more prone to committing crimes and other troubles. However, this can often happen within the traditional family, when the parents who do no match each other and are not devoted to living together, still have to live together just for the sake of their children, or because they stick to the norms of the society, or because they had vowed to stay together until the end of their lives.
The number of the first marriages has fallen dramatically. Statistics reveal that the age of never married individuals has increased a lot, especially in the most developed countries. It leads to an assumption that the trend to get married is not popular anymore. Experiences of getting married in the early age are statistically associated with greater possibility of having a risk of divorce (Brown, 2000). Women do not feel it necessary to get married any more, nor do they feel obliged to get tied to the housework and only one man.
This has became an indicative tendency since the end of the 20th century in many parts of the world (even traditional societies are influenced by this trend). Marriage is postponed to a later age, because there is now a tendency of setting the priorities, and marriage does not seem to be among the most important ones. Both men and women, while setting their own priorities in life, put education and their own development in a fundamental career in the first place (Holzer, 1994). According to Baranski and Kaczmarek (2007) this happens also because the status of being single is up to date.
Anyway, family creation is still an objective, but it comes after the fulfillment of personal attainments and achievement of economic stability. This definitely shows that people who on the verge of economic difficulties want their families to suffer less, and thus start to create families when at least they have succeeded to accumulate something materially as single individuals. There has also been an increase in the level of infidelity from both men and women. Lack of parental monitoring, lone parents, working parents, seem to be a peculiar factor in the family decline.
Children who now lack parental attention and thus are less prone to base their knowledge of the world on strong values, principles and morals, these children in the future presumably will get more involved into problems and will have difficulties in setting their own lives. Divorce is now more easily and cheaply achieved than ever before. Women are now eligible to file for it and now they do not feel constrained by prejudice anymore, if they wish to choose it. The institution of the family can now be substituted by other types of social relations, social status and sometimes even social benefits that accompany it.
For example, in the case of the divorce a woman will be provided with social help and support. Years ago women did not gain anything of this nature (not mentioning the fact that the possibility of divorce sometimes did not exist at all, and thus the status of a divorced woman), which is an additional reason that would keep the marriage together. This is also a reason of the low rates of the divorces in general. Thus, a positive outcome of the change in the family perception is the different attitude towards divorce.
It may be considered now as the only choice and the best solution for the successful raising of the children. The number of the divorces has increased considerably since the previous decade, as soon as many legal acts have been issued in the legislation of different countries, and that fortunately makes divorce easier, cheaper and quicker. Thus, looking back at the points above, I want to underline one observation. It seems obvious that what the scholars label as “family decline” can be relevant only to the recent breakdown of the nuclear family.
The other types of family that exist now cannot be perceived as just poor variations of the nuclear family, rather they should be seen as new positive developments in the within the institution of the family, and they are certainly not in decline. Therefore, the institution of the family is not in decline, if we imply by this all types of families existing now. The traditional nuclear family is indeed in decline, and probably it is unavoidable if we refer to the natural evolution of the world and correspondingly of all the forms and entities that it comprises.
The rise of the divorce, for example, as perceived from another perspective, is a result of many factors including the public opinion change and the greater ability of the women to believe in themselves and to handle their lives independently. The family is not in decline, and actually, according to the analysis mentioned above, exactly the opposite may be true of the nowadays` concept of the family. The institution of the family has grown and expanded to include many new types of families, which are different from the traditional one, but which are also based strongly on important family values and stability.
The family is not declining, simply today it cannot be perceived any more as just an economic necessity, today’s life gives people a choice of not being married an still be classified as a family. To a great extent, it seems to be a matter of definition as well. According to Goode (2000) people find themselves always attaining new philosophies to try ways for having a better life style. This desire and will to change happens simply because of the fact that there has been a lack of fulfillment in the traditional types of family arrangements.
They try to adapt to the contemporary sorts of family trends in their society. Reflecting upon the will to change, Goode (2000) states that: We can also see why it is that even in a high-divorce society such as our own, where millions of people have been dissatisfied or hurt by their marriages and their divorces, they nevertheless move back into a marital arrangement. That is, after examining various alternatives, the familistic social package still seems to offer a broader set of personal advantages, and the outside society supports that move.
And, as noted earlier, even when there are strong political pressures to create new social units that give far less support for the individual family, as in China, Russia, and the Israeli kibbutzim, we can expect that people will continue to drift back toward some kind of familistic arrangement (Goode, 2000). Individualization as a process enhances change in the institution of the family. Even though the term individualism seems to be characterized by the tendency that the individual is isolated from the rest of the society, it should not be perceived so radically, rather in terms of the autonomy and independence of the individual.
Furthermore, the research conducted by Polish family sociologists reveals that this state of individualism does not affect negatively the nature of partnership at all (Ornacka & S-W). Majdanski (2000) maintains that: Under contemporary conditions, families have the chance to provide spiritual harmony or unity, a place where impersonal bonds are replaced by intimate personal bonds that have greater meaning for the preservation of cohesion among its members. However, the intimate character
of relations and the feeling of family unit can only survive as long as the separate interests of individual members are not threatened (Ornacka & S-W). Families influenced by the industrialization and the urbanization processes have been under the pressure of adapting many consequences of these processes into their lives, thus being a subject of ultimate change. What industrialization brought with it was distance activity, which means that family members could now have weaker intimate contacts among themselves.
Experiences of wide socializing also started to develop fast, thus enabling a possibility of class diversity among the members within the family. Such activities and experiences, according to Ornacka & S-W, question the legal state of the existence of a large family. In this new sphere of urbanized societies, there is a burst of new values that make the individuals feel under the pressure of achieving personal well-being and success. Consequently, family members feel a lack of conformity in the ambitions and needs of family members and find it impossible to organize themselves and control their behavior.
Finally, specialization promotes the vanishing of social and work related traditions of the families, within the boundaries of which the systems of values were preserved before, in order to favor the continuity of families across generations (Bauman, 2000b; Giddens, 2001). Thus, seen from this perspective of change, the family went through global changes and transformations structurally, functionally and internally, as the research conducted in the US in the 1960s shows.
The decrease in the number of functions, which are performed by families, resulted in the loosening of the attachment to family members and at the same time contributed to family dissolution (Ornacka & S-W). Even if the recent change of the family concept is often seen as damaging the children, it should be noticed that children are the fastest to adapt to new situations. Thus, the changing world puts the pressure on adults to correspond to new reality, and in their turn, they pass this ability to adapt fast to their children through family instability.
Probably it does not look ideal, especially if compared to the old ideas of family, however, this mechanism is more suitable for contemporary reality. Contemporary children become are more independent and become responsible social actors much earlier than their predecessors (Amato and Fowler, 2002). There exists undoubtedly a great number of other research going on in the sphere of family change, as soon as the change has been obviously great and this question is critical for the contemporary society.
However, what I would like to emphasize again with this paper is the importance of the perspective through which the changes in the family institution are perceived. As I made it clear above, the decline of the nucleus family cannot be generalized to account for the decline of the entire institution of the family. Instead, new developments and variations within the concept of family should be developed further. The family changes its form to adapt to the contemporary world, and the best what can be done here is to follow these changes, giving new opportunities to the new forms and making them work for the benefit of the society.