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“Public and Private Families” by Andrew J. Cherlin Report

Introduction to the Sociology of Family

According to Cherlin (11), a public family is a social setup where one or two parents take care of their dependents. Through this definition, families are public goods, in the sense that they nurture future generations (children), or current generations (the elderly).

Cherlin (578) says a private family involves two or more people who share an intimate relationship, and who assume that their relationship would last indefinitely. Through this definition, families are private because the members expect to belong to the same social unit for a long time (possibly a lifetime).

The main methods used by sociologists to collect data are through surveys and observations. Besides these two methods, the symbolic interaction method also forms the main research methods highlighted in Cherlin (24). One advantage of the observational method is its ability to form the basis for further scientific inquiry, but its biggest drawback is the interference of too many external factors in the observation.

The greatest advantage of the survey method is its ability to provide a representative sample for a large population group, but its greatest disadvantage is its rigidity in the data collection process. The symbolic interaction method is useful because it helps researchers to explore family diversity (since it focuses on people’s interactive behavior). However, its greatest drawback is its indicative nature, as opposed to its pragmatic nature.

The fifties became an anomaly in the analysis of American sociological life because many young people married early. In fact, Cherlin (124) says young people possibly married the earliest in the history of America. During the same period, there was a very low divorce rate and a high rate of fertility among women

Recently, there has been a significantly worrying trend of increased divorce rates, a decline of marriages, increased single parenthood, and low fertility. Several factors explain this trend, but industrialization and changing societal perceptions about marriage emerge as the most common reasons for this trend.

History of Family

The three key functions of traditional families are procreating, socialization, and legitimization of sexual relations.

The main ethnic-racial groups described by Cherlin (162) include African-Americans, Whites, and Hispanics. The most common trend among African-Americans is the rise of single families (especially children raised by single mothers). The trend among Hispanics is high birth rates, while compared to African-Americans and Hispanics, white people have higher rates of marriage and “complete” nuclear families (children raised with both parents).

Cancian (215) says the main types of marriages include interdependent marriages, dependent marriages, and independent marriages (Cancian 215). Low mutual relationships symbolize independent marriages, while dependent marriages have a high rate of mutual dependency (for love and power). Interdependent marriages involve moderate mutual dependencies where partners have a balanced autonomy in the marriage.

Evidence of the works of Cancian (215) comes from an analysis of historical and sociological sources. Some of the evidence gathered in her book also stem from psychological sources (Ridgeway 401).

Emotional intimacy, love, and personal choice revolutionized the nature of marriage because their acceptance heralded a new period where people pursued personal happiness, as opposed to the traditional form of marriage (that sought to cement social bonds).

Family functions changed after the industrial revolution because the revolution redefined the traditional perception of gender roles. For example, with an increased presence of women in the workplace, they increasingly started to work to supplement the family income. There was an ideological change in this regard because people no longer saw women as homemakers (only).


Cherlin (188) said that sexual identities are new because our perceptions of sexuality largely depend on our changing social constructs. For example, same-sex marriage is a new kind of sexuality that is slowly gaining credence as an accepted form of sexuality.

According to Cherlin (190), changing economic and social frameworks of cohabitation inform the acceptance of sex before marriage. Increased cohabitation among unmarried couples and the delay of marriage (until later years in life) also informs why sex before marriage is more acceptable today than in the past.

Teenage motherhood and early pregnancies have a high likelihood of inviting poverty because childbearing limits the opportunity for young mothers to advance their careers and pursue education, like other girls. Stated differently, early pregnancy and teenage motherhood distract young girls from pursuing their goals, as they devote most of their time to caring for their children.

College student dating has changed in the last 100 years because, in the past, parents were more involved in the lives of their children. However, today, more students have developed a new sense of freedom that delimits their dating boundaries. Compared to the past, today, society is therefore more accepting of issues like sex before marriage.

A cohabitation is a new form of union that seeks to provide some of the benefits that were traditionally associated with marriage. It is however not a substitute for marriage. Cherlin (244) says this type of union is common among young people, but it is not ideal for people who want to start a family, as it is unsuitable for children.

Cherlin (442) says marriage remains important to Americans because America reports among the highest numbers of marriages in the western world.

The labor market works by rewarding higher wages to a labor pool that has inadequate supply. The same is true for marriages because the fewer the marriages, the higher their status. In this regard, Cherlin (233) says marriage is more like a status symbol today.

Socio-biological and psychological perspectives on marriage show that most people date and bear children because sex is part of our humanity and childbearing is just a way for people to bring new life in the world.

Adherence to religious beliefs is one way that sexual attitude, sexual behaviors, and sexual values develop in society. For example, a person may see sex before marriage as unacceptable because of religious beliefs. Cultural factors also affect sexual attitudes. For example, large sections of Americans tolerate premarital sex because it is culturally accepted.

Many couples prolong their cohabitation, instead of marrying, because they perceive marriage as a “final” stage in life – when all other “life blocks” (like career and education) are in place. People may also prolong cohabitation because they have not met the right partner.

The traditional role of men as breadwinners may influence a couple’s decision to marry, as it may encourage a woman to marry a man who provides. Such women may not marry unless they feel they have a man who can provide for them.

Living apart shows a lesser commitment than cohabiting. Some couples view living apart as a gateway to possible cohabitation because it provides an opportunity for partners to gauge their levels of commitment. Couples may choose to live apart because of different work commitments (in different locations), because they are prevented from living together (religion/parents), or because it may be too early in the relationship to live together (among other factors).

The higher the racial population, the less likely interracial marriages will occur (Qian 34). Qian (34) also says, in America, the white population has high integration, while American Indians are the most segregated.

Race, religion, education, personality, and character influence our choice of partners.

Family Formation

Cherlin (294) says that the role of a parent is to provide a stable environment for children to grow and develop.

Adoption has changed in the sense that it is more socially acceptable today than in the past. Moreover, there are more open discussions about adoption today, than in the past. For example, compared to earlier decades, birth parents and adoptive parents have more interaction today.

Compared to earlier years, U.S children are worse off today because there is more instability in marriages (increased cohabitation and single-parenthood).

Edin (37) says young women still value marriage today (despite having children). Their positive valuation of the institution makes them expect marriage someday.

Edin (39) suggests that the most effective way of attenuating the problem of teenage pregnancy is to empower young women, economically.

McLanahan (111) says families that have non-marital childbearing are fragile because they are vulnerable to partnership and multi-partnered instability.

The two main differences between non-married families and married families are the spread of a father’s responsibility and a greater sense of stability (within married families).

Meezan and Rauch (97) claim that the well-being of children who grow up in same-sex marriages does not differ from the well-being of children raised in heterogeneous marriages. This way, same-sex couples are fit to raise children.

There has been the introduction of a new stage between childhood and adulthood – early adulthood (Furstenberg 33).

Birth control affects family formation because it gives people an opportunity to delay the formation of families.

Works Cited

Cancian, Francesca. “Love and Power: Types of Marriage in the U.S.” Urban Anthropology 15.3 (1986): 215-243. Print.

Cherlin, Andrew. Public and Private Families: An Introduction (7th Ed), New York, US: McGraw-Hill, 2013. Print.

Edin, Kathryn 2008, . Web.

Furstenberg, Frank. “Growing up is Harder to do.” Contexts 3.3 (2004): 33-41. Print.

McLanahan, Sara. “Fragile Families and the Reproduction of Poverty.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 621.1 (2009): 111-131. Print.

Meezan, William and Rauch Jonathan. “Gay Marriage, Same-Sex Parenting, and America’s Children.” Future Child 15.2 (2005): 97-115. Print.

Qian, Zhenchao. “Breaking the Last Taboo: Interracial Marriage in America.” Contexts, 4.4 (2005): 33-37. Print.

Ridgeway, Cecilia. “Love in America: Gender and Self-development.” Gender and Society 2.3 (1988): 401-403. Print.

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