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Through the evaluation of the historical and current perceptions of families, this essay evaluates the sociological view of the family unit. To achieve this goal, this paper explores the sociological concepts, theories, and historical basis of the family unit to explain its purpose in the society.
In detail, this paper explores important issues concerning the family, such as, what families are supposed to do, the public and private purposes of family, and how the societal perceptions of families, as private and public goods, have evolved throughout the years. However, to have a better grasp of these issues, it is important to understand the family in focus – first family of America.
First family of the United States (US)
The 44th president of America, Barack Obama, currently heads the first family of the United States (US). Michelle Obama is the wife of the president and by virtue of matrimonial relationship; she is the first lady of the US. Barack and Michelle Obama have only two children, Malia Obama and Sasha Obama. Because of the public attention that most people give the first family, this paper uses this social unit to explain the social significance of the family through the postmodern theory and the symbolic interaction theory
Symbolic Interaction Theory
Max Weber developed the symbolic interaction theory by saying the perception of people regarding their environment informs their behavioral ideas and social approvals (social construction) (Crossman, 2013, p. 1). His idea was informed by the fact that the actions of most people usually depend on their understanding of the meaning of the world.
Many researchers have touted this understanding as an important component of the sociological framework theory because it explains the premise that most sociologists use to understand social interactions (Crossman, 2013).
The symbolic interaction theory is central to the understanding of the first family because the first family is symbolic of the highest status of a family unit in America. Based on this high social standing that the first family enjoys in America, the symbolic interaction theory helps to explain the subjective meanings that most people attribute to such a symbolic social unit.
Understanding people’s subjective meanings, in this context, is essential to the understanding of the first family because Crossman (2013) says, people base their opinions on what they believe is right, and not what is objectively true.
Even though the symbolic interaction theory is a major framework of the sociological theory, some pundits say that the theory does not address the macro-understanding of social interactions (Crossman, 2013). In other words, these critics claim the symbolic interaction theory fails to capture the “big picture” of human interactions.
The reason behind this criticism is the belief that many proponents of the symbolic interaction theory prefer to use social forces to explain human interaction, which is a wrong approach, according to the critics (Crossman, 2013).
Similar to the symbolic interaction theory, the postmodern theory also explains the existence of the first family in a more intricate manner than other theories do. Through the understanding of life conditions that inform modern society, the postmodern theory explains the historical underpinnings that led to the creation of the first family, especially after the 20th century (Milner, 2013).
A significant component of this narration, which directly explains the creation and the symbolism of the first family, is the ubiquity of mass media and the mass provision of goods and services, as a key component of postmodernism. Through a pragmatic understanding of this relationship, it is easy to see how the first family is a symbolic depiction of the shift from manufacturing to service economies (in the postmodern period).
Stated differently, the first family represents a symbol of governance which is supposed to provide services to the electorate. Therefore, as the electorate votes for the president, they expect his/her government to provide them with services. The first family therefore sits in the Whitehouse, not as a symbol of adoration, but as a hallmark of services to the American public.
To further elaborate this conception, it is also important to include the component of postmodernism – mass media – that elevates the position of the first family in the American society.
Through mass media, the activities of the Obamas are always under public scrutiny. Media outlets represent the family as a symbol of social construction. Consequently, their activities, relationships, and behaviors are always presented to Americans. Mass media therefore play an instrumental role in promoting the profile of the first family.
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Regardless of the role of the postmodern theory in understanding the first family, some critics say the postmodern theory lacks crucial characteristics of a reliable theory because it is only partly representative of the modern project (Milner, 2013).
This group of critics also believes that postmodernism lacks the ability to grow because postmodernism is a phase that may disappear as the world develops (Milner, 2013). Nonetheless, most of the criticism advanced against the postmodern theory stems from people who do not support modernism, or its antecedents, in the first place.
Public and Private Purposes of Families
Cherlin (2013) conceives families as having two main purposes – private and public purposes. People may understand the private purpose of the family through the understanding of the way most people live their daily lives. Through this understanding, the private purpose of the family includes the comprehension of private and intimate personal issues regarding family-life, like how many children to have, when to marry, and similar concerns (Ross, 2006).
It is easy to understand the public purpose of life through the way most families manage larger social issues like generational substitution and care for senior citizens. In the same lens of analysis, people may understand the public purposes of family through the effect of government policies on family (Cherlin, 2013).
Through the above understanding of private and public purposes of life, it is crucial to say that some of the most common private purposes of the family include socialization (learning right and wrong) and protection (where parents protect their children from harm). A common public purpose of family is procreation (the continuation of the human species) (Cherlin, 2013) (family purposes are however not limited to these issues).
Evolution of Conceptions of Family as a Private and Public Good
There has been a great transition in the conceptions of the family as a private and public good. One area of distinction between the historical and modern conception of the family is the limitation of observing family behavior. According to Ross (2006), the limited control of observing families is only a new trend that emerged in the 21st century.
History shows that the access to social institutions that many people consider to be private today was more open in the colonial days than today (Laslett, 1973). A common consequence for the evolution of the family as a private institution is the increased control of audiences that observe families. The differentiation between the family as a private and public good stems from the distinction between work and family responsibilities. This development hinges on the start and spread of the industrial revolution (Laslett, 1973).
Three major developments have changed the conception of families across time. One such development is the evolution of the family from the extended family to the nuclear family. As explained by Cancian (1990), this development has also led to the growth of companionship, as opposed to the comfort and protection that traditional family institutions provided. The modern period has also led to the loss of family functions because people are more mobile and disintegrated (in association) compared to the colonial days.
In the past, the association with a family tree (say a powerful family) was a great symbol of power and wealth (Laslett, 1973). However, most aspects of this association have been broken down by modernity. Family members are therefore more individualistic. Therefore, gaining power by virtue of association does not always carry the day. Broadly, families today have become smaller and more private as more people demand exclusivity.
Based on the findings of this paper, it is correct to say that our perceptions of families have evolved over the centuries. Today, many families are “private goods,” as opposed to traditional institutions of social focus. Indeed, the trend today shows that many families are becoming more private and exclusive, as opposed to the pre-colonial and colonial days when public scrutiny on families was more acceptable.
Therefore, unless people regard certain families as “public goods” (like the first family); there is little acceptable scrutiny on modern families. The shift of the family as a public institution informs why there is a trend towards accepting families for their private purposes (like same-sex marriages for personal happiness), as opposed to public purposes, like procreation.
Cancian, F. (1990). Love in America: Gender and Self-Development. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Cherlin, A. (2013). Public and Private Families: An Introduction, 7th ed. McGraw-Hill: New York.
Crossman, A. (2013). Symbolic Interaction Theory. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/symbolic-interaction-theory-3026633
Laslett, B. (1973). The Family as a Public and Private Institution: An Historical Perspective. Journal of Marriage and Family, 35(3), 480-492.
Milner, M. (2013). Postmodernism and sociology: Can solidarity and be a substitute for objectivity? Virginia: University of Virginia.
Ross, S. (2006). American Families Past And Present: Social Perspectives on Transformations. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.