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In evaluating and analyzing how society functions, it is important to look at the major impact of social institutions. Surely, ones like religion and government have made huge impact not only throughout history, but also in the present day. Schools, while somewhat recently made compulsory, have redefined how children are raised and made a lasting impact in how society raises its youth in developed nations. Looking at the world through these lenses allows us to analyze how it changes over time and impact our lives individually and as a society. The institution of family has been one institution that has been very important as well. As the primary means of socializing and teaching children the main skills in life, it is one of the most important institutions. However, the family unit is not a fixed definition nor is it a static phenomenon; in fact, family has changed dramatically over the years based on factors such as historical context, geography, race and socioeconomic status.
It is important to understand that family is socially constructed; that is, it is a dynamic social institution that has changed dramatically throughout history. For example, the paradigm of patriarchy based on the division of labor between men and women began over nine thousand years ago when agrarian societies first began to develop. Advancements like these have changed the role of the father, mother and the children. Indeed, sociologists have a hard time agreeing on exactly how to define family: “Cross-cultural differences, the changing nature of families, and political forces have often made defining the family a matter of some contention” (Hall 3). Consequently, sociologists have agreed that as a dynamic concept, it is important to realize that the flexibility of the term family must be taken into account. So, in saying that family is socially constructed, it is reflecting the notion that it is not the same experience for every culture and family. Instead, as the circumstances and realities of life vary dramatically, it would be presumptuous to assume that it is a narrowly defined experience and phenomenon across the board.
Family has been strongly affected by not only historical contexts, but also economics. Indeed, agrarian societies nine thousands years ago meant a clear division of labor in which children were used primarily as a means for achieving economic goals. This pattern held very strong throughout the years until about the year 1900. Once fathers made enough money to support themselves and their families, children did not have to work as hard. Consequently, the value and role of children changed to being “emotional rather than economic assets belonging to mothers more than fathers” (Hall 25). Indeed, as fathers did not rely on their sons to do physical labor, mothers focused more on protecting and socializing their young. Conversely, the historical context of religious influence was also a relevant aspect of the evolution of family. As Christianity emphasized a strong patriarchal family structure, it became very popular and mainstream. Finally, socioeconomics is relevant because it reflects the lifestyle of a family. Within families with lower incomes, they are more susceptible to poverty, starvation, worse communities and drug and criminal problems. These economic realities were based on how much attention could be provided for children. Newly adopted domestic patterns based on the parents’ economic means changed the level of attention children received at the end of the day (Coontz 71). This is solely based on the economic class that the family is in. More money obviously presents an easier lifestyle and more opportunities for the young. Ultimately, historical contexts and socioeconomic status have heavily influenced family structure merely because they reflect a totally different experience.
Racial and cross cultural perspectives have also been important in influencing family structure and its overall impact as a primary social institution. For instance, the core experience of a family is fundamentally different when different cultural perspectives are taken into account. Family structure in some cultures focuses on children as being economic assets. These underdeveloped nations, especially in Africa, reflect a totally different lifestyle than those in the United States. While in the United States the family is meant to emphasize the nuclear structure, this is not always the case (Hall 17). Within Latin American cultures in South America, the family structure is intended to include even extended family members. Even within the United States, African-Americans had dramatically different experiences in some instances. Married African American families faced a poverty rate of 50% during the 1950’s (Coontz 76). While this is reflected by the interplay of other social institutions, it nonetheless represents that race does present a relevant factor in which the experience of each family based on certain demographics is extremely different.
It is also important to realize that family forms are designed to have variability as well. There are many examples where single parent and strange situations have emerged. While these instances may not be the norm, they can work out in terms of properly socializing children into society as productive and efficient citizens. With so many relevant factors like race, culture, location..etc., there is much opportunity for random family forms to emerge. From these, the influence of relatively post-modern phenomenon like high divorce rates also makes family forms even more complex. Ultimately, “these types of families are best understood not as deviations from a central standard but as alternative systems by which groups with different positions in the social structure coordinate their social and personal reproduction” (Coontz, 66). These alternative systems function in the same way; however, they do not abide by specific rules and customs those family structures and norms have followed.
Family forms within a mainstream context are heavily epitomized within the hit Television show, The Simpsons. In this show, there is a standard nuclear family with a mother who stays at home, father who works, daughter who is bright, and son who is a trouble maker and a dog and cat. There are very stereotypical elements that are heavily portrayed. For instance, since it is a traditional American family, the extended relationships of cousins and grandparents are not included. In fact, the grandfather is jovially placed in a retirement home in order to not annoy the family. This is a cultural element that is being expressed. Moreover, the historical context of the modern day is reflected as gender roles are very strongly emphasized. As the father is the main bread winner in the bunch, the mother is more closely devoted to the well-being of her children. She is clearly epitomized as a caretaker who is focused on the safety and emotional strength of her children during times of duress throughout childhood. Ultimately, this personification of the American family supports traditional notions of the Nuclear family. Within every episode, the family even deals with drama and situations that are relevant to the core Nuclear family.
As we have seen, family structures and forms have been heavily influenced by a wide variety of factors. Mainly, historical context, race, socioeconomic status and cross cultural perspectives have been pivotal in influencing how families function. The term family is also socially constructed because it has changed so much over the course of human history. As children have only recently been perceived as emotional assets rather than economic, other changes in terms of the overall life experience existed. The way that the family influenced how life was conducted for different family members has truly changed. Factors like historical context were relevant because institutions like religion and means of economic support have truly influenced how families function and their day to day activities. Race and cross cultural context also reflects the evolution (or lack thereof) based on the context of the rest of society. Finally, examples like The Simpsons clearly illustrate how even the nuclear family of the United States is still nonetheless a stereotypical denomination of events that have shaped it into the institution that it is.
Coontz, Stephanie. "Historical Perspectives on Family Diversity." American Families: Past & Present. Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers Publishing, 2006. 62-82. Print.
Hall, Shirley. Families: A Social Class Perspective. Los Angeles: Sage Publications, 2011. Print.