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Family Development Theory

Basic Concepts And Propositions, Critiques, Research, Conclusion

Family development theory focuses on the systematic and patterned changes experienced by families as they move through their life course. The term family as used here represents a social group containing at least one parent-child relationship. The family group is organized and governed by social norms. The general notion of a family life-cycle has a long history that dates back to 1777 (Mattessich and Hill 1987). A more conscious formulation known as family development theory began after World War II with work on family stress by Reuben Hill (1949) and a later textbook by Evelyn Duvall (1957). The first systematic statement of the approach characterized family development as proceeding through life-cycle stages (family stages) such as early marriage, families with young children, the launching of children out of the home, and the empty nest (Hill and Rodgers 1964). These family stages can be studied on three levels of analysis: the individual-psychological, the interactional-associational, and the societal-institutional.

In the decades following the initial formulation of family development theory, there has been a conscious departure from the life-cycle concept. Roy H. Rodgers (1973) suggests abandoning the family life-cycle concept in favor of a more life-course-oriented concept that he calls the family career. Joan Aldous (1978) argues that the family career contains subcareers, most notably the sibling career, the marital career, and the parental career. These, in turn, are strongly influenced by careers external to the family, such as educational and occupational careers. Paul Mattessich and Reuben Hill (1987) maintain that family development unfolds through invariant, universal stages, a conception that is very similar to the aging process. However, the conception of invariant and universal family stages continues to attract criticism (e.g., White 1991; Bengston and Allen 1993). Aldous (1990) believes that the major difference between the life-course and family development perspectives is that the life-course perspective focuses on the individual, whereas the family developmental approach focuses on the family as a group. She maintains that neither approach can properly be called a scientific theory.

In contrast to Aldous's position, James M. White (1991) proposes that family development is a scientific theory because it offers general propositions and can be formulated as a mathematical model that describes the process of family development. Rodgers and White (1993) suggest that the old perspective of families moving through deterministic, invariant stages invites a stagnant and less-productive understanding of family dynamics. Family development theorists Rodgers and White have revised and simplified some of the following key concepts.

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaFamily Theory & Types of Families