4 minute read

Family Theory

Philosophies Of Family Science

Theorizing can be based on different ideas about how a science works. Three primary approaches can be distinguished. A positivistic philosophy of family science makes several assumptions:

  1. There is a real world of family life. This world is a natural one, and it operates according to a set of general principles. Truth is a matter of discovery.
  2. The world of family life is ultimately knowable. Through careful study of how individual families work, scientists can increase their understanding of family life.
  3. The best way to study families is by using standard methods useful in other domains of scientific inquiry. Reliable and valid evidence, or factual information, must be collected, based on observing families.
  4. With increasing knowledge based on the facts, social scientists can intervene or assist others to intervene to improve family life.

This positivistic or optimistic approach was dominant throughout the twentieth century. It arose to help family studies gain stature as a scientific enterprise not unlike the other more established sciences. It also helped to distinguish scientific theories about the family from other kinds of contemplation, based on theological principles or other beliefs about the "appropriate" ways of being a family. Social science should be conducted in a spirit of free inquiry, without interference from governments or other nonscientific authorities.

On the other hand, the critical philosophy of family science starts with the idea that all beliefs and practices are political. Families, as well as the scholars who study them, are engaged in a struggle for domination and respect.

Historically, it can be observed that certain kinds of families and family members have been dominated and oppressed by those who are in more powerful positions in society. The less powerful usually have been females, persons of relatively low socioeconomic status, members of racial and ethnic minority groups, children, and sometimes elderly members of society. Any person or group different from the image of a "normal" family is considered to be abnormal or deviant by members of dominant groups. Those people in power not only control material resources but also intellectual resources, the way society thinks about families. Most members of the scientific "establishment," including family researchers and theorists, have been members of dominating social groups and categories.

The critical perspective challenges not only the content of positivistic theories, but also the assumptions upon which positivism rests. There is no natural world of family life to be discovered. Instead, what seems natural is the product of political forces, and of the domination of thinking and acting by some privileged families, family members, and family scientists. Truth is not a discovery, but a weapon. The proper goals of science are not the accumulation of facts and theories based on them, but instead are enlightenment and emancipation. Theories should be used to expose domination, and to assist the transformation of society and of science itself into more humane entities, resulting in a better world. Such a world will be one in which diversity of both lifestyles and modes of thinking will be equally respected and allowed to flourish. Some feminist theories and social conflict theories of family life rely on a critical philosophy of science (Farrington and Chertok 1993; Osmond 1987; Osmond and Thorne 1993).

A third philosophy of science influencing family theory is the interpretive approach. This view claims that all reality is a human construction. There is no objective truth about families, only a variety of subjective views that are developed through a dialogue with others in an effort to achieve a shared and workable understanding. Whatever is claimed to be known is tentative, always in process, and always just one point of view within a stream of alternative and evolving views. Whatever entity is called a family, the members of that entity are principally engaged in negotiating a sense of meaning, one that enables them to better understand who they are and how they fit into the environment.

Interpretive family theorists tend to reject positivism as naive, as making ideas seem firmer, more factual, or more stable than they really are. Truth is not a discovery, but an invention. The purpose of theorizing about the family is to make a personal statement based on an inevitably limited view. Instead of finding theories that will stand the test of time, the best theories are about the search for meaning in which families participate. These understandings and the processes by which they are created should be part of the content as well as the method used by family theorists. Interpretive theorists and researchers let family members speak and act for themselves and observe how reality is socially constructed. The theories of scholars then emerge and change as the theories created by families emerge and change. Symbolic interaction theory and phenomenological theory usually rely on an interpretive philosophy of science (Gubrium and Holstein 1993; LaRossa and Reitzes 1993).

All three philosophies influenced family scholars throughout the twentieth century. Because they are philosophies, there is no positivistic way of deciding which is best. The preferences of family theorists relate to the way they were trained, the acceptance by their colleagues of the alternatives, and the personal lives and other professional experiences of those in the scientific community (Klein and Jurich 1993; Thomas and Wilcox 1987).

These philosophies do not represent entirely incompatible viewpoints. Some family theorists accept the usefulness of more than one philosophy, even if they rely on only one of their own theories. Others combine features of two or more philosophies of science when they theorize.


Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaFamily Theory & Types of FamiliesFamily Theory - Philosophies Of Family Science, Purposes Of Family Theory, Meaning Of Family, Level Or Scope Of Family Theories