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Family Theory

Purposes Of Family Theory

Theories about the family also differ in terms of the purposes that theorists have in formulating them. The most common goal is to provide a general description of how families work. In order to achieve a useful description, theories contain concepts. These concepts, such as cohesiveness, size, or patriarchy, help to compare families, and commonly have technical definitions. Family theorists usually strive for clear and precise definitions, so that they may measure what happens when families are directly observed or when members report their ideas, feelings, and behaviors. Many concepts are treated as variables, properties with different quantities on some scale. For example, families may be more or less cohesive, larger or smaller, and more or less patriarchal.

Different types of concepts are used in family theories. Some point to the structure of a family, its composition or the way it is organized. Some concepts describe patterns of social interaction, the quality of relationships, or processes that occur in families. Some theoretical concepts show how other concepts are related to each other. For example, if a family has five members and one descriptive concept refers to how flexible each member is, the family itself may be flexible if it meets a certain level of flexibility in its members. Perhaps all members must be at least halfway flexible, or perhaps some of the five must be very flexible to compensate for the inflexibility of the others. Whatever concepts are used, it is impossible to have a family theory unless there is a fairly detailed vocabulary for describing what makes families similar to and different from each other.

Most family theories go beyond description and provide an explanation. To explain something, it is essential to argue why it occurs. There are two basic ways to explain family life (Burr et al. 1979).

One type of explanation uses a deductive argument. This begins with a small number of premises (or axioms), statements individuals are willing to assume are true. Then, other statements (or theorems) are logically derived from the premises. Consider the following illustration:

  1. All social systems are goal-directed. (Axiom 1)
  2. All families are social systems. (Axiom 2)
  3. One goal of all social systems is survival. (Axiom 3)
  4. All families direct energy toward survival. (Theorem 1)

The theorem may be true, but only if all three axioms are true, in which case an explanation for why families direct energy toward survival exists; they do so because of the meanings inherent in the axioms. If the illustration were a real deductive explanation, additional information would have to be provided. The meaning of social system, goal, family, and energy would have to be defined, and more theorems would be derived. Deductive explanations are usually considered to be powerful if many theorems can be derived from a small set of axioms.

Notice how an explanation is achieved in this example. Families are treated as one type of social system, and survival is treated as one type of goal. Subsuming one phenomenon under a broader phenomenon is a common way of making a deductive argument. Another common way is to link statements in a chain. For example:

  1. If parents encourage their children to explore the environment, children will explore the environment. (Axiom 4)
  2. If children explore the environment, they will have high self-esteem. (Axiom 5)
  3. If children have high self-esteem, they will effectively solve their problems later in life. (Axiom 6)
  4. If parents encourage their children to explore the environment, children will effectively solve their problems later in life. (Theorem 2)

Here, effective problem solving for some people has been explained by referring to a chain of events that produces it. Furthermore, it has been argued that these axioms are transitive. That is, by having a series of statements with then in one becoming if in the next, it is possible to see a link between two ideas (in this case, what parents do and how children solve problems), a link that previously may have gone unnoticed. The argument may require elaboration before it is satisfactory, however. Simple if/then statements may hold only under special conditions. For instance, it may be argued that other things must be present, such as a willingness on the part of children to do what parents encourage them to do, before they will act as Axiom 4 argues.

While deductive explanations tend to be clear about the logic underlying an argument, family theorists have found them to be of limited value. The main reason is that it must be assumed that the premises are true. It often is difficult to make a convincing case that they are true. Different premises might be created that lead to the same conclusions, which would raise doubt about the original premises, or further research might prove that some theorems are false. Either of these situations would indicate that something is wrong with the original deductive explanation, but it would not pinpoint the problem.

The most popular way to explain family life uses a causal argument, which starts by assuming that everything that happens has some cause. The way families are or the actions they take cannot just be accidental. Some actions or conditions in the past exert influence on the current situation. An explanation is achieved by first showing how families are different from each other and then showing how differing prior circumstances are responsible for the differences to be explained.

In its simplest form, a causal argument is deterministic. It is assumed that there is one primary causal factor and it completely determines the result. In practice, however, family scholars have realized that causes are seldom so simple. Causal explanations generally employ several antecedent factors or conditions, working together or as alternatives, and all of them are included in the argument. Each causal element only works to increase the probability that a particular outcome will occur.

Causal explanations may show several factors converging to influence one outcome. They may show several separate paths, with several intervening steps, before an outcome is reached. They may even specify the conditions necessary before one variable can have an influence on another variable. In any case, causal explanations require fairly stable and strong connections between variables. Causal factors must happen chronologically before the effects occur, and the connections must not be just coincidental, byproducts of something else that is the "true" cause.

While causal explanations in family science have been popular, they are often viewed cautiously. Even the best ones tend to explain only a modest fraction of the differences between families. To improve them, there often is a temptation to make causal arguments more complex. If they grow too complex, however, they begin to lose their intuitive appeal. It is a challenge to understand what a very complex casual argument is really claiming. Part of the attraction of causal arguments in family theories is that the technology for using them to conduct empirical research is well developed. This technology involves statistical skills that sometimes seem remote from the family lives the researchers are trying to understand.

One problem with causal explanations is the frequent requirement that scientists follow families over time, because the families are supposed to change due to causal forces. Quite often, however, researchers compare different families at one time, and changes within families are not observed. Thus, researchers may be tempted to think that they have found causes, when they really have only found associations between variables.

Another problem with causal explanations is the mistaken belief that it is possible to explain what usually happens causally. Suppose it is discovered that 30 percent of all children in the United States are born to single mothers. Researchers may want to know the cause of this percentage. Then, they may identify a possible cause, perhaps the advantages of staying single. When this idea is included, the problem of counterfactuals is faced again. Single mothers may have common experiences suggesting the advantages of singlehood. But social scientists must compare single mothers with other mothers, and they must also compare all of the mothers with regard to the proposed cause. Family scientists can never causally explain what often or always happens in families or the average family experience. Instead, causal explanations can only explain differences, in this example why some mothers are married when they bear children while other mothers are not.

Some critics of causal explanations argue that the entire enterprise is misguided because scientists never can prove that something is a cause or part of a cause. Nevertheless, theories that rely on causal explanations remain popular in the family field, even if they cannot provide complete explanations. Causal explanations provide a useful way to think about family life, and the challenge is to make them better than rival causal explanations, not to assume that they ever will provide the final word or the perfect theory.

Most family theorists who provide descriptions and explanations believe these are the two most important purposes to achieve. Some family theorists, however, want to show how to change families by intervening to do something for their benefit. This goal is based on the idea that some families are not functioning well and that it is important to solve family problems or prevent them from occurring.

Interventions to change families must be based on an evaluation of the current situation and a decision that some families should be altered to reach an objective not now being met. Because people often disagree about goals and standards, any intervention relies on a point of view. Families themselves may determine that they are not meeting their own goals. A theorist may have goals for families that do not correspond with a family's own goals or values. The standard selected may be some notion of what is generally acceptable in society at large.

Whose goals should direct an intervention is often controversial. Consider the discovery that physical abuse of children by parents is fairly common in the United States. A scholar may develop a good theory about why some parents abuse their children and others do not. Perhaps one causal factor in the theory is the extent to which parents feel they have the right to punish children as they see fit. Those parents who feel that severe physical punishment is acceptable then use this form of punishment. A good theory should allow the theorist to determine what needs to be done to reduce the likelihood of child abuse. In this example, what is needed is a change in the belief by some parents that their behavior is acceptable. The problem is that parents may not feel that their punishing behaviors are unacceptable. The only way to avoid controversy surrounding the use of family theories to change families is to identify a goal that everyone accepts.

Even if there is no controversy over goals and values, it may be difficult to implement the desired change. If the theory implies that families must be changed, a program of action must be developed to reach families and change them. Sufficient confidence in the theory must exist so that a change in the causal factors has a good chance of producing the desired effect. This often requires careful research, because undesirable consequences of well-intentioned changes may occur. Finally, the required change in the cause may be difficult in principle to produce. If, for example, a theory argued that the basic fabric of society must be changed in order to reduce child abuse, figuring out how to change the fabric of society would be a tall order.

If a theory explains well what has happened in the past, it should provide a good prediction about the future. Another purpose of family theory is to enable accurate estimates of what families will be like in the future. Therefore, once a theory has been formulated, further research must be conducted to see if the theory remains useful. The connection between past and future, however, depends on a fairly stable environment. Some family theories do not survive events that take place after they have been formulated. This usually means that the original theory must be revised to reflect changes in families and in their environments more accurately. If a theory cannot be revised, it tends to be discarded.

Difficulty predicting family life may not be a serious deficit. The future is difficult to predict in many areas of science. Nevertheless, it is important to notice when a family theory was developed, and to find out what has happened subsequently. If an older theory about the family is encountered that no longer seems popular, newer literature can be examined to see if this loss of popularity is due to faulty prediction or a failure to revise the theory. Family theories usually are not static entities. They tend to change as families and their environments change, and as new theorists with new insights join the field.

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