All theories about the family deal with the flow of chronological time, and sometimes with the social and psychological organization of time. Four principal time perspectives are common: static, episodic, biographical, and epochal.
In some theories, time is suspended or relegated to the margins. The idea is to craft a theory that is timeless. This static picture may be useful, especially if it is a general description. Given the previously noted problems associated with change, however, static family theories are themselves not very durable.
Often, the image of time is episodic. A process is being described and perhaps explained, and it is temporary. The entire process may last a few moments, a few days, or several months. If scientists trace what is happening over the course of events contained in the theory, everything can be observed with moderate effort when the theory is tested.
Another image of time is biographical. This perspective usually considers the entire span or course of life. Family phenomena begin at birth, develop through time, change along the way, and end when life ends. The idea of a "life" comes from the study of individual organisms, and it must be adjusted to speak meaningfully about the lifetime of a social group containing several organisms.
One adjustment is to consider the "birth" of the group to occur when the group itself forms, with the "death" of the group corresponding to the dissolution of the group. Some of the members will be alive before the group forms, after it dissolves, or both. New members may be added after the family forms, and some may be lost before the family ends. Families may endure even with great turnover in membership, as for example a lineage that survives over many generations. Individual persons may have experiences as members of several different families over the course of their own lives. Becoming a widow, getting divorced, remarrying, and giving birth to or adopting a child are among the events marking the course of both an individual's life and the life of the group.
Because it is usually impractical for one scholar to study large numbers of families from their formation to their dissolution, many theories that deal with biographical time concentrate on a shorter time segment. Some describe and explain what is happening during a particular stage of family life, such as when children are adolescents or after all of the children have become adults and left their parental homes. Another common alternative is to focus on a particular transition period. For instance, some theories focus on the process by which couples get married, or why some get married and others do not, tracing events from first meeting to the early years after marriage or until a breakup before marriage. Other time-limited biographical theories concern the transition to parenthood, the transition to the "empty nest," and so on. Family development is the most common name for the theories that treat families in biographical time (Rodgers and White 1993).
The other image of time is epochal. Fairly broad sweeps of history may be examined and categorized into periods. Families in ancient Greece, families in the American colonies, families during the early industrial era, and families during the Great Depression represent some of the historical categories that may give focus to a family theory. Other theories take a more sweeping historical perspective. Theorists may wish, for example, to explain how human families evolved from primate families, or how the contemporary family emerged from forces at work over several centuries. While many family theories using an epochal image of time are descriptive, evolutionary or biosocial theories of family life usually are explanatory as well (Troost and Filsinger 1993).
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