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Family Theory

Philosophies Of Family Science, Purposes Of Family Theory, Meaning Of Family, Level Or Scope Of Family Theories

Suppose a couple is recently divorced. A friend may wonder why this happened and develop several hunches. Perhaps they argued a lot, and one or both may have frequently seemed upset. The friend may begin thinking about why the couple got married in the first place. Perhaps their dating relationship was unusual, or perhaps their upbringing as children offers clues. Using information about their past, the friend might develop a theory, a speculative argument about factors contributing to the couple's divorce. The word theory derives from the Greek verb theorein, meaning to behold or contemplate. People have contemplated the nature and operation of human families at least since the ancient Greeks, and they continue to do so today. All individuals may wonder how their own or other families work and about the problems involved.

Theorizing about a particular event or a particular marriage or family seems natural in everyday life. Social scientists, however, are not interested in explaining single events or how one marriage or family works. Instead, social scientists want to know how marriages and families work in general. This does not mean that every divorce will have the same cause, only that the emphasis is on a broad understanding of many marriages and families. If they know what generally is true by examining many different marriages and divorces, they come closer to developing a useful theory about divorce. A useful theory provides a general understanding of what has happened in the past, and it enables the scientists to make predictions about what might happen to other couples in the future.

Furthermore, if social scientists want to help other couples deal effectively with their relationships, they need to have confidence that information about a particular couple is not unique. They need to know what makes marriages similar to one another and especially what makes some marriages different from others.

Why is it impossible to have a scientifically useful theory about one event, such as a particular divorce? Suppose it is strongly believed that certain factors in a couple's past are responsible for their divorce. To be sure of this, the social scientists would have to argue that if the couple's pasts had been different in certain ways then they would not have gotten divorced. Something that actually did not happen might have prevented the divorce. The problem is that scientists cannot know about things that did not happen. Such unknown circumstances are called counterfactuals. Theories containing counterfactuals may be plausible, but they cannot be proven true.

Social scientists want to have theories capable of being generally true for as many marriages and families as possible. When exceptions are found, they can explore why the exceptions occur. Good theories also must be capable of disproof. If there is no way to disprove them, outrageous claims can be made, and there is no effective way to argue against them. Because a couple cannot turn back the clock and behave differently, it will never be known what caused their divorce.

Family scientists base their theories on information enabling comparisons across many cases. If many similar couples can be found, and all of them get divorced, scientists might be closer to a general understanding of the causes of divorce. Moreover, if many couples who are similar in all respects but a few are found, and those with the differing circumstances do not divorce, scientists might form an even more useful theory about divorce. Instead of relying on arguments about what did not happen, they compare different couples who have different experiences, some ending in divorce and some staying married.

In this way, family scientists have developed many theories to guide their thinking (Boss et al. 1993). These theories differ from each other in several fundamental ways.

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaFamily Theory & Types of Families