Unit 6 – The Family – The Socjournal


At the end of this unit, students will be able to:

1.  Identify what is meant by the phrase “diversity of the family.

2.  Outline the changing demographic characteristics of the family

3.  Outline the difference between complementary and companionate roles in the family

4.  Understand the family’s role in the socialization of the individual

Core Readings

Steckley, John and Letts, G. Chapter Seven: The Family.


In this unit we take a look at one of the major institutions of our social world, the family. Now we’ve already looked at the family in the context of culture and socialization and have seen how the family takes part, through its day to day practices (pink for girls, blue for boys), in the replication of the social order. In this section we are going to extend our understanding of that process a bit by looking in more detail at the importance of the family in relation to “the system” of productive and reproductive labour in our society.

Although it is true that times have changed, and although it is true that families perform a number of different functions, nevertheless it is also true in all cases that the family unit (whether that be in the form of the nuclear family or extended family) is a part of the productive apparatus of society. That is, in addition to its other functions, the family serves the system of production.

What does that mean?

If you take a look at the society around you, you will notice that society is organized around the production of goods and services. Except for our limited leisure time (which amounts to a couple of hours each night and weekend), everything we do is geared towards work and labour. Everything from our roadways (whose main arteries lead to industrial and business centers) to our calendars (organized around a 35 to 40 day “work week”), to our schools (which teach a “hidden curriculum” that prepares us for the routines of the labor force) to our media presentations of reality, point us in the direction of work.

It is the same with the family. From the perspective of the productive requirements of society, the family is an incredibly important site for the reproduction of the “the system” of work, labour, and production and it is so in a number of ways. As noted in the last section, it is the family unit that reproduces the labor force of society. That is, each new generation of laborers is trained by the family and the socialization practices of the reflect this. For example, it is typical in the  middle class neighbourhood where I live for families to spend a lot of time training their kids to be productive and competitive and self sufficient. They are placed in competitive sports, taught the importance of “performance” and assessment (i.e., they put in sports that reward high performance and punish those who don’t) and their days are filled (from morning to night) with activity after activity after activity. To the parents who do it, this seems normal (cause everyone else around them is doing it) but it’s not necessarily ideal or healthy for the children. What it does do, however, is hardwire into the body and mind of the children a typical pattern of middle class managerial and professional ethics. Get up in the morning, work hard, compete, and perform all day, and go to bed at night to regenerate and prepare for the next day.

Now of course, in our modern society, families are not given sole responsibility for raising children. Schools are also important here. As noted in the last section, schools are also implicated in the transference of the productive values of society,  but even then, families are important for reinforcement. If children are not performing at school, if they are not “making the grade,” if they are not paying attention, if they are too fidgety or unfocussed, if the schools can’t control the kids, parents are brought in to help in which case intense pressure is brought to bear on parents in order to make their children conform “behind the closed doors” of the family milieu.

As I said in the last section, the family performs multiple roles. In addition to the role the family plays in training the next generation of working class or middle class “production units,” the family also plays a supportive role in maintenance of the social order. What do I mean by that? Well, think for a few moments of the traditional western nuclear family. You have a stay at home mom who is responsible for looking after the children, keeping the house clean, the clothes washed, and lunches and dinner ready while the dad goes off to work. This work that the mom provides is valuable support work for the system of productive labor. She basically raises the next generation of workers and, more importantly for us here, performs a physical and emotional service for the male breadwinner who, having had to work long and stressful hours at a stressful, hierarchical, and high stress factory or office, gets to enjoy a relaxing evening in a clean home, with prepared meal, cloths washed, and various levels of emotional support. Feminist scholars have argued that without this unpaid supporting role (raising kids, helping to “regenerate” the husband), society would not be able to function as it currently does.

There are a couple of things to note here. On the one hand, and as many feminist critics of modern society have pointed out, although the labor that women provide in raising the next generation, and in providing emotional and physical support for the principle breadwinner in a home is valuable, nevertheless it is unpaid labor and this is quite unfair. The extensive time women put into raising children and caring for the family is not recognized in our society and although you may not think twice about this initially, because this is what we’ve all learned is “normal,” if you think about it in the context of advanced industrial society where you even have to pay for the water you drink, it approaches the bizarre. In a world where every little action and reaction is charged for, taxed, and interest rated, an entire “realm” of work and effort, totally necessary and absolutely indispensable to the continuation of society, is undervalued and even devalued.


Well, the “obvious” answer, i.e., the one that pops into our heads when we think about this sort of thing, is that it’s women’s “natural” instinct, or “natural” duty or (if we’re religious) her “God given” role and therefore it’s just something that she should do and shut up about it. But that’s not good social science. That’s patriarchal ideology[1] and we’d like to avoid that here.

Now the less obvious answer for “why” is that developing an ideology, and exploiting women’s unpaid labor is beneficial for some. That is, we (and by we I mean governments and corporate leaders), devalue women’s labor, force single parents into poverty, fail to provide adequate supports, and generally force a form of financial and emotional slavery in the home because it means more profit. Think about it. What would it do to the bottom line of this world’s major multi billion dollar corporations and governments if they were required to contribute financially to the reproduction of their labor force? I’m sure it wouldn’t break the system. There are trillions of dollars floating around in this world’s economic system these days and even a small  fraction of those trillions, if  devoted to supporting the reproduction of this world’s labor force, would make a huge difference in the lives of millions of women. But it would require less private profit, and that’s the problem. Nobody wants to be held responsible for the reproduction of the labor force because it’s costly. Better to pretend that it is natural women’s work and leave it at that.[2]

Now, to some of you reading this, this may seem like a hypercritical, even cynical look at the family, and it is in a way. It is true that for most of us, families and having children are important, loving activities that are part of the magic and mystery of life. However, that most of us enter into family arrangements for loving reasons doesn’t change the fact that families, the way they are currently organized, are designed with “the system” in mind. And we can highlight this by considering the fact that there are alternative ways of organizing the family (i.e., extended families, families where when a child is born both parents stay home to raise the child to ensure healthy psychological and sociological development). In fact, before the industrial revolution, the family was quite different. Changes to the family, and the imposition of the nuclear family, came about as a result of the needs of the emerging industrial system for mobile, flexible, and cheap labor.

Keeping in mind a critical focus on the family s important in the context of sociology where our goal is to understand the world, how it operates, and how we create it, but it’s also important at an individual level especially when we consider the economic circumstances of women. Historically, women often experience great financial harm and hardship as a result of their status as unpaid supporters of the labor system of society. Despite the fact that women perform an essential service for society (i.e., they raise the next generation of workers who then go on to help society “profit” from their labor) society doesn’t value the reproductive labor of women. It doesn’t value raising of children as a valuable economic contribution to society and Women often pay a heavy price for this. Consider what happens, for example, when the spouse of a mother of three leaves her? Limited social supports, the breakdown of the extended family, limited family supports, the high cost of housing and daycare, all this leads to a rather negative outcome for many women (i.e., poverty and despair). There is the financial hardship that often goes with being a single parent female, not to mention the psychological harm that comes as a result of having to singlehandily bear the intense social pressure and expectation placed on women to raise a good, well oiled worker bee. There is a reason that women experience psychological depression more often than men and this is it.[3]

Now, despite this cynical account given above, it is important to note that the family is changing. As the textbook points out, there have been many different demographic changes. The stereotypical image of the family presented above, i.e., stay home mom, dad as breadwinner, is changing. Family roles are no longer rigid and variation is allowed (if not yet common). For example, we do see men (on occasion) staying home and being the stay at home dad while mom is in the work force. We do notice that roles have shifted and that there is more cooperation and sharing of family responsibilities. But this doesn’t mean the primary economic relationships have changed. In the context of the reproduction of the labour force, the primary function of the family is still to reproduce labour and raising the next generation of workers is still unpaid labour. Despite the fact that society and corporations benefit, parents are expected to bear the cost.

Now if you have doubts about the importance of the family to the reproduction system, you may want want to consider the colonization of Canada and the efforts the Canadian government put into destroying the native family form. Take a look at the text book on colonization and residential schools in Canada, and take a look at this week’s additional reading. You will see the importance that government places on the form and function of native family. Now most of us will be familiar with the fact that before the Europeans came here (the French and the English) the native populations of Canada subsisted in this vast country unencumbered by the European laws and conventions. As a result, natives had very different life styles. They had extended families, did not believe that they should spend life working, and did enough to survive and prosper but did not accumulate wealth as the Europeans liked to do. In fact, quite the opposite. On the prosperous west coast, the natives there used to perform a ceremony called a potlatch. In this potlatch (which means to “give away”) wealthy families called together a feast for the sole purpose of redistributing their accumulated surplus wealth. In this “anti-european” (from the perspective of the Europeans anyway) ceremony, the family that gives away the most wealth wins. Now obviously, in the context of the European values which emphasize the selfish accumulation of wealth even in the face of surrounding poverty, such family traditions would have been considered anathema to the productive system and in fact the government of Canada banned the potlatch and made it illegal to carry out because the example it set called into question the production and system values they brought. And the government Canada didn’t stop there. In addition to banning the potlatch, the government also engaged in a systematic attempt to wipe out the native family form across Canada. During the turn of century colonization, and for many decades afterwards, the Canadian government had a policy of directly interfering in the native family. Why? Recognizing role that family had in shaping and socialization the next generation of worker, and recognizing that assimilation of natives into the emerging productive apparatus of Canada required modifying the native family, the Canadian government set up an “Indian Affairs” ministry and then for decades engaged in a violent assault on the native family structure. Agents of the government would basically go in and take native children out of their home, without permission, and with only the flimsiest of moral justification. They then institutionalized native children in residential schools, isolated them from their families, and subjected them to horrific levels of physical, psychological, and sexual abuse in an attempt to eliminate family patterns and destroy a culture and heritage that simply did not fit into the white European model of wage and productive slavery. White rulers saw native traditions and family as a threat to the productive order in Canada. It is hard to understand why the government would conduct such an aggressive and destructive attack on the native social institution of family unless you realize the role the family plays in “fitting people” into the productive system of a society, it makes more sense.  Sadly, the Canadian attack on the native family was quite effective and it not only destroyed strong native ties and values, but literally undermined the self esteem and psychological health of generations of natives. It is something that we, as a nation of colonizers, are only now beginning to take full responsibility for. [4]

And that’s family. For me a sociological analysis of the family is one of the clearest sites of hegemonic domination, and a location where we can clearly see the application of power to create a specific world. This is particularly clear in the case of the native family structure that was changed and destroyed as a result of the powerful application of force by the Canadian government. It’s also reflective of our “nuclear” family which survives because it fits the current system of production.

Nevertheless, it is important to understand that though the family form is imposed upon us, the family is also one of the best examples of our ability to create and change things. We see this clearly in the changing demographics of family, the weakening of riged gender roles, and the changes in the way work is distributed within family units. As the textbook demonstrates, men are slowly taking over some of the unfair responsibilities dumped on women. Although social change can be painstakingly slow, we still see that the change.

Through writing, social unrest, political action, long term efforts to education and enlighten people, the family is changing and expanding. And of course, you don’t have to wait for social change to catch up. Of all the “sites” of socialization and control, the family is probably the easiest location to change. If there is something about common socialization patterns you don’t like, if you  want to resist stereotyped gender or de-emphasize competition and constant work, this is within your power. It is just a question of observation, seeing what you are doing, and changing the behaviours you don’t agree with. This is the root of social change and something that we study in greater detail in my course Sociology 288 – Social Movements.

Anyway, that’s the family. There is a lot more that could be said about it, its functions, its changing demographics, etc. We could talk about violence in the family, the changing perceptions of children, talk more about changing gender roles or the differential emotional experiences of men and women in the family, but this I think is a sufficient introduction.  Just keep in mind, as with all other social institutions, the family is created and recreated by us, though not in a simple way. As we should be clearly getting the idea at this point, “reality” is a contested place characterized by struggle, unequal power, and unequal influence. As we can see by our discussions of deviance and the family, and as we will see when we discuss ethnicity, stratification, and gender, we do create the world—but we do it from locations of unequal power.

When you pause to take a critical sociological look it becomes clear, some of us have more power than others to create and shape reality. As we have seen, a white male government official, who is capable of setting a law that determines how, for example, the RCMP acts, has way more power to create the world as he wants than say the native people’s whose children were stolen from them. It’s an important insight. It’s true that sociology is study of world we create, but it is also true that in this study the dimension of POWER is of critical importance.


In this weeks assignment I want you to take a 800 to 1200 word look at power in your family. Ask yourself the question, who has the power in your family? Who defines what is right and wrong, what is good behaviour or bad? Who defines the rules, who controls the money, who makes the decisions. Is it the parents equally, is it just one parent (the father), do the kids have any kind of say? If you have kids, you may also want to consider how your family intersects with the authority of the school. Does your family take on responsibility for enforcing school expectations (grades, attendance, behaviour in class) and if so why and how? Schools are no longer able to physically punish children for failing to confirm, but now the expectation is placed on parents who, if they fail to discipline their kids and make them conform, will find the schools pushing for chemical straight jacking of children. What do you think would happen to your family if you refused to educate your children as specified by the government, if you choose different values and different ways of existing. Compare this to the residential school experience of natives in Canada.

Alternatively, use valid academic resources and do some additional reading. When you are done, provide and 800-1200 word commentary on the purpose of residential schools in Canada. be sure to include common course themes like power and the social order and socialization. Why did the Canadian government involve itself in residential schools.

Additional Reading

A lost heritage. Canada’s Residential Schools. http://archives.cbc.ca/society/education/topics/692/

Residential Schools Background http://www.albertasource.ca/treaty8/eng/1899_and_After/Implications_and_Contentions/residential_schools.html

Practice Questions

What does it mean to say that “reality is a contested place.” Discuss.

Explain the difference between matrilineal and patrilineal kinship lines.

What is the difference between a ‘simple’ and a ‘complex’ household? Which is more common?

Discuss the notion of the ‘crude marriage rate’. What were the trends with regards to this statistic over the course of the twentieth century?

Why are people who live in common-law relationships and then marry more likely than marriages that don’t involve cohabitation to end in divorce?

How is ‘fecundity’ related to the concept of fertility?

What is the ‘replacement rate’? Why is it an important factor in the growth of the Canadian population?

The divorce rate has fluctuated a great deal since 1968. What are some of the primary reasons for these fluctuations?

Distinguish between the terms ‘cluttered nest’ and ‘empty nest’. What factors lead to the ‘cluttered nest’?

What are some of the unique issues in the province of Quebec that relate to the family? Discuss any three.

What is the difference between ‘segregated’ and ‘joint’ roles as they relate to marital roles?

What are complimentary roles as they relate to the family? Why are they no longer the norm in Canada?

What is the relationship between gender and housework in Canadian society?

What are some of the factors that lead to occupational segregation between men and women?

Why do women seek out jobs that allow them greater flexibility?

Why might women be more likely than men to experience work interruptions?

What is ‘scientific racism’? How could it possibly lead to genocide?

What is eugenics? Is it still relevant today?

What is the basic position of the ‘blaming the victim’ perspective?

What is the ‘sixties scoop’? What types of problems did this cause for Aboriginals?

[1] See http://www.thespiritwiki.com/index.php/Ideology

[2] Incidentally, the same sort of argument is made when we consider the use of resources in production. Factories, for example, often release a lot of dangerous and toxic chemicals into the environment as a result of their production process. This release of toxins by corporations is a major cost society. The most obvious of the costs is the cleanup (when required) and medical costs that are often born by individual citizens and or governments when people get sick and die because of toxic effluents. I know where I live, I have to pay a per-bag fee for the garbage I dump into the environment but historically corporations dump for free and off load the cost onto private citizens. It is great for them because it allows them to pad their bottom lines, but they are really just offloading the costs.

[3] See for example this Mayo Clinic report on the causes of women’s depression http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/depression/MH00035. Ignore the biologial factors and focus on the social factors identified at the bottom of the article.

[4] See for example the recent 2008 apology by Stephen Harper to the natives of Canada for their horrid treatement in the residential schools of this natin. http://www.thestar.com/News/Canada/article/441820

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