Theoretical Perspectives and Key Concepts: Contemporary Families: A Justice Perspective (2023)

Elizabeth B Pearce

We will examine families from different theoretical perspectives. A theoretical perspective, or "theory" for short, is not just an idea someone has. Rather, it is a framework, statement, or tool that has been tried and tested over time. Theories are developed and used through science, research, discussion, and debate. Theories help us understand the world in general, and in this case, the way families form, function, interact, and experience the world. Additionally, in this course we will define several key concepts, including , and those that are important to your understanding of justice and families.

Because the study of the family intersects with many disciplines, we will use sociological, human development, psychological, and anthropological theories and concepts. Play this video to learn about five of the foundational theories related to family research: Social Exchange, Symbolic Interaction, Feminism, Postmodernism, and Life Course. (It is recommended to play at 1.25x speed and references to chapter numbers can be ignored.)

Here is a summary table of these five theories and four others in common use in the field that are discussed in this text.

Table 2.2. Basic theories for family research.


fundamental principles

relationship with family life

Vocabulary and key concepts


ConflictOpposition, power and conflict within the family and society are necessary for society to develop and change.It emphasizes the conflicting interests of family roles, including male dominance in the family and the stability of society.
ecological systemsIndividuals are part of a group of concentric systems that affect their development and growth.Children are influenced by the people and environments in which they spend most of their time, as well as by events, trends, and broader societal values.Micro, meso, exo, macro and chrono systems.Urie Bronfenbrenner developed this theory in the second half of the 20th century; He was influential in the formation of HeadStart in the United States.
Sharing (also known as social sharing)Individuals have different strengths, resources, and weaknesses, and they build relationships by evaluating benefits and costs.The motivation of family relationships stands out: that each person within the family gives and wins.The "homemaker family" is the classic example.
Feminism (also known as Feminist)Society is structured to favor men over women; The theory works to understand and transform inequalities.This theory emphasizes the way gender roles are constructed within the family, including the way children are socialized.Gender differences are, for the most part, socially constructed. This theory is based on the perspectives of conflict, exchange and symbolic interaction.Unlike the activist feminist movement! Read and listen carefully so that you can discern it.
functionalismSocial services work together to meet individual and group needs.The family can be seen as an institution (eg, breadwinner and homemaker family) that contributes to a harmonious societyOriginally formulated in 19th century France, it was the dominant sociological theory in the mid-20th century in the United States.
hierarchy of needsIndividuals first satisfy one set of needs in order to be motivated to be able to satisfy other needs.This theory influences family life in its disposition of which needs are the most important.There is evidence that North American indigenous cultures developed a hierarchy of needs prior to the better known model of Abraham Maslow.
CVSignificant social and historical events shape the development of birth cohorts and the people who live in them.Family life is affected by major national and international events: wars, natural disasters, pandemics, economic crises. In particular, children and adolescents in a given cohort will be affected by these events over time.Emerging early adulthood: The stage of life in which people, after completing their education, transition into adulthood, start a career, and start a family. This phase of life has become more varied and complex due to social changes.Don't confuse this with the lifetime theory, which has a different approach! Read and listen carefully so that you can discern it.
Postmodernism (also known as Modernism)Choice and individuality are emphasized in postmodernism. People are free to act as they please within society and within institutions.People have many more choices than in the past about how they form their families, the roles they play, and who is part of their family. History, family and tradition play less and less a role in family life.Reflexivity: the way in which people absorb, think about, adapt and respond to new information.This theory is very broad and applies to many aspects of professional, social and family life. Social theorist Anthony Giddens wrote about this theory.
symbolic interactionThis theory focuses on the changing nature of symbols and the way we interact with each other based on those symbols. People see themselves through the eyes of others, and this affects the roles they play.Changing roles and symbols affect the way family members interact with each other and with society. Social expectations and social constructions of parenting roles have changed over time, and this interacts with actual parenting behavior.Interpretation of shared understandings influences how people react and interact.It is based on philosophy (George Herbert Mead) and sociology (Herbert Blumer).

What is a social problem?

A social problem is any condition or behavior that has negative consequences for a large number of people and is generally recognized as a condition or behavior that needs to be addressed systemically. It cannot be solved by an individual; institutional or social responses are required. This definition has an objective and a subjective component.

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The objective component is this: for a condition or behavior to be considered a social problem, it must have negative consequences for a large number of people. How do we know if a social problem has negative consequences? Reasonable people can and will disagree about the existence of such consequences and, if so, about their magnitude and severity, but a body of data generally accumulates, from the work of academic researchers, government agencies, and other sources, that is strong for wide and serious consequences. The reasons for these consequences are sometimes debated. For example, in the case of climate change: Although the vast majority of climatologists say that climate change (changes in Earth's climate due to the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere) is real and serious, the percentage of Americans who agree with the scientists is lower. In a 2011 poll, 64% said they "believe global warming is happening."[1]While the majority of Americans in 2020 believe that climate change is a social problem[2], there is still a discrepancy between the scientific community and public opinion. According to Gallup polls, social identity and location influence opinions which revealed that people in the West and Northeast[3]as well as young adults,[4]they are more likely to believe that climate change is caused, at least in part, by human behavior and must be addressed.

This type of dispute points to the subjective component: there must be a perception that the condition or behavior needs to be addressed in order to be considered a social problem, and this perception can change over time and place. This component forms the core of the real vision of social problems.[5]From this perspective, there are many types of negative conditions and behaviors. Many of them are considered negative enough to deserve the status of a social problem; some do not receive this consideration and therefore do not become a social problem; and some are considered a social problem only when citizens, legislators, or other parties call attention to the condition or behavior.

The history of attention paid to rape and sexual assault in the United States before and after the 1970s provides an example of the latter situation. These acts of sexual violence against women probably occurred since the beginning of mankind and were certainly very common in the United States before the 1970s. Although men were sometimes arrested and prosecuted for rape and sexual assault, men Right-wing politicians ignored and found the violence received little attention in college textbooks and the media, with many people thinking that rape and sexual assault just happened.[6]Therefore, although sexual violence existed, it was not seen as a social problem. When the contemporary women's movement began in the late 1970s, it quickly focused on rape and sexual assault as serious crimes and as manifestations of women's inequality. Eventually, thanks to this approach, rape and sexual assault began to gain public awareness, views on these crimes began to change, and right-wing politicians began to pay more attention to them. In summary: Sexual violence against women has become a social problem.

Theoretical Perspectives and Key Concepts: Contemporary Families: A Justice Perspective (1)

The changing view of rape reflects the socially constructive nature of social problems. It also reflects the dynamic in which men have more power to shape the opinions of society. This raises an interesting question: when is a social problem a social problem? According to some sociologists who hold this view, negative conditions and behaviors are not a social problem unless they are recognized as such by politicians, large numbers of laymen, or other sectors of our society; Thus, these sociologists would argue that rape and sexual assault were not a social problem before the 1970s because our society as a whole paid little attention to them. Other sociologists say that negative conditions and behaviors should be seen as a social problem even if they receive little or no attention; Therefore, these sociologists would argue that rape and sexual assault were a social problem before the 1970s.

This kind of discussion is probably similar to the old question: if a tree falls in a forest and there is no one to hear it, does it make a sound? As such, it's not easy to answer, but it affirms one of the most important beliefs of the social constructive view: perception is at least as important as reality, and sometimes even more. Consistent with this belief, social constructionism emphasizes that citizens, interest groups, politicians, and other parties often compete with one another to influence public perceptions of many types of conditions and behaviors. They seek to influence media coverage and public opinion about the nature and extent of adverse consequences that may occur, the underlying reasons for the condition or behavior in question, and possible solutions to the problem.

Social constructivism's emphasis on perception has a provocative implication: just as a condition or behavior may not be viewed as a social problem even when there is a strong basis for that perception, a condition or behavior may be viewed as a social problem even if There is little or no basis for this perception. The "problem" of women in the university provides a historical example of the latter possibility. In the late 19th century, leading physicians and medical researchers in the United States wrote newspaper articles, textbooks, and newspaper columns warning women against attending college. The reason? They feared that the stress of college would disrupt women's menstrual cycles, and they also feared that "this time of the month" women would not do well on exams.[7]We know better now, of course, but the sexist beliefs of these writers made the idea of ​​women attending college a social issue and helped enforce college and university restrictions on the admission of women.

In a related dynamic, different parties may distort certain aspects of an existing social issue: politicians may make speeches, the media may use scary headlines and broad coverage to capture the interest of readers or viewers, corporations may use advertising and influence in coverage. Reporting on violent crime provides many examples of this dynamic.[8][9]The news media overdramatize violent crime, which is much rarer than property crime, such as robbery and theft, and publish many stories about it, and this coverage contributes to public fear of crime. Media reports of violent crime are also more common when the defendant is black, the victim is white, and the perpetrator is a minor. This type of reporting is believed to increase public interest in African-Americans and contribute to negative views of adolescents.

(Video) What is Conflict Theory?

Theoretical Perspectives and Key Concepts: Contemporary Families: A Justice Perspective (2)

The sociological imagination

Many people personally experience one or more social problems. For example, many people are poor and unemployed, many have health problems, and many have family problems, drink a lot, or commit crimes. When we hear about these people, it's easy to believe that their problems are their own and that they and others with the same problems are solely responsible for their difficulties.

Sociology takes a different approach, emphasizing that individual problems are often rooted in problems that stem from aspects of society itself. This key idea informed C. Wright Mills (1959)The sociological imagination. The classic distinction between personal problems and . Public problems is another term for social problems. Personal problems refer to a problem that affects individuals and that the affected person, as well as other members of society, often blame on the person's own personal and moral failings. Examples include issues as diverse as eating disorders, divorce, and unemployment. Public concerns that have their origin in the social structure and in a society are related to social problems that affect many people. Thus, problems in society help explain the problems experienced by individuals. Mills believed that many problems that are generally considered private problems are better understood as public problems, and he coined the term sociological imagination to refer to the ability to discern the structural basis of individual problems.

To illustrate Mills's point, let's use our sociological imagination to understand some contemporary social problems. Let's start with unemployment, which Mills himself spoke about. If few people were unemployed, Mills wrote, we could reasonably explain their unemployment by being lazy, having bad work habits, etc. Then unemployment would be a personal problem for them. But when millions of people are unemployed, unemployment is better understood as a public problem because, as Mills said,[10]“The opportunity structure itself collapsed. Both the correct formulation of the problem and the range of possible solutions require that we take into account the economic and political institutions of society and not only the personal situation and the character of a dispersion of individuals” (p. 9).

The high unemployment rate in the United States as a result of the severe economic crisis that began in 2008 is a telling example of what Mills said. Millions of people lost their jobs through no fault of their own. While some people are undoubtedly unemployed because they are lazy or do not have good work habits, a more structural explanation, centered on lack of opportunity, is needed to explain why so many people have been unemployed. In this case, unemployment is understood as a public problem rather than a personal problem.

Another social problem is eating disorders. We tend to think of a person's eating disorder as a personal problem stemming from a lack of control, low self-esteem, or some other personal problem. That explanation may be good so far, but it doesn't help us understand why so many people have personal problems that lead to eating disorders. Perhaps most important, this belief also overlooks the broader social and cultural forces that help explain such disorders. For example, the majority of Americans with eating disorders are women, not men. This gender gap forces us to question what it is about being a woman in American society that makes eating disorders so much more common. To answer this question, we must look at the female beauty standard that values ​​a slim body.[11]If it weren't for this cultural pattern, far fewer American women would suffer from eating disorders than today. Because even if all girls and women with eating disorders were cured, others would take their place unless we could somehow change this pattern. In this sense, eating disorders are best understood as a public problem, not just a personal problem.

Building on Mills's insights, psychologist William Ryan noted that Americans often think that social problems like poverty and unemployment stem from the personal failings of the people facing those problems, rather than from structural problems in society. society in general.[12]Ryan's work has been widely seen as a major structuralist response to an influential 1965 report, the Moynihan Report, which posited that the proliferation of black single-parent families was a "ghetto culture". The report did not emphasize the role of discriminatory laws and practices.[13]To use Mills's terms, Americans tend to see social problems as personal rather than public problems. (also known as social problems). As Ryan said, they tend to blame the victim instead of blaming the system.

To understand the ideology of blaming the victims, consider why poor children in urban areas often learn very little in their schools. According to Ryan, a blaming-the-victim approach would mean that the children's parents don't care about their learning, don't teach them good study habits, and don't encourage them to take school seriously. That kind of explanation, he wrote, may apply to some parents, but it ignores a much more important reason: the sad shape of America's urban schools, which he says are run-down, overcrowded structures housing old, outdated textbooks. Equipment. To improve education for children in urban areas, she wrote, we must improve the schools themselves and not just try to "improve" the parents.

(Video) Conflict Theory Explained

As this example suggests, a victim-blaming approach points to solutions to social problems such as poverty and illiteracy that are very different from those of a more structural system-blaming approach. If we blame the victim, we would spend our limited money to address the personal failings of people who suffer from poverty, illiteracy, poor health, eating disorders, and other difficulties. If, instead, we blame the system, we turn our attention to the various social conditions—decrepit schools, cultural standards of female beauty, and the like—that explain these difficulties. A sociological understanding suggests that the latter approach is necessary to help us deal successfully with the social problems we face today.

a traditional lens

This text was written to complement the findings on difference, power, and discrimination from Oregon State University and Linn-Benton Community College in Albany and Corvallis, Oregon. This statement appears inOregon State University website:

The Difference, Power, and Discrimination program works with Oregon State University faculty from all fields and disciplines to create inclusive curricula that address the intersections of gender, race, class, sexual identity, age, ability, and other institutionalized systems of concern for inequality and privilege. US.

Thus, a justice perspective is applied throughout the text as we seek to understand what families need, how and if those needs are met, and the role that social institutions play in family outcomes.

To understand families from this perspective, we focus on how families experience personal and social problems, and the disproportionate ways in which families experience them. We also talk about social justice, which has many definitions but generally includes equal access or opportunity, equal treatment, and equal rights. In this text we will present the historical and cross-cultural context related to social justice, but with emphasis on the current situation of families in the United States. Here are two websites if you would like more information on how social justice is defined and how you can contribute to greater social justice in the United States:

You will also see ways of thinking related to Critical Theory and Critical Race Theory (CRT). Both theories examine institutions and power structures. In this short video, Megan Paulson defines both theories in the first minute. She then talks about the positive impact on students of all races and ethnicities when they have practical terminology and language to talk about what they are experiencing in relation to differences in their daily lives.

(Video) Theories in Child Development

The authors of this text intend that students use what they have learned in this lesson to better understand their own experiences and the experiences of others. Discussions in face-to-face and online settings are encouraged. This text examines what families need and how institutions and society can support or get in the way of these needs. This will lead to a better understanding and analysis of how to exist and contribute to the family.

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"What is a social problem" and "The sociological imagination" are adaptations of "what is a social problem"mi"Sociological perspectives on social problems' by Anonymous. License:CC BY-NC-SA 4.0. Setting: Edited for clarity.

Figure 2.13. "Banners at the rally to take rape seriously"vonfemale news. License:CC POR 2.0.

Figure 2.14. "Climate change financing"vonmano visible. License:CC POR 2.0.

(Video) Sociological Theory: Structural Functionalism, Conflict Theory, Symbolic Interactionism

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  1. Leiserowitz A, Maibach E, Roser-Renouf C, and Smith N (2011). Climate Change on the American Mind: Americans' Beliefs and Attitudes About Global Warming as of May 2011. Yale Project on Climate Change Communications.
  2. M. (2020, June 23). Two-thirds of Americans think the government should do more to protect the climate. Pew Science and Society Research Center.
  3. Inc, G. (2019, April 22). Climate change concerns are in the Northeast, West US Gallup. With.
  4. Inc, G. (May 11, 2018). Age gap on global warming: The youngest Americans are the most concerned. Gallup. with.
  5. Rubington, E. and Weinberg, M.S. (2010). The Study of Social Problems: Seven Perspectives (7th ed.). Oxford University Press.
  6. Allison, JA and Wrightsman, LS (1993). Rape: The misunderstood crime. Sage Publications.
  7. Ehrenreich, B. and English, D. (2005). For Her Own Good: Two Centuries of Expert Advice for Women (Second ed.). anchor books.
  8. Robinson, MB (2011). Media coverage of crime and criminal justice. Carolina Academic Press.
  9. Surette, R. (2011). Media, Crime, and Criminal Justice: Images, Realities, and Politics (4th ed.). Wadsworth.
  10. Wright Mills, C. (1959). The sociological imagination. Oxford University Press.
  11. Boyd, EM, Reynolds, JR, Tillman, KH, & Martin, PY (2011). Racial/ethnic status, identities, and desire for thinness in adolescent girls. Social Science Research, 40(2), 667–684.
  12. Ryan, W. (1976). Blaming the victim (Rev. ed.). old books
  13. Laboratory, U.S.D. of, & Research, U.S.D. of L.O. of P.P.e. (1965). The Black Family: The Case for National Action. United States Government Printing Office.


What are the theoretical perspectives on family? ›

The major frameworks that sociologists use to help the questions we just posed include functionalism, conflict theory, symbolic interactionism, social-exchange theory, and feminist theory. Each theory looks at different perspectives of a family or explains why things happen using different reasoning.

What are contemporary theoretical perspectives? ›

Sociologists today employ three primary theoretical perspectives: the symbolic interactionist perspective, the functionalist perspective, and the conflict perspective. These perspectives offer sociologists theoretical paradigms for explaining how society influences people, and vice versa.

What are the 3 theoretical perspectives? ›

These three theoretical orientations are: Structural Functionalism, Symbolic Interactionism, and Conflict Perspective. To understand a theoretical orientation in any profession it is critical to understand what is meant by the term theory.

What are the 8 theoretical perspectives family? ›

We have organized them into eight broad perspectives: the systems perspective, conflict perspective, exchange and choice perspective, social constructionist perspective, psychodynamic perspective, developmental perspective, behavioral perspective, and humanistic perspective.

What is an example of a theoretical perspective? ›

The “breadwinner-homemaker family” is the classic example. Society is structured in a way that privileges men over women; the theory works to understand and to transform inequalities. This theory emphasizes the way that gender roles are constructed within the family including the socialization of children.

What is the theoretical importance of family? ›

The family performs several essential functions for society. It socializes children, it provides emotional and practical support for its members, it helps regulate sexual activity and sexual reproduction, and it provides its members with a social identity.


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