The Sociology of the Family

A Brief Introduction to the Subfield

The Obama family seated for a family portrait in the Oval Office, The White House. The sociology of the family is a subfield that examines how the family as a social institution works and interacts with other aspects of society.
In this handout provided by the White House, (L - R) First Lady Michelle Obama, Malia Obama, U.S. President Barack Obama and Sasha Obama, sit for a family portrait in the Oval Office on December 11, 2011 in Washington, D.C. Pete Souza/White House via Getty Images

Sociology of the family is a subfield of sociology in which researchers examine the family as one of several key social institutions, and as a unit of socialization from a variety of sociological perspectives. The sociology of the family is a common component of introductory and pre-university academic curricula, as the family makes for a familiar and illustrative example of patterned social relations and dynamics.

Overview

Within the sociology of the family there are several key areas of inquiry. These include:

  • The diversity of forms families and households take.

Now we'll take a closer look at how sociologists approach some of these key areas.

Family And Culture

Within the sociology of the family, one area that sociologists examine is the cultural factors that shape family structures and family processes. For example, how gender, age, sex, race, and ethnicity influence family structure, and the relationships and practices within each family.

They also look at the demographic characteristics of family members across and within cultures and how they have changed over time.

Family Relationships

Another area studied under the sociology of the family is relationships. This includes the stages of coupling (courtship, cohabitation, engagement, and marriage), relationships between spouses through time, and parenting. For example, some sociologists have studied how differences of income between partners influences the likelihood of infidelity, while others have examined how education affects the success rate of marriage.

The topic of parenting is a large one and includes things such as the socialization of children, parental roles, single parenting, adoption and foster parenting, and the roles of children based on gender. Sociological research has found that gender stereotypes influence parenting even when children are at a very young age, and manifests in a gender pay gap for children's chores. Sociologists have also examined whether being in a same-sex couple affects parenting.

Alternative Family Forms

Alternative family forms and singlehood are other topics examined under the sociology of the family. For example, many sociologists study the roles and influence of family members beyond the nuclear family, such as grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, godparents, and surrogate kin.

Marital disunions are also studied, particularly as divorce rates have risen over the past several decades.

Family Systems and Other Institutions

Sociologists who study the family also look at how other institutions affect and are affected by family systems. For instance, how is the family affected by religion and how is religion influenced by the family? Likewise, how is the family affected by work, politics and mass media, and how are each of these institutions affected by the family? One surprising finding to come from this area of study is that boys with sisters are more likely to be Republicans in their early adulthood.

Updated by Nicki Lisa Cole, Ph.D.