The New Family Structures Study and the Challenges of Social Science

It should be obvious that the family—and marriage in particular—is under a great deal of popular and political scrutiny. There is a tug-of-war in the social sciences over what we know with confidence about the contemporary family, which has not changed a great deal, and what can be said about it (and who can say it). But while scholarly norms, language, and state and federal family law can shift with remarkable speed—as they have in the West over a few short decades—the data collected from thousands of regular people who are living, or have lived, in all manner of household structures and family experiences have not changed nearly so fast. The empirical evidence still documents the pivotal importance of family stability and well-being in social life. Where we see children and young adults flourishing best, we are apt to see stable families as well. The family remains the first building block—necessary but not sufficient—in any large, decent, dynamic, and sustainable social order. But is the family a social construction? Can it be what we wish for it to be? Much is made of the socially constructed nature of the family. Indeed, calling a social practice or pattern “socially constructed” is a popular theme in contemporary sociology, and to be sure it has some merit. Most aspects of social life, and the institutions within or under which we live, are social constructions, by which we mean that people made them, and for them to continue we must remake and reinforce them regularly. But calling the family simply a social construction is an effort to undermine the reality of it, and to suggest that its structure and functions could be radically different, or not exist at all, and we would be fine. There are common and permanent characteristics of the family; there is a structure to it that is historically reliable and that—when functioning competently—cannot be topped in its ability to accomplish six key tasks: (1) families make things, (2) they
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