Part 7

The Family and Latent Pattern Maintenance

The family is the oldest institution in society. It is considered by many to be the most important. As we discussed in Unit 3, the family is the primary agent of socialization. Through the family, we learn important social expectations which influence our behaviors throughout our lives. According to Parsons, the family fulfills the function of Latent Pattern Maintenance. The term “latent” means hidden or unintended. According to Parsons, some social institutions (family, education, religion) provide indirect management. It is too difficult to make people conform to societal norms, beliefs and values, so these institutions use the process of socialization and internalization to indirectly manage society.

Mom, Pop, and two kids: the traditional
family is the U.S. At least, recently.

The automatic nervous system functions indirectly. It controls parts of the body (heart beat, breathing, blood flow) that we do not have conscious control of. Like the automatic nervous system, the family maintains important functions that are usually taken for granted. Internalization is the process where behaviors are learned so thoroughly they are no longer questioned and seem natural to us. Many of us think of the traditional family as a nuclear family with the father as the breadwinner and the mother as the homemaker. But this is by no means the traditional or natural pattern of organization for families. In fact, this is a relatively new version of the family that evolved out of the industrial era where men made enough wages to support a family without any help from their wives, children, grandparents, aunts, or uncles.

Many social commentators claim that the American family is in decline. While there are many changes taking place in the family today, some researchers say that the family is in better condition today than it was fifty years ago. There are more fathers present in their children’s lives, mothers spend more time with their children because they are having less of them, and we have higher standards for marriage and parenting than we have ever havehad before. In fact, the rate of teen pregnancy is also lower today than it was fifty years ago.

But there are challenges to the modern family as well. The divorce rate in modern societies is higher, women are working “double second shifts” at work and then at home, and our work policies in the United States do not reflect the interests of the growing number of mothers who have reentered the workforce in the last fifty years. Also, tThere are more “Dual Earner” marriages today because jobs in the postindustrial economy are lower paying and service based. Many families also have to adapt to the changing nature of work. Many have become displaced within the workforce because factories have shut down and jobs have been sentgoing overseas. Some older adults who have been out of school for many years are forced to go back to learn a new trade. Schools have had to adjust to these changes as well.

In Family in Transition (1997), Arlene and Jerome Skolnick point outclaim that our idea of the “traditional” family was actually the first version of the modern family. It was only during the Industrial Era when we saw women enter “The Cult of Domesticity” where they were expected to be domestic goddesses of virtue and purity. This model was adopted from the Victorian Era and, as Skolnick and Skolnick have pointed out, it represented an idealized version of the middle class family However, many families were not able to live up to these standards. Working class families, for instance, could not survive without both spouses working. Also, this version of the family was culturally and racially biased as it primarily only applied to white, Western families.

As most sociologists point out, the family is not in decline. It merely adapts to changes in society. In the Postindustrial society, for instance, more women are entering the workforce due to changes in the economy. European nations have recognized the need for their governments to assist families by providing subsidies, children’s allowances, health care, child care, shorter work week for parents, maternity leave policies, etc. This type of support has not been as prevalent in the United States partly because some groups want the family to be ““traditional”” the way it was in the 1950’s. As Arlene and Jerome Skolnick point out:

that changes in the family today are treated differently in American society than in other European nations. Although most European nations have tried to provide more support for all families, including working parents, this type of support has not been as prevalent in the United States:

There is widespread recognition that the massive social and economic changes we have lived through call for public and private sector policies in support of families. Most European countries have recognized for some time that governments must play a role in supplying an array of supports to families’ health care, children’s allowances, housing subsidies, support for working parents and children (such as childcare, parental leave and shorter workdays for parents), as well as an array of services for the elderly.

Each country’s response to these changes has been shaped by its own political and cultural traditions. The United States remains embroiled in a cultural war over the family; many social commentators and political leaders have promised to reverse the recent trends and restore the ‘traditional’ family. In contrast, other Western nations, including Canada and the other English-speaking countries, have responded to family change by establishing policies aimed at mitigating the problems brought about by economic and social changes. As a result of these policies, these countries have been spared much the poverty and social disintegration that has plagued the United States in the last decade (Edgar 1993, Smeeding 1992).

Unfortunately, the ideals of the traditional family represent a small portion of the U.S. population. If this is the case, why do so many politicians continue to seek to restore it? This has as much to do with cultural factors as it does with social inequality. However, as more and more middle class American families struggle with the problems associated with dual earner marriages and affordable childcare, it is likely that the tide will change and politicians will be forced to address these problems.