Search :
Summer 1994

Research Magazine > ARCHIVE > Summer 94 > Article

The Family - Society's Smallest Democracy

by Judy Purdy

Families are universal. The warp and weft of a society's fabric, they are valued by virtually every culture as the preferred environment in which to conceive and raise children.

At their best, families provide us with all our basic physical and developmental needs: food, shelter, clothing, safety, love, nurturance and acceptance. When families are unable to meet these societal expectations or when society does not provide adequate support for families, the social fabric frays and weakens.

Lately, the bonds of families in every nation have been tugged and stretched by tremendous social, political and economic pressures. More and more families are having difficulty providing adequately for the needs of their members, especially their children.

Some observers of families contend that the family is becoming an endangered species; others say they are in crisis or at-risk; still others explain that families change as they adapt to the major changes of the 20th century.

In declaring 1994 the International Year of the Family (IYF), the United Nations stated:

"When a society is cohesive, law-abiding and productive, the source of its strength can invariably be traced to the strength of its families. Today, families face many crises -- famine, poverty, unemployment, drugs and AIDS -- as well as changing economic, wage-earning and lifestyle structures. Nevertheless, the family remains a vital means of preserving and transmitting cultural values; it is the child's paradigm for the world outside."

Democracy, a cherished value among many U.N. member nations, is the basis of the International Year of the Family motto -- "building the smallest democracy at the heart of society." The IYF logo is a roof that shelters two hearts, one large and one small, illustrating the vital connections between society and the family.

IYF highlights the need for leaders at all levels of government, from local to international, to:

  • Increase awareness of family issues among governments and the private sector;
  • Strengthen national institutions in their efforts to develop, carry out and monitor family policies;
  • Stimulate efforts to address family-related problems;
  • Enhance the effectiveness of local, regional and national family programs;
  • Improve cooperation among national and international non- governmental organizations; and
  • Build upon ongoing activities benefiting women, children, youth, and aging and disabled persons.

Numerous reports on the status of families document the growing diversity of family experience. All of them reinforce one fact: Families cannot be considered simplistically and certainly not from the idiosyncratic perspective of one's own experience.

A widely held view, even among many policy makers, is that by virtue of having lived in a family, each of us is a family "expert" -- that is, we each know what a family "is" or "ought to be." A related attitude is the nostalgic view that families were "better" in the "good old days."

Unfortunately, these false beliefs influence and encourage policy development that is uninformed by current family research. They also show we know remarkably little about family processes or exactly how intrafamily interactions affect individuals. It is research, not personal experience nor historical myths, that should guide the development of policies and programs for families.

An example of the failure to use available studies is federal support for child care in the United States. Despite dramatic increases in the numbers of working mothers in the 1960s, President Nixon vetoed child care legislation in the early 1970s on the grounds it would "destroy the American family." More than 20 years later, similar legislation to improve the quality and availability of child care was finally signed into law by President Bush.

One could argue it took more than two decades for policy makers and society at large to overcome a nostalgic image and to accept the fact of employed mothers in need of child care services -- a fact that had been documented by family researchers 30 years ago.

Scholars face many challenges when it comes to studying families:

  • Families are sometimes reluctant to participate in research because of the shroud of privacy about family life.
  • Policy makers may attempt to thwart legitimate studies of family processes because of their belief that family matters should be off limits to researchers.
  • Models to match the enormous complexity of families are difficult to construct. Families are increasingly diverse and increasingly changing.
  • Funding for family-related research is grossly inadequate.

We still have much to learn. Overt violence against family members is the most obvious example of how far the world has to go in implementing democratic principles within the family. Violence, including physical abuse, sexual assault and female infanticide, is still more likely to occur in the home than anywhere else, and the perpetrators are still most likely to be other family members.

Some individuals are at-risk in their own families because of persistent attitudes that support the power of patriarchy. Cultural values that view women and children as property, customs that require wives to bring lucrative dowries into marriage, and social and economic systems that place greater value on sons than daughters obviate against "building the smallest democracy at the heart of society."

Families have the responsibility of caring for dependent members at both ends of the life cycle. In this century, each generation in Westernized countries has borne fewer children than the previous one. Similar trends exist in some developing countries as a result of legislation, such as The Peoples' Republic of China's stringent one-child policy.

At the other end of the life cycle, improved health services are helping more people live longer. The result? Some adults will spend more years providing care for elderly relatives than rearing children. And as the proportion of prime wage earners shrinks, less public and private economic support will be available for the younger and older generations. In Japan, which has the highest life expectancy in the world, the proportion of older people is expected to double from 8 percent in 1975 to 17 percent by the end of the century.

Both economic growth and its opposite, stagnation, also have enormous effects on the family and the "bread-winner" role among men and women. Women now make up 45 percent of the U.S. work force; families are increasingly dependent on those incomes. In many Asian and Middle Eastern countries, values that once kept women at home are being challenged by more job opportunities for women and changing attitudes about women's roles.

One of every three households in the world today relies solely on the woman as the income-earner, a result of divorce and the increasing proportion of children born to unmarried women -- nearly one in four births in the United States alone. Based on the experience of the 1980s, family scholars predict that 60 percent of U.S. children will spend some part of childhood in one-parent homes -- and 90 percent of these will be headed by the mother.

A variety of economic and social circumstances keep female- headed households disproportionately poor. In African countries, almost a third of the households in many rural areas are headed by women, often a result of their husbands' migration to urban areas in search of jobs. When entire rural families migrate to cities in search of a better life, they too often find unsanitary slums and diminished well-being or worse. U.N. data indicate the number of refugees -- 80 percent of whom are women and children - - more than doubled in a decade, to 18 million in 1992.

The family -- as an individual unit and as a social institution -- is the stage where tradition and modernity play a continuous tug of war. Some scholars have observed that family values have not changed, but that norms -- expectations about behavior -- have undergone dramatic transformations in many countries. For example, divorce, almost taboo in the United States just three decades ago, is now widely accepted.

Extended families, customary in rural areas of Asia and Eastern Europe where jointly owned land enhances families' economic possibilities, are becoming more the norm once again in urban areas. Housing shortages and deteriorating economies are forcing related families to live together just to survive.

As family patterns transform, research will help governments and families respond and adjust more effectively to shifting political, demographic, economic and social forces.

In Georgia, the governor and General Assembly have endorsed the International Year of the Family. At the university, faculty and staff in the College of Family and Consumer Sciences and the Cooperative Extension Service, along with the Coalition of Family and Consumer Sciences Professionals, are hosting forums to affirm the centrality of families and to review trends and current situations.

Regardless of how families change, cultural beliefs in the importance of families will likely persist. This affirmation should be linked with respect for and use of research to inform public policies and educational programs so that families continue their essential place in the social fabric.

Sharon Y. Nickols, dean of the College of Family and Consumer Sciences, was a Fulbright Lecturer in Malawi and has consulted on family and consumer sciences higher education programs in India. She is a recipient of the American Home Economics Association Leader Award.

Faculty from the college who contributed to this article include Richard Endsley, Sharon J. Price and Lynda Henley Walters.


Return to Summer 1994 Index

Research Communications, Office of the VP for Research, UGA
For comments or for information please e-mail the editor: rcomm@uga.edu
To contact the webmaster please email: ovprweb@uga.edu