The myth of family decline -- and its benefits

My colleagues and I have been restudying the small Midwestern city of Middletown, which Robert and Helen Lynd chose as a specimen of American society almost 60 years ago, in order to discover how much social change has taken place. Between 1976 and 1979, we conducted 13 different surveys in the town, four of which were directly concerned with family attitude and behavior.

Nearly everybody in Middletown knows about the crisis of the modern family and deplores it. Over and over again they hear from politicians, educators, and the neighbors down the street how serious the situation is. The message is gravely proclaimed in television documentaries and in White House conferences, intoned from the pulpit, enshrined in legislative preambles.

Any intelligent housewife in Middletown can tick off the degenerative symptoms that make the survival of the family so doubtful: the isolation of the nuclear family, the skyrocketing divorce rate, the widening generation gap, the loss of parental authority, the general dissatisfaction with marriage, and the weakening influence of religion. No part of this venerable institution, it seems , is immune from the general decay.

Our surveys, by contrast, seem to show that the Middletown family is in exceptionally good condition. Tracing the changes from the 1920s to the 1970s, we discovered increased family solidarity, a smaller generation gap, closer marital communication, more religion, and less mobility. With respect to the major features of family life, the trend of the past two generations has run in the opposite direction from the trend that nearly everyone perceives and talks about.

It would be convenient to explain this discrepancy by the peculiarities of Middletown but, as Reuben Hill shows in a chapter of our forthcoming book, Middletown families are reasonably similar to American families in general. What we have discovered about marriage, divorce, child-raising, housework, the employment of women, home ownership, family festivals, kinship networks, and erotic behavior in Middletown does not diverge greatly from what is known for the country as a whole although, needless to say, it is easier to describe the behavior of 80,000 people than of more than 200 million.

For Middletown, at any rate, we can show that much of what people think they know about the family as an institution is mistaken. But these errors are not scattered and random. The opinions that Middletown people hold about the family fit together in a coherent way and carry a significant message. They form what we may call a sociological myth.

Ever since the development and the popularization of the sociological perspective in the mid-19th century, the citizens of complex societies have depended more and more on sociological myths to interpret their collective experience, just as simpler societies turn to narrative myths for the same purpose. The symbolic anthropologists, led by Claude Levi-Strauss, have shown in loving detail how small societies use narrative myths to develop and preserve their unity in the face of the contradictions and mysteries of their collective experience; nature and culture, male and female, body and spirit, birth and death.

The people of complex societies face these same mysteries and resolve them in similar fashion, but they must also cope with additional polarities that are less important in tribal villages: common sense and science, tradition and modernity, intimacy and bureaucracy, direct experience and the vicarious experience provided by the media.

In common with the rest of mankind, the people of complex societies must deal with an uncertain future, but for them it is also an unimaginable future, which may turn out to be qualitatively different from any stage of the past because of the unpredictable consequences of technology, the unpredictable vagaries of mass culture, and the unpredictable actions of bureaucracies.

The myth of the declining family confers some practical advantages on those who believe in it. When Middletown people compare their own families, and their own relationships with spouses, children, and parents with the ''average'' of the ''typical'' family, nearly all of them discover with pleasure that their own families are better than other people's. From a societal standpoint, this nearly universal illusion is an unqualified benefit. At no real cost, most of the people in Middletown have the satisfaction of knowing that their performance as husbands and wives, children and parents, housekeepers and providers, is superior.

At a deeper level, the myth of the declining family offers some comfort for certain frustrations that are built into the Middletown family as an institutional form, especially the asymmetric relationship between generations whereby parents are expected to provide their children with as many goods and services as possible and to receive very little in return; the abrupt emancipation of adolescents from parental authority; and the inability of marital partners to protect themselves against the risk of divorce at any stage in the family cycle. By defining these harsh structural conditions as part of a social problem, the myth provides a measure of consolation.

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