I WILL BEGIN with a general comment, then discuss the specific points raised by Michael B. Katz and Mark J. Stern. There is a great deal of public anxiety about the dramatic family changes of the past several decades, and news about the disappearing or declining family has become a media staple. Conservatives have honed this pervasive “decline” theme into a potent political weapon. The “D” word supplies the symbolism and emotional force for right-wing social policies—abolish welfare, promote marriage, ban gay unions. And the word evokes the a simple before-and-after narrative that explains it all: before the sixties, all was well with the American family; then came the counterculture and feminism, the moral collapse of the family, and the host of social pathologies we have today.
Unfortunately, when progressives try to counter the decline theme by arguing that a healthy “diversity” has replaced the “traditional” family, they end up reinforcing the conservative message. The same happens when family researchers argue that the story of American family life is one of both change and continuity. Clearly, we have to find another way to talk about family matters.
Now to the specific points raised by Katz and Stern.
0N THE ONE HAND, they seem to agree with E. Kay Trimberger that the “decline” (or “change”) narrative describes the recent history of American domestic life better than the “stability” alternative they ascribe to me. On the other hand, they argue that the two narratives of family change “do not vary quite as much as they at first seem.” And they allude to what seems to be a third narrative according to which American families and living arrangements have always been diverse.
Much of their piece deals with what they describe as an “arcane scholarly disagreement” about how to measure family change. Should the focus be on households and families, as they recommend? Or should it instead be on “the domestic experience of individuals,” which they describe as the approach favored by Claude S. Fischer and Michael Hout—and me? The choice, they contend, has profound ideological and practical implications. Their approach defines families and households as “institutions,” while the other is “intensely individualistic.” I don’t want to burden Dissent‘s readers with too many words about this “arcane” matter. But I don’t recognize my own views in their description of them; nor, I suspect, would Fischer and Hout, who actually do focus on household types and on the changing distribution of the population into these types. And as they apply their analysis in their Russell Sage volume, it makes for a finergrained view of family change than any other I have seen. For one thing, it enables them to track shifts in the living arrangements of people of...
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