Why I called it The Family, and what that has to do with Cosby

First, a note on language

In American English books from 1910 to 1950, about 25% of the uses of “family” were preceded by “the.” Starting about 1950, however, “the family” started falling out of fashion, finally dropping below 16% of “family” uses in the mid-2000s. This trend coincides with the modern rise of family diversity.

In her classic 1993 essay, “Good Riddance to ‘The Family’,” Judith Stacey wrote,

no positivist definition of the family, however revisionist, is viable. … the family is not an institution, but an ideological, symbolic construct that has a history and a politics.

The essay was in Journal of Marriage and the Family, published by the National Council on Family Relations. In 2001, in a change that as far as I can tell was never announced, JMF changed its name to Journal of Marriage and the Family, which some leaders of NCFR believed would make it more inclusive. It was the realization of Stacey’s argument.

I decided on the title very early in the writing of my book: The Family: Diversity, Inequality, and Social Change. I agreed with Stacey that the family is not an institution. Instead, I think it’s an institutional arena: the social space where family interactions take place. I wanted to replace the narrowing, tradition-bound term, with an expansive, open-ended concept that was big enough to capture both the legal definition and the diversity of personal definitions. I think we can study and teach the family without worrying that we’re imposing a singular definition of what that means.*

It takes the unique genius that great designers have to capture a concept like this in a simple, eye-catching image. Here is how the artists at Kiss Me I’m Polish did it:


What goes in the frame? What looks like a harmless ice-breaker project — draw your family! — is also a conceptual challenge. Is it a smiling, generic nuclear family? A family oligarchy? Or a fictional TV family providing cover for an abusive, larger-than-life father figure who lectures us about morality while concealing his own serial rape behind a bland picture frame?

Whose function?

Like any family sociologist, I have great respect for Andrew Cherlin. I have taught from his textbook, as well as The Marriage Go-Round, and I have learned a lot from his research, which I cite often. But there is one thing in Public and Private Families that always rubbed me the wrong way when I was teaching: the idea that families are defined by positive “functions.”

Here’s the text box he uses in Chapter 1 (of an older edition, but I don’t think it’s changed), to explain his concept:


I have grown more sympathetic to the need for simplifying tools in a textbook, but I still find this too one-sided. Cherlin’s public family has the “main functions” of child-rearing and care work; the private family has “main functions” of providing love, intimacy, and emotional support. Where is the abuse and exploitation function?

That’s why one of the goals that motivated me to finish the book was to see the following passage in print before lots of students. It’s now in Chapter 12: Family Violence and Abuse:

We should not think that there is a correct way that families are “supposed” to work. Yes, families are part of the system of care that enhances the lived experience and survival of most people. But we should not leap from that observation to the idea that when family members abuse each other, it means that their families are not working. … To this way of thinking, the “normal” functions of the family are positive, and harmful acts or outcomes are deviations from that normal mode.

The family is an institutional arena, and the relationships between people within that arena include all kinds of interactions, good and bad. … And while one family member may view the family as not working—a child suffering abuse at the hands of a trusted caretaker, for example—from the point of view of the abuser, the family may in fact be working quite well, regarding the family as a safe place to carry out abuse without getting caught or punished. Similarly, some kinds of abuse—such as the harsh physical punishment of children or the sexual abuse of wives—may be expected outcomes of a family system in which adults have much more power than children and men (usually) have more power than women. In such cases, what looks like abuse to the victims (or the law) may seem to the abuser like a person just doing his or her job of running the family.

Huxtable family secrets

Which brings us to Bill Cosby. After I realized how easy it was to drop photos into my digital copy of the book cover, I made a series of them to share on social media — and planning to use them in an introductory lecture — to promote this framing device for the book. On September 20th of this year I made this figure and posted it in a tweet commemorating the 30th anniversary of The Cosby Show:


Ah, September. When I was just another naïve member of the clueless-American community, using a popular TV family to promote my book, blissfully unaware of the fast-approaching marketing train wreck beautifully illustrated by this graph of internet search traffic for the term “Cosby rape”:


I was never into The Cosby Show, which ran from my senior year in high school through college graduation (not my prime sitcom years). I love lots of families, but I don’t love “the family” any more than I love “society.” Like all families, the Huxtables would have had secrets if they were real. But now we know that even in their fictional existence they did have a real secret. Like some real families, the Huxtables were a device for the family head’s abuse of power and sexuality.

So I don’t regret putting them in the picture frame. Not everything in there is good. And when it’s bad, it’s still the family.

* Of course, I’m also the crank sociologist who doesn’t like to pluralize the terms sexuality, masculinity, or identity when used as objects of study. There are lots of different identities, I reckon, and I study any number of them when I’m studying identity. So call me the new old fashioned.

Adjectives for children’s chronic conditions

In the Google ngrams database of American English, I got relative frequencies of the terms x+children, where x is a chronic malady of some sort. I tried a lot of different ones, and only included ones that topped the list at least once in the past 100 years. The most common (as suggested in the comments below) is “handicapped children,” which dominates all others from 1920 to 1995. After that, this is what I came up with, ordered by the period in which they were #1:

  • 1910s: sickly children
  • 1920s: neurotic children
  • 1930s-1950s: maladjusted children
  • 1965-1975: psychotic children
  • Mid-1970s, briefly: hyperactive children
  • Late 1970s-2000s: disabled children

After the mid-1990s, however, “children with disabilities” becomes more common than any of them. I couldn’t find anything in the old days that was as popular as disabled or hyperactive would later become. Does this imply more concern or negative attention to children?

Here is the figure. The frequency of each term is shown in relation to the total uses of “children” (click to enlarge):


If you think I missed anything, to play with it yourself, or to see how I did it, here’s the link.

Another question about the same terms: are they individualized (x-child) or grouped (x-children)? Summing all the terms with child, shown as a percentage of all the terms with children (leaving out “with disabilities”), produces this figure (smoothed to a 10-year curve):


Individualization peaked from 1920 to 1940, when the combined individual terms outnumbered the plural terms, before sliding till 1990. Now we may be in an individualizing rebound. (Here is the link to that search if you’re interested in the coding).

I get a kick out of language history like this. But I draw no conclusions without further study. Here are some related posts:


Marriage rights, writ wrong

With the big decision striking down California’s Proposition 8 — which banned homogamous marriage — the terminology used is not today’s lead story. But it is a good time to reflect on it.

So, here are the results of last’s weeks Family Inequality reader poll, which asked two questions:

  • When the state permits marriage between pairs of men or women, what do you call it?
  • What to you call marriage between a man and a woman?

With more than 400 page views, there were 58 responses to the first question, 42 to the second, and here is how they broke down:

As I wrote in, “Homogamy Unmodified,” we appear to be largely in an uncomfortable terminological state that pairs “marriage,” which refers to unions between men and women, with “same-sex marriage.” In other words, for a good share of readers, “the normative or hegemonic case requires no specification while others carry a modifier.” It’s not our fault; it’s a tough situation.

Here’s a little bit of perspective to help sort it out.

First, on the positive side, this response from someone who I don’t know:

I adopted your terms for it when you first published the post on hetero/homogamous. These words are so incredibly useful, since I write about sex and gender a lot, and have discussed heterogamous couples with the same gender presentation, etc. It sounds nicer than same-sex marriage and provides an equal term for “opposite-sex” (bleh!) marriage.

That’s the leading 3% for you: Bold, confident, comfortable in her terms. Much more common is a response like this, which I received via email:

[Homogamy] is a fine term for researchers, and I fully get why you like it. But it will never catch on with the press and public, and anyone using it in a speech or a press statement would be met with blank stares and/or hostility for using such big academic words…

I know for a fact this person is wiser than I am, and I can’t disagree. But I hope that’s not true in the long run.

The long run

Consider one piece of historical precedent: polygamy and monogamy. There was a time when monogamy and polygamy were obscure scientific terms. Here’s a footnote that might have elicited some blank stares in 1887, when Herbert Spencer published the third edition of The Principles of Sociology:

The federal government’s war on Mormonism at the end of the 19th Century brought polygamy to the American reading public’s attention, both as a practice and as a term. Here’s the ngrams chart showing the frequency of polygamy and monogamy from 1840 to 2008 in American English:

Most of the references to monogamy back then seem to have been in scientific writings or political discussion of polygamy. Now, of course, it’s a commonly-understood term for a lifestyle choice:

So, try not to get too hung up on the moment, on today’s research paper or the way you learned “homogamy” in grad school. We should try to take the long view (especially those of us who have tenure).

Demographic trends and ngrams

Do words follow families?

I previously used Google ngrams to identify the arrival of terms such as “parenting” and “sibling rivalry.” And I took a shot at tracking family relation words in relation to family structure in histoty. But what about specific demographic trends that have captured the public’s attention and sparked debate? Here are two: cohabitation and divorce.


Cohabitation existed as a concept in law and culture for a long time before it appeared as a common household structure – a man and a woman living in what the Census Bureau used to call a “close personal relationship” (by which they didn’t mean any old close personal relationship). Looking at some of the old Google Books uses, it’s clear they are referring to men and women living together unmarried.

Here are the ngram for cohabitation (above) and the percent of U.S. households that include cohabitors. I’ve scaled them so the horizontal gridlines line up with the decades from 1960 to 2010.

You can’t see the scales, but they are similar up to 1980. That is, next to nothing till 1970, then a doubling to 1980.  But after that the demographic trend continued upward while the language trend plateaued.


Divorce appears to be something like a social panic, with the hype not often matching the facts, except in the most general sense that there is more divorce now than in the old days. In fact, divorce rates have had their ups and downs, as you can see below. Again, I’ve lined up the gridlines.

Here it appears that the word database doesn’t pick up the post-WWII spike in divorces. But the run-up in the 1970s is well represented. Then it took about 15 years for the gradual decline in divorce rates to be reflected in the word database. That’s reasonable, since this crude divorce rate is not quite reflected in the popular visibility of divorce (for example, the aging of the population will tend to reduce the crude divorce rate, as still-married people live on and on, adding to the denominator of the rate).

Anyway, I’m satisfied to conclude tentatively that ngrams trends may follow (or even drive) demographic trends, and I’m interested in possibility that the disparities in the timing of fluctuations might be useful.

Horizontal and vertical family relationships, literarily

Aunt and uncle yield to grandmother and grandfather.

In my Sociology of Family class, I ask the students to raise their hands if they experienced a substantial direct relationship with a great-grandparent. As all eight of my great-grandparents predeceased me, I am surprised that so many student raise their hands. (Maybe elite college students come from families with better health and healthcare, but still.)

Demographically speaking, the decline of fertility and the increase in survival to old ages has meant that we have fewer horizontal (intragenerational) relationships and more vertical (intergenerational) relationships. And these intergenerational relationships are also more intensive, lasting years and decades.

And so, for the question of the day: Does this shift from intragenerational to intergenerational show up in the giant Google book word database? As a one-day expert in ngramology, I can conclude: Mostly, yes.

On the closest relationships, brother, sister, mother, father, the evidence is pretty good. Since 1800, occurrences of “mother” have increased from about three-times to more than four-times occurrences of “sister.”

On “father” versus “brother,” both show declines, but the ratio increased from about 1.5-to-1 to 2.5-to-1.

The picture for aunt/grandmother and uncle/grandfather is more clear. “Grandfather,” representing intergenerational, has almost completely closed the gap on “uncle,” which is one degree more horizontal:

Even more strongly, “grandmother” has vaulted past “aunt”:

You can experiment with variations here.

For an interpretation of demographic trends and aging for family relationships, consider this issue of  Daedalus and a variety of recent books, some taking global perspectives, some focusing on intergenerational support challenges.

‘Parenting’ through the (only very recent) ages

What are we going to do with the new Google tool? Consider “parenting.”

I remember reading a column by the Times’ Lisa Belkin last year, in which she wrote about the decline of over-parenting and the rise of the hip new nonchalant parenting. It’s a series of fads, she said. “After all,” she wrote, “that is the way it is with parenting — which I bet was never used as a verb before the 20th century, when medicine reached the point where parents could assume their babies would survive.” It bugged me at the time that the NYT couldn’t supply her with an intern to actually run down the term so that she didn’t have to “bet” on when it appeared.

But more importantly, modern medicine would only be part of the story. You would have to suspect a constellation of factors, including falling fertility, increasing educational investments, more higher education for parents/mothers, the modernization of medical and psychological expertise, the secularization of science — anything else? Anyway, I like the idea that parenting as a concept is relatively new. And she was right.

Here’s the Google trend for the word “parenting” in books in American English from 1920 to 2009:

It’s enough to make you think it’s a weird data artifact, like Google just has more books after 1965. But no. Consider it with the terms “mother” and “father.”

Can it be a coincidence that parenting (now scrunched way down at the bottom of the graph because the scale changed) appeared and spread just as “mother” was becoming more common in books than “father.” (About 10 years before “women” surpassed “men,” incidentally.) What does it mean?

I don’t know. But, consistent with the cultural shift idea — fewer, healthier children and richer, more educated parents — parenting was introduced with reference to its discrete qualities as a modern activity. According to the OED, parenting (“the activity of being a parent; the rearing of a child or children”) appeared in the Washington Post in 1918, with: “the philosophy of perfect parenting.” (OED reports it appeared in Britannica’s Book of the Year in 1959: “the supervision by parents of their children.”)

The academic database JSTOR has a use of the term from 193o, but that’s in reference to biological procreation, not rearing. The first time it is used in the sense of “rearing” is in the Social Service Review in 1952 in an article about foster care: “It is impossible in a changing world to expect to find a perfect or final solution to the difficult problem of sharing the parenting of children between child-care agencies and inadequate own parents.” It starts appearing routinely in the core journal Marriage and Family Living in 1953, as in this from 1954: “Sibling rivalry is one of the commonest evidences of poor parenting.”

Really? Good kids with good parents don’t have sibling rivalry? Wait a minute. That should mean sibling rivalry has declined as a concern since parents’ education increased and standards rose after, say, the 1940s. Oops:

As usual, the ratcheting of standards (which may or may not be good for kids), starts among the well-off, and turns into a standard to be enforced upon those below them in the social order, who are left to scrape together a few bucks for some cheap advice if they want to keep their kids:

Aside (h/t Karl Bakeman): People don’t have to have their “own” children to be parents, of course. In fact, according to Lisa Hymas in Grist, “Deciding to be childfree doesn’t have to mean forgoing all the joys and oys of parenting.” She is referring to people who co-parent the children of others, like padrinos (godparents) in Mexico — seriously involved (e.g., paying for college). This is what Erica Jong meant recently when she wrote about “cooperative child-rearing.” Hyman writes:

Could co-parenting be both an environmental and a feminist answer to the question of how to raise kids in challenging times? Could it work for you? Should we set up a matching service for harried parents and kid-loving GINKs [green inclinations, no kids]?

How we turn this into a mechanism for increasing inequality between children and families remains to be seen.