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Images, Ideals, and Myths


Family Images and Ideals

The authors acknowledge the difficulty of understanding the recent transformations of family life in the United States. Our perceptions and expectations of families tend to be highly subjective because they are based more on cultural ideals and myths than knowledge. Baca Zinn and Eitzen examine these ideals and myths to differentiate between family imagery and family reality. Their goal is to expose the mythical ideals that influence perceptions and replace these myths with an understanding of the historical, social, economic, and cultural forces that create families.

I. Family Imagery vs. Family Reality At least three distinct images of families can be identified in U.S. society. All of these images view the family as the primary route to personal growth and self-fulfillment. In addition, they all symbolically separate family from society, a polarization that does not exist in reality.

A. Family as Haven This image revolves around the themes of love and protection, delineating dual roles for father and mother. It emerged during industrialization.

B. Family as Fulfillment The protective image of the family has largely been replaced by a compensatory image. Family provides satisfactions unattainable through other social arrangements. Family members can find self-fulfillment and enjoyment through their joint activities. Advertising media portrayals of families emphasize families as fun, rather than a moral obligation.

C. Family as Encumbrance The positive image of the compensatory has given rise to a negative image of the family as encumbrance. components of family life, such as monogamy and child-rearing, are often viewed as inhibiting self-expression and personal freedom.

In these images, relationships between husbands and wives and between parents and children have been highly idealized. Further, family and society appear polarized. These largely mythical constructs shape our assumptions about family life, often engendering feelings of guilt and anger when reality falls short of expectation.

II. The Mythical American Family Family images and ideals are closely related to several widely accepted myths about the family that exist in our society. They reflect nostalgia, normative cultural prescription, and selective perception.

A. the Myth of a Stable and Harmonious Family of the Past It is thought that families of the past were more stable and happier than those of today. Yet current problems seem to threaten the well-being of the family as a social institution existed in the past as well.

B. The Myth of Separate Worlds The image of the family as haven emerged out of the belief that work and family roles were mutually exclusive. In fact, the public world - private world split is a false dichotomy. The family is deeply embedded in social and economic structures. Class and race based differences in the ways families are able to connect with other social institutions account for the perception that some families are autonomous. Yet society intrudes on every aspect of family life. The recent increase in women’s labor force participation has heightened the connection between families and other institutions, thereby demythologizing the public-private dichotomy.

C. The Myth of the Monolithic Family Form The supposed “typical” U.S. family consists of three element: 1. the family is a nuclear unit, separate from society and kin; 2. it consists of a mother, father, and their children, living together in their own home; and 3, it exhibits a sexual division of labor, featuring a breadwinner father and a full-time wife and mother. In reality, this monolithic model accounts for less than 10% of U.S. families.

Increasing diversity in U.S. family types follows from economic transformations that have contributed to the influx of married women with children into the labor force, the decline in numbers of children women are bearing, and major increases in the lifetime rates of divorce and remarriage.

D. The Myth of Undifferentiated Family Experience This myth assumes that all family members have common needs, interests, and experiences. But decomposing the family along gender and age lines shows that the gender and age systems produce different realities for men and women as well as children and adults within the same family.

E. The Myth of Family Consensus The idealized image of family life assumes that families operate on the principles of harmony and love. This myth ignores the contradictions that are intrinsic to family life due to power relations, competition, and the intense emotional quality of family life. Love and conflict exist together in family life. The emotional intensity of family life can, and often does, generate violence.

F. The Myth of Family Breakdown as the Cause of social Problems Some social commentators find that change in the family patterns in recent decades, especially the increase in fatherless families, is the primary cause of contemporary social problems. This claim is flawed in two respects: first, it treats the family as a causal agent, rather than a reflection of social conditions; second, it ignores structural reasons for family breakdown.

III. A Framework for thinking about families The authors framework for their textbook builds on two principles: first, the close relationship between families and the larger society that shapes them; and second, the active participation of individuals in the creation of family life. Two dominant themes are macro/micro connections and social agency, as well as the connections between the two.


To analyze the family using a sociological perspective, one must
a.  promote the nuclear family ideal.
b.  understand the larger social context in which families are embedded.
c.  engage in micro-level analysis of family interaction.
d.  all of the above.

All of the following are distinct family images that have emerged in American culture 
a.  family as haven.
b.  family as anxiety.
c.  family as encumbrance.
d.  family as fulfillment.

According to the text, despite changes in family images over time, an enduring theme
in popular understanding suggests that
a.  relationships among family members are extected to be happy and harmonious.
b.  family is the locus of competition and violence.
c.  relationships among family members are no longer idealized.
d.  people do not take media images of the family seriously.

Which of the following argues AGAINST the myth of separate worlds?
a.  women are connected to the economy by their dependence on work and wages.
b.  Families interact with institutions such as schools.
c.  Families are expected to raise children to become competent workers.
d.  All of the above.

The assumptions that all family members have common needs, interests, and behaviors
is expressed in the myth of 
a.  the monolithic family form.
b.  undifferentiated family experience.
c.  family consensus.
d.  seperate worlds.

Marcia Millman's research on family dynamics cited in the text found that
a.  families commonly operate based upon conflicts of interest and fierce rivalries.
b.  families use money to achieve social control.
c.  family relations are more similar to business relations than different.
d.  all of the above.

Qualitative research methodology includes which of the following:
a.  The researcher observes people and talks with them over a period of 
    time as they engage in the customary activities of their lives.
b.  The researcher interviews individuals using open-ended questions that 
    allow them to answer in their own words.
c.  The researcher tries to discover the meaning an activity has for the
    participants in that activity.
d.  All of the above.

The concept of social agency as used in the text refers to
a.  the ability of individuals to create meaningful lives despite adverse circumstances
    such as racial discrimination.
b.  the way in which capitalism encourages hard work as the primary means to self-fulfillment
c.  the pattern of social organization in Western society where children have few legal
d.  the American ideal of the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of

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