Families and family study in international perspective

Many changes are occurring in the world’s families. Some observers feel that the changes are destructive, whereas others see them as leading to new opportunities and understanding. Issues in international family studies include regional limitations and the various aspects of doing research cross-culturally. Knowledge regarding certain categories of families, inheritance, and the social psychology of families is incomplete. There are, however, some universals and universal or worldwide changes, including movement toward individual partner choice, more divorces, lower fertility, and greater opportunities for women.


Despite a changing world with hidden variations within societies, Lynda Walters and her coauthors (2002) reminded us that in many respects the experience of living in a family is the same in all cultures. For example, relationships between spouses and between parents and children are negotiated ; most relationships within families are still hierarchical ; the work of the home is still primarily the responsibility of the wife. (p. 448)

Financial support is provided by both spouses, but the wife’s is usually seen as supplementary, conflict is damaging to children, and « individuals and families change, or develop, in predictable ways » (p. 448). But whereas all families operate within the above parameters, there are cultural differences, subcultural differences, and differences (often hidden, as Walters, Warzywoda-Kruszynska, and Gurko note) in the functioning of individual families.

Universal cross-cultural changes

An important cross-cultural change described throughout the Handbook (Adams & Trost, 2004 ) and in many other places is the increase in women’s education and employment outside the home. This change, however, has not resulted in gender equality. The support mechanisms, such as day care, have not been sufficiently forthcoming, equal opportunities and equal pay are not a reality, and men may not see the necessity of taking on a domestic role equal to that of women (see Mirsky & Radlett, 2000).

Marriage or pairing/divorce/remarriage

Marriage itself is not as universal as it was just a few decades ago. Since the 1960s, nonmarital cohabitation has replaced marriage more rapidly in Sweden than in any other country in the Western world ( Trost & Levin, 2004). David de Vaus (2004), writing about Australia, said that « since the mid-1980s there has been a steady decline in the proportion of people aged 20 49 who are partnered at any given point in time » (p. 3). To this, Toth and Somlai (2004) added that in Hungary, the number of marriages per year has fallen from over 100,000 in 1948 1949 to 43,000 per year at present. In fact, Western industrial societies generally have fewer people marrying and more cohabiting today than in the recent past.

Besides cohabitation, the other alternative to traditional marriage is living apart together. Marriage has had as one of its givens coresidence, but there is a small and increasing minority of marriages in which the couple live apart. This situation is not a separation or a predivorce. The most common term for this is « living apart together » ( Levin & Trost, 1999 ; Trost & Levin, 2004). Schvanefeldt, Young, and Schvanefeldt (2001) called such relationships in Thailand « dual resident marriages, » and described them as a married couple that « resides in two different residences, often many miles away from each other » (pp. 347 360). This, they say, is synonymous with commuter marriages in the United States, and is what Trost and Levin (and others) call living apart together. Such arrangements are efforts to keep marriage alive, while not letting it stand in the way of individual goals.

A universal change is the rise in the divorce rate in the world’s nations. The most dramatic rise in the divorce rate may very well be that in Argentina, where there was an 800% increase between 1960 and 2000 ( Jelin, 2004). In Australia, the increase has been 300% since 1970 (de Vaus, 2004). In China, the increase was 500% since 1978 ( Sheng, 2004), and in South Korea, 600% in 30 years ( Lee, 2004). Taiwan’s divorce rate has not climbed as rapidly, although divorce can be traced to the early 20th century ( Chen & Yi, 2004).

What has caused the international increase in divorce rates ? Singh (2004) noted that a portion of it (at least in India) is the change away from seeing marriage as a sacred pairing. « Marriage, » he said, « is no longer held to be a ‘divine match’ or a ‘sacred union’ in the urban milieu » (p. 44). In addition, the change in families economically from producing and consuming units to simply consumers has left them with little reason to tolerate a bad marriage.

Modo (2004) stated these interpersonal reasons for urban Nigerian divorces as adultery, desertion, arson, stubbornness, lack of love, and constant beatings and batterings. The main reason for divorce in Turkey is given as « incompatibility, » though this may subsume other specifics, such as infertility ( Nauck & Klaus, 2004). In Taiwan, the wife may seek a divorce on the basis of the husband’s extramarital affair(s) ( Chen & Yi, 2004). Al-Naser (2004) added that in Kuwait, there are multiple causes for a wife divorcing her husband : refusal of the husband to maintain her, abuse, impotence, his imprisonment, disease, and his desertion.

Structural or demographic factors in divorce, according to Mozny and Katrnak (2004), include early marriage and low education, and, according to Forsberg (2004), having no children. It is also true that more divorces occur in cities than in rural areas, and according to Modo (2004), the reason is lack of urban kin care and surveillance.

Although remarriage occurs after some divorces, there are increasing numbers of divorcees who choose to cohabit instead of risking another legalized intimate relationship (see Dumon, 2004). Yet the rate of remarriage after divorce is high, indicating that those who have tired of a particular spouse are not rejecting the institution of marriage. In fact, one way to view it is that worldwide, the rates of divorce, remarriage, and cohabitation have all increased in the current generation.

Fertility and socialization

The most frequently discussed causes of reduced fertility worldwide are the increase in women’s education and their employment outside the home. Other reasons explain the declines in Bangladesh and China, however. Bangladesh, Nosaka (2000) said,is characterized by factors conventionally considered to be unfavorable to declining fertility, such as dominance of a rural environment, low levels of socioeconomic development, and the subjugated status of women. The country’s fertility decline is largely the result of the availability of effective, modern contraceptives [even in rural areas]. (p. 485)

Families, especially mothers, are central to childrearing. Kin, day care, schools, and even the media all play important roles in the lives of children, however. Parents increasingly expect independence from their children, and although the parents might wish for obedience and respect, they recognize that the children’s success may leave little room for the filial piety of the past. Finally, in the majority of societies, boys are still valued more than girls, though this is changing with the weakening of lineal inheritance systems.


In this article, I reviewed the unevenness of family scholarship worldwide. I noted why certain societies or societal subgroups are missing from or infrequently represented in sociological family research. In addition, certain family topics are inadequately treated cross-culturally, either because rapid change is occurring (e.g., the lineal kin systems) or because the topic is sensitive (e.g., violence or family intimacy).

Some cross-cultural information on families is generalizable, however. Marriage is increasingly a matter of individual choice. It is still popular, but has given way somewhat to cohabitation, to living apart together, or to divorce and remarriage. Fertility is declining worldwide, and socialization (at least in the growing middle classes) is likely to emphasize independence and achievement. Finally, women’s current situation is best labeled « opportunity without equality. »

So where are families headed in a globalizing and individualizing world ? Gerson (1998) argues that the fact that « these social and economic changes are both international in scope and highly interrelated suggests that they are also irreversible » (p. 14). Although it is tempting to agree, we can at least admit that change is everywhere. This is an exciting time to be studying the world’s families. You will find this special issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family, edited by Laura Sanchez, adding to your knowledge and excitement.

Bert N. Adams Journal of Marriage and Family Volume 66 Issue 5 Page 1076 – December 2004 doi:10.1111/j.0022- 2445.2004.00079.x

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