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Reviewed by:
  • Family Theories
  • Leslie Miller (bio)
James M. White and David M. Klein, Family Theories, 2nd edition. Thousand Oaks, California, Sage Publications, 2002, 271 pp.

This text is an updated and revised version of one that appeared slightly more than six years ago. The introductory chapter, titled "What is a Theory?", has been somewhat reorganized. The seven chapters that follow provide clear and standardized descriptions of the frameworks deemed to have made substantial contributions to family theory. They are "social exchange and choice", "symbolic interaction", "family life course development", "systems", "conflict", "feminist", and "ecological" frameworks. The chapter on feminism is entirely new, and the last in the list, on ecology, has been expanded and revised. The book ends with a summary chapter, also revised, titled "The Current State and Future Course of Family Theory".

Thanks in part to a uniform treatment of each of the theoretical frameworks, Family Theories accomplishes a lot in a relatively short space. Each chapter treats its subject matter through the same set of subheadings, starting with brief but excellent reviews of the framework's intellectual traditions, and moving on through its scope assumptions, basic concepts, and main empirical applications. I especially appreciated the inclusion of subsections called "variations" and "implications for intervention" — nice additions in what must inevitably be a compressed treatment. Each chapter also includes a section called "propositions". I have to say that I cringed to see this filter applied to symbolic interactionist and feminist frameworks, where it clearly seems inappropriate. The template works well enough in the excellent chapters on social exchange and the life course, partly because its assumptions seem to violate these two the least.

The imposition of such a relentlessly standardized approach on very different theoretical frameworks is bound to produce mixed results. On the plus side, [End Page 133] comparison becomes easy, and students will quickly be able to grasp the distinctive features of each perspective and get a feel for its special take on the social world. There are plenty of engaging, everyday-life examples to help this comparative project along. Every teacher of theory knows how satisfying it is for students to be able to see how the world looks from this perspective and then that one, and a format that promotes comparison, as this one does, is surely one reason for the popularity of the first edition of Family Theories.

On the negative side, the authors' commitment to a narrow positivism which retains an outmoded emphasis on formalization (hence "propositions") mars otherwise strong and informative chapters on symbolic interaction and feminist frameworks, and works to obscure their distinctive contributions and insights. In particular, the authors fail to develop adequately the alternative approaches to research and theorizing that have emerged in interpretive and feminist scholarship on families over the last two decades and more.

The chapter on symbolic interaction, for example, includes a very useful summary of the interactionist tradition and its emphasis on language and meaning. There is also a lucid discussion of SI's many variants. The chapter goes on, however, to focus myopically on role theory, applauding it for its relatively high degree of formalization, while neglecting the newer forms of language-based scholarship that have emerged under the SI umbrella: discourse analysis, autoethnography, and narrative analysis (also employed in life course studies), to name just three. All of these approaches have figured prominently in SI conferences over the last decade. All have contributed to our substantive knowledge of life in families. They have not, perhaps, contributed "a theory about family" — the authors' stated criterion for inclusion in this book (p. xvii). But they have reopened the question "How should we study families?" and in so doing have widened our understanding of the research process, and what it means to theorize. Autoethnographical work, especially, has attracted passionate practitioners and apoplectic critics, both likely to pique student interest. But there is no mention here of these newer forms of research (though phenomenology is discussed), and little exploration of the debates that have led many family scholars in the SI tradition to reject the very version of theory that is consistently enforced in this book. In light of these field-changing innovations, the focus...


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pp. 133-135
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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Archived 2007
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