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Reviewed by:
  • Family Life in 20th-Century America
  • Steven Mintz
Family Life in 20th-Century America. By Marilyn Coleman, Lawrence H. Ganong, and Kelly Warzinik (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2007. vii plus 324 pp. $65.00).

This volume, which will be especially useful in classes on family sociology, draws on an extensive secondary literature to chronicle a century of changes in family size, structure, roles, functions, rituals, and power dynamics. Organized topically, successive sections describe transformations in courtship patterns, child-bearing, divorce, remarriage, cohabitation, housing, leisure activities, household and paid labor, maternal and paternal roles, childrearing practices, family rituals, and patterns of and policies toward abuse and neglect. The volume, which contains a wealth of statistical information documenting shifts in family structure and public opinion, concludes with a survey of emergent and alternative family forms, including gay and lesbian families, grandparent-headed families, and multiple partner intimate relationships. Each section incorporates concise summaries of the cultural controversies and academic debates surrounding shifts in domestic behavior.

The volume's greatest strength lies in reminding readers that rather than being fixed and unchanging, families, across the past century, have been dynamic, [End Page 805] ever-changing systems in which change has been neither steady nor predictable. Encyclopedic in scope, the volume covers a remarkable range of topics. Readers will learn about the emergence of the dating system in the early twentieth century and its demise toward the century's end; the reasons behind the escalating rates of cohabitation after 1970 and the extent to which cohabitation has become an alternate to marriage; the growing disconnect between marriage and childbearing; and the emergence and transformation of family-centered traditions. Especially noteworthy are the book's discussions of the shifting experiences of stepfamilies, grandparenthood, and widowhood.

An implicit overarching theme involves the definition, dissemination, and decline of a set of ideological norms that described modal behavior, delineated the expected timing and sequencing of life-course transitions, and distinguished normal from deviant family forms. This is a compelling argument, but one which I wish the authors had made more explicitly. Embedded within the book is an impressive amount of evidence about the diversity of family experience at the beginning of the twentieth century rooted, especially, in class, ethnicity, and region; the concerted efforts by reformers, educators, psychologists, and government officials to universalize a middle-class family ideal, premised on a male-breadwinner and a nuclear unit inhabiting a single-family house; and the break-down of this ideal and the proliferation of alternate family forms after 1960.

The volume might more systematically assess causation, clarifying the relative roles of affluence, consumerism, demography, economics, political ideology, social movements, technological innovation, and urbanization in facilitating familial change. The authors might also have examined the problematic character of family-related statistics in greater depth. Yet these matters, by providing opportunities for discussion and debate, make this volume an especially appealing choice for classroom use.

Steven Mintz
Columbia University


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pp. 805-806
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