Biosocial Perspectives on the Family

Article excerpt

New theoretical models conceptualize families as systems affected by, and effecting change in, reciprocal influences among social, behavioral, and biological processes. Technological breakthroughs make noninvasive assessment of many biological processes available to family researchers. These theoretical and measurement advances have resulted in significant increases in research on family processes and relationships that integrate knowledge from the fields of behavioral endocrinology, behavior genetics, and, to a lesser degree, evolutionary psychology. This review covers a broad spectrum, including the topics of parenthood, early child development, adolescent and middle child development, parent-child relations, courtship and mate selection, and the quality and stability of marital and intimate relations. Our intention is to introduce, by example, the relevance of the biosocial approach, encourage family researchers to consider the application of these ideas to their interests, and increase the participation of family researchers in the next generation of studies.

Key Words: child development, evolution, family relations, genetics, hormones.

This is the first appearance of a decade-in-review article devoted to biosocial perspectives on the family. There are several decades of research examining the links between biology and individual development (e.g., perception, memory, maturation), but it is only recently that research has focused on families. Although the information is still fragmented, we now have enough to devote an article to biosocial research as it pertains to families. By biosocial we mean concepts linking psychosocial factors to physiology, genetics, and evolution. This article is a prelude to an explosion of biosocial research related to families anticipated over the next decade. We offer a hint of things to come and hope to perhaps encourage readers to start their own biosocial research project.

Early social scientists, such as William James (1842-1910), assumed that physiological processes were critical components of the behavioral and social phenomena they were studying. Until recently, however, the influence of those assumptions on scientific thinking was limited by significant gaps in knowledge. The nature of many physiological processes was largely unknown, and the technology necessary to operationalize physiological variables was in its infancy. Given these limitations, it is not surprising that research on human development and the family largely focused on the interface between the social environment and individual behavior. Many of those who did study physiological processes looked for simplistic models in which reductionist principles could be applied to reveal "the biological determinants" of behavior. The application of this focus led to clearly drawn boundaries between the social and biological sciences, the exceptions being studies of individual prenatal, infant, and adolescent development.

In the last 2 decades, significant effort has been focused on reversing this trend. Technical and conceptual advances have begun to break down disciplinary walls. Specifically, advances that enable noninvasive and inexpensive measurement of many physiological processes have given behavioral and social researchers new opportunities to integrate biological measures into their programs (Granger, Schwartz, Booth, & Arentz, 1999). In parallel, a series of paradigm shifts have occurred in scientific thinking about the relative contributions of both nature and nurture to behavioral phenomena (McClearn, 1993) and individual development (Gottlieb, 1992).

Dynamic models have replaced the simple reductionist ones of the past. They can best be described as systems models positing that individuals and families are best understood as the product of reciprocal influences among environmental (primarily social), behavioral, and biological processes (e.g., Cairns, Gariepy, & Hood, 1990; Gottlieb, 1991, 1992). …