Living Arrangements of Never-Married Thai Women in a Time of Rapid Social Change

By Joo Ean, Tan | SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia, April 2002 | Go to article overview

Living Arrangements of Never-Married Thai Women in a Time of Rapid Social Change


Joo Ean, Tan, SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia


The industrialization of Thailand, like that of its Southeast Asian neighbours, has been especially rapid in the past couple of decades or so. The substantial growth in the industrial sector has been part of the rapid expansion of the Thai economy (Falkus 1995). It is not surprising that such a major transformation of the economy would have an impact on other aspects of Thai society, for example, the rapid urbanization that comes with its concomitant problems (Rimmer 1995) and the political turbulence of a nascent democratic movement (Somrudee 1993; Chai-Anan 1995). Within this context of rapid social and economic change, one issue that has captured the attention of academics and policy-makers alike is how the family has been affected by these changes.

Changes in the family have been regarded as part and parcel of the process of industrialization. As societies industrialize, some social scientists have assumed that nuclear family arrangements would become dominant and extended kinship arrangements would be de-emphasized (1). Even though changes in the family cannot always be interpreted as its breakdown, the interest in changing family arrangements has, in recent years, turned into a grave concern with the disintegration of the family. Many contemporary writings both in academia and in the popular press have focused on the decline of the family as an institution, often lamenting its impending demise (for example, Popenoe 1993; Suntaree 1995; "Family Matters"; "Dying for Attention"; The Cost of High Living", Far Eastern Economic Review, 1 August 1996, pp. 38-42). Some of the developments that have been singled out as evidence of this demise include rising divorce rates, increasing reports of juvenile delinquency, and the increasing labor force participation of women. The social concern with these changes is understandable; if the family is in fact disintegrating, the social implications would be far-reaching. The family is not only the basic building block of society but it is also the institution that produces and reproduces society by providing, in the words of Lasch (1977), what appears to be the only "haven" in what is often thought to be an increasingly "heartless world". (2)

This article explores how the family in Thailand is being affected by rapid social and economic changes, if at all. The living arrangements of never-married women aged 30-34 and 40-44 in 1970 and 1990 form the basis for examining this issue. (3) Living arrangements are an important aspect of the family because, as a social network, the integrity of the family is strongly influenced by the proximity of its members. Hence, living arrangements represent a mundane aspect of life that speaks not to the ideology of the family but to the organization of the family. These living arrangements should give some indication as to how individual obligations and choices operate within the boundaries of societal norms and values that manifest themselves in day-to-day living.

The reasons for focusing on a small and relatively atypical group are twofold (Sjoberg and Nett 1997, pp. 262-63). First, it is generally assumed that never-married women have typically represented a very small sector in East and Southeast Asian societies (Watkins 1984). Yet in recent decades this group has been growing rapidly (Jones 1997; "HK Women Staying Single for Longer", Business Times, 6 September 2001, p. 19; "No Harm Done in Marrying Late or Remaining Single", 7 November 2001, http://thestar.com.my; "Growing Number of Single Women in Taiwan", Sunday Times, 4 November 2001, p. 27). Second, by taking an inductive approach in examining the characteristics of never-married women, we gain some understanding of changes in basic familial patterns in Southeast Asia. In a social order in which marriage is regarded as central to the roles that women play, the experience of never-married women would seem to be a significant marker of change. …

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