Academic journal article International Journal of Comparative Sociology

Family and Economic Growth: A World-System Approach and a Cross-National Analysis

Academic journal article International Journal of Comparative Sociology

Family and Economic Growth: A World-System Approach and a Cross-National Analysis

Article excerpt




LIYA WANG [****]


Family research in sociology has concentrated on the national-level determinants of family structure and process. The approach we propose, in contrast, reverses the causal ordering to consider the effects of family characteristics on national outcomes, especially economic growth. This effort is further stimulated by neglect in the sociology of national development literature, where the plausible impact of the family on economic development has been ignored. The modified world-system perspective that we present links the institution of the family to modernization and the developmental profile of nations. We use cross-national data to test this perspective and demonstrate that the family is a vital, but differential contributor to national development around the world.


The vast bulk of literature on marriage and the family in sociology has viewed the family as a passive unit responding to external social and economic conditions, including national trends in the economy (DeVita 1996; Ahlburg and DeVita 1992). For example, family sociologists have considered how changes in society's economic conditions alter family size, household structure, kinship organization, mate selection patterns, and social and geographical mobility (Jackson 1985; Hareven 1971).

Only a few studies of family structure and process emphasize how families assume active roles in adapting to economic and social change in ways that affect the family's well-being, as well as that of society as a whole (Margavio and Mann 1989). While families may make changes to their structures in response to external social and economic conditions, the rational decisions that families make as they actively seek their welfare ultimately affect the well-being of nations (George 1977). This is absolutely clear, for instance, for China, in its efforts to optimize family-led development. It is through human capital development and related productive processes that the family fundamentally impacts more macroscopic dynamics such as national economic growth.

National development theories (for review, see Chirot and Hall 1982) and the vast bulk of quantitative national development studies primarily focus on global and national political-economic forces, but commonly ignore critical family processes (see Firebaugh 1992; Dixon and Boswell 1996). Our consideration, therefore, starts with a discussion of the dominant sociological paradigms of national development. The perspective we present is globally-focused and links the family to national economic growth. Our subsequent empirical examination demonstrates family effects on the economy that vary depending upon nations' structural positions in the world-system.

Family and National Development: A Review and Perspective

In the modern sociology of national development there are two primary theoretical approaches -- modernization theory (Lerner 1958; McClelland 1961; Rostow 1960; Lipset 1963; Smelser 1963; Eisenstadt 1966; Inkeles and Smith 1974) and world-system/dependency theory (Frank 1972; Wallerstein 1979; Chase-Dunn 1989). As a necessary preliminary to later discussion we review these approaches.

Modernization Approaches

Because modernization themes in sociology are frequently encountered, such views on the role of social institutions, including the family, in the national development process are particularly important here. According to classical modernists, social change is unidirectional and progressive, as undifferentiated and traditional social structures evolve into differentiated and modern structures (see e.g., Tonnies' "gemeinschaft" and "gesellschaft," Durkheim's "mechanical and organic solidarity," Weber's "traditional and rational authority," and Parson's "differentiation"; see also Rostow 1962; Levy 1952). …

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