Academic journal article Family Relations

The Social Construction of the Divorce "Problem": Morality, Child Victims, and the Politics of Gender

Academic journal article Family Relations

The Social Construction of the Divorce "Problem": Morality, Child Victims, and the Politics of Gender

Article excerpt

Although divorce rates have been stable or dropping for two decades, Americans seem anxious about the state of marriage. Drawing on the sociology of knowledge and a social constructionist approach to the study of social problems, we examine reasons for this collective anxiety, documenting how the divorce "problem" has been framed by organizations promoting conservative family values. We examine the history of divorce and identify social contexts associated with cyclical claims that divorce reflects a breakdown of the moral order. In the contemporary context, we examine how social science experts are used to portray children as victims of divorce and how such images legitimate the political objectives of specific interest groups and mask underlying issues of gender inequality.

Key Words: divorce, family policy, gender, marriage, social problems, social movements.

In an average year, about 2.4 million marriages and 1.2 million divorces occur in the United States (Kreider & Fields, 2001). Are these high or low numbers for a country with a population of over 286 million people? The answer depends on one's perspective, and that perspective is increasingly shaped by divorce experts who conduct studies, write books, and produce compelling stones for public consumption. In recent years, these experts have included academic social scientists, demographers, clinicians, practitioners, and representatives of religious organizations and political pressure groups. Each has a stake in defining divorce in specific ways, and all compete for precious media exposure in an effort to influence public opinion and affect government policies. In this article, we explore how the divorce "problem" has been constructed within specific historical and cultural contexts, suggesting that recent acceptance of expert advice about the long-term consequences of divorce for children has been facilitated by the rise of morality politics, which we see as a reaction to cultural anxiety caused by women's increasing independence from men.

Clinical psychologist Judith Wallerstein is considered to be one of today's foremost divorce experts, essentially initiating the modern academic debate on the effect of divorce on children with her 1971 study of 60 divorced families and their 131 children in Marin County, California, which was published with co-author Joan Kelly in 1980 as Surviving the Breakup: How Children and Parents Cope with Divorce. Her involvement in the academic debate has continued to the present with the 2000 publication of her book The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: A 25-Year Landmark Study (with coauthors Julia Lewis and Sandra Blakeslee), for which she interviewed 93 of the (now adult) children from her original sample. In the latest book, she presented five composite portrayals of these adult children of divorce. To counter previous criticism leveled against her methodology, considered by some researchers to be unscientific (see Cherlin, 1999), she added a "comparison group" of adults from intact families. In summary, her findings have become more antidivorce over time and continue to portray children as the victims of a process that pits the benefits of divorce to mothers, in particular, and parents, in general, against the welfare of their children (see Wallerstein et al., 2000, p. xxxiii). Her suggestion that, in the absence of overt violence or other parental psychopathology, parents should stay married no matter what for the sake of the children (p. 307) belies a turn of mind that is not necessarily substantiated by her study (see other articles in this issue of Family Relations). Why, then, in light of the academic criticism leveled against the "science" behind Wallerstein's research, does she continue to be "widely considered the world's foremost authority on the effects of divorce on children" (PBS Video, 1997)? Here, we suggest that the answer to this question involves looking beyond Wallerstein's work and into the political and ideological divorce reform and marriage movements that draw on her study to promote their own agendas concerning the family. …

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