Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Theorizing in Family Studies: Discovering Process

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Theorizing in Family Studies: Discovering Process

Article excerpt

This paper makes the case that theorizing in family studies might be different if scholars asked the types of questions that now are asked in the physical sciences. Initial efforts to move toward a more abstract explanatory level in family studies led to inventorying and verification. This paper argues that the recognition of a realm of discovery, allowing for the creative and disciplinary use of imagination and metaphor, would extend the scope and quality of questioning. To ground the argument, the paper focuses on the problematics associated with the conceptualization of process in marriages and families.

Key Words: discovery, process, theory.

We say, "The wind is blowing, " as if the wind were actually a thing at rest which, at a given point in time, begins to move and blow . . . as if a wind could exist which did not blow. (Norbert Elias, 1978, p. 112)

More than two decades ago the sociologist Robert Nisbet (1976) argued that many social scientists fail to recognize the important difference between the "logic of discovery" and that of "demonstration" (p. 5). Only the latter, in his view, is subject to a set of strict methodological rules. It was "demonstration," he suggested, "in all its nineteenth century certitude, determinism, and mechanism, that seems to have had the greatest impact on those who, like Comte and Mill, were seeking the absolute, final, and irrefutable science of man" (p. 16). He considered his book, Sociology as an Art Form, "as a kind of prophylaxis against, not science, but scientism, which is science with the spirit of discovery and creation left out" (p. 4).

Following Nisbet's conceptual distinction between two realms of explanation, discovery and verification, my focus in this essay is primarily on the former. I see discovery as a process in which the initial images needed to guide further questioning take shape. In this realm, metaphors give rise to concepts, whereas tacit knowing may be fashioned into working hypotheses. In that setting both imagination and creativity play an important role.

Discovery, as an intellectual component of explanatory practice in family studies, is lagging behind the rapid progress that marks its verificational counterpart. The reason for this will be considered in a later section of this paper. No attempt is made, however, to present a complete overview of discovery in our field. Instead, its complexity and ambiguity are highlighted through a close look at the conceptualization of the elusive idea of "process" as reflected in the contemporary literature on marriage and family. To begin, however, a brief review of our not-too-distant past seems in order.


Even a cursory look at early key publications in family studies draws attention to some broad generalizations about the nature of marriage and family in society at large. Such statements often were theoretical in intent in that they touched on both the "hows" and "whys" of the origin, the course, and the future of these institutions. Consider, for example, the way in which Burgess and Locke prefaced their influential book, The Family: From Institution to Companionship (1945):

The central thesis of this volume is that the family in historical times has been, and at present is, in transition from an institution to a companionship. In the past the important factors unifying the family have been external. At present, in the new emerging form of the companionship family, its unity inheres less and less in community pressures and more and more in such interpersonal relations as the mutual affection, the sympathetic understanding, and the comradeship of its members. . . . The emphasis in this volume, then, is upon the family as a unity of interacting persons (1) that shapes the personality development of its members and (2) that is adaptable to social change. (p. vii)

The above statement seems "theoretical" more in intent than in form or substance, while its factual content may no longer pass without amendments (Coontz, 1992). …

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