Changing Families, Changing Responsibilities: Family Obligations Following Divorce and Remarriage

Article excerpt

Changing Families, Changing Responsibilities: Family Obligations Following Divorce and Remarriage. Lawrence H. Ganong & Marilyn Coleman. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum. 1999. 203 pp. ISBN 0-8058-2691-2. $45.00 cloth.

Marilyn Coleman and Larry Ganong's most recent book is an extensive, empirical exploration designed to investigate normative beliefs about intergenerational obligations. The book is well written, methodologically dependable, and contributes to the literature on caregiving, parenting, and financial responsibility as a function of family structure and transition. A core element of their work centers on how normative beliefs about family obligations are connected to divorce and remarriage. The book integrates a total of 13 related studies and includes the reinterpretation of previously published works, as well as new information and insights that appear in the book for the first time.

According to Coleman and Ganong, family responsibilities are viewed as a "hot" political button worthy of inquiry, given the impact that widespread normative obligations have on behavior and policy. After documenting well-known demographic changes in families, as well as changing kinship definitions, the authors emphasize the centrality of parent-child obligations and the need to understand the nature of these obligations in a contemporary context. The idea of studying family obligations across the life span and in varying contexts is worthwhile, and so is Coleman and Ganong's attempt. To assess beliefs about family obligations, the authors employ and present a vignette approach to a randomly selected sample of more than 6,500 adults living in Missouri. The authors are meticulous in describing their approach and honest about what they can and cannot say based on their findings. They are clear that their work only uncovers beliefs, not what study participants would actually do in a given situation.

Overall, the study gives empirical grounding to the importance of genetic ties. Chapters 2 through 7 take the reader through various permutations of family structure and obligations. Most interesting were the chapters on parental financial responsibility and obligations after custody and divorce. A finding with particularly interesting implications for families: the effects of divorce may make obligations more conditional between middle-generation parents and their children but connect to receiving greater help from older generations.

Subsequent chapters deal with adults' obligations to stepparents and in-laws, filial obligations, and responsibilities to elders and divorce. …


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