Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Families and Family Study in International Perspective

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Families and Family Study in International Perspective

Article excerpt

Many changes are occurring in the world's families. Some observers feel that the changes are destructive, whereas others see them as leading to new opportunities and understanding. Issues in international family studies include regional limitations and the various aspects of doing research cross-culturally. Knowledge regarding certain categories of families, inheritance, and the social psychology of families is incomplete. There are, however, some universals and universal or worldwide changes, including movement toward individual partner choice, more divorces, lower fertility, and greater opportunities for women.

Key Words; cross-cultural, divorce, fertility, partnering, women.

To introduce this special issue on families from an international perspective, this article has two foci. The first is the condition of and approach to scholarly work and research on families. The second is what we do and do not know about the world's families, and how they are changing.

The world in which families exist today is one of economic globalization. It is a world of religious, racial, and economic violence. It is the world of the Internet and CNN, of mass communications, and, as Kerry Daly and Anna Dienhart (1998) reminded us, of accelerating time demands (p. 113). It is a world of migration, rural to urban and nation to nation, both voluntary and involuntary. It is a world in which millions of people living in villages and countrysides are affected by urban and industrial technology. The results of these factors were described by Michael Wallace (1998) in negative terms:

The restructuring of the global economy has unleashed a tremendous torrent of technological and organizational changes that are leaving in their wake broken careers, disheveled Families, and shattered dreams. The affluent society is being divided into winners and losers, haves and havenots, the jobbed and the dejobbed. (p. 36)

Some feel, with Wallace, that today's changes are destructive, but others do not agree. This is, after all, a world in which many people have new freedoms and opportunities. It is a world in which cross-cultural contact may result in understanding instead of conflict. And, from an academic perspective, new knowledge and insights on the part of scholars make this an exciting time to be a student of the world's families.

Although progress has been made toward understanding families in various cultures, there is much to be done. Many studies have been carried out by reputable scholars in their own societies, but only a small fraction of international family studies are truly comparative. Comparative examples are Kamerman and Kahn's (1997) book on family policies in Great Britain, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States, and Lynda Walters and colleagues' (2002) look at hidden differences in families cross-culturally. It is my intention to report on both the international study of families and families themselves. I begin with some issues in cross-cultural family studies and scholarship, then turn to some of the things that we do not know about families themselves in our changing world, and, finally, to what we do know.


The Committee on Family Research of the International Sociological Association (ISA) includes scholars from many of the world's societies. They have presented papers at ISA meetings and at various regional conferences, and their papers are often published in journals such as the Journal of Comparative Family Studies (JCFS). In fact, journals such as the JCFS consist of research and discussion of families in societies around the world, yet scholarly publications on families do not equally represent the various parts of the world. Although it is hardly surprising that scholarship is dominated by knowledge of Western industrial societies, it would be well to explain the regional limitations on information about the world's families.

Regional Limitations

An obvious problem with international family research and writing is that it represents some societies more than others. …

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