Family Life in 20th Century America

By Kain, Edward L. | Journal of Comparative Family Studies, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Family Life in 20th Century America


Kain, Edward L., Journal of Comparative Family Studies


Coleman, Marilyn, Lawrence H. Ganong, and Kelly Warzinik. FAMILY LIFE IN 20TH CENTURY AMERICA. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press. 2007. 324 pp. $65.00 US. ISBN 13:978-0-313-33656-9 ISBN 10:0-313-33356-4.

A major strength of this book in the Greenwood "Family Life through History" series is that it provides a broad overview of family change in the United States throughout the 20th century. This is no small task. As noted in the opening sentence of the first chapter, "remarkable changes and happenings occur over the space of 100 years." The book covers a broad range of topics, including family transitions; work and families; the roles and experiences of women, men, children, and adolescents in families; and families as a locus of interpersonal violence. In addition to these topics found in most discussions of families, the book also examines issues as wide ranging as how family rituals have changed over time, historical patterns of family leisure, and changes over time in cooking and family life.

Family Life in 20th Century America does an admirable job of examining diversity in family experience. Throughout the book there is an attempt to build in discussion of racial/ethnic and social class variation in how people experienced family life in different periods of the twentieth century. In the chapter on family rituals, for example, when noting that many rituals are connected to religious belief, the discussion includes examples from multiple traditions. In every chapter, issues of race, class, gender and other types of diversity are part of the examination of family change in the United States.

The preface notes that the book examines not only "how families lived" but also "how the culture...thought about how families should live" (x). Indeed, Family Life in 20th Century America is at its strongest when examining cultural changes and prescriptions for family life, as well as in qualitative analyses of families. While the authors often review quantitative changes in the prose discussion of family life, there is not a single chart or table in the book. If this book is to be used in a classroom setting, depending upon your course objectives or student learning outcomes, this may be problematic.

A weakness of the book relates to the lack of an explicit theoretical orientation. The reader is able to guess at a range of possible influences. Certainly the book returns, again and again, to the importance of technology. It opens with a "Timeline of Major Events that Affected Families in the 20th Century." Of the approximately 75 events listed, over 20 are inventions, ranging from the vacuum cleaner (1901) to PC's in 1981. There is no explicit discussion, however, of theoretical linkages between families and technological change, such as the early work of William F. …

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