Theoretical Perspectives and Key Concepts

Elizabeth B. Pearce

We will examine families from a variety of theoretical perspectives. A theoretical perspective, or more briefly, a “theory” is not just an idea that someone has.  Rather it is a structural framework, explanation, or tool that has been tested and evaluated over time.  Theories are developed and utilized via scholarship, research, discussion, and debate. Theories help us to understand the world in general, and in this instance the ways in which families form, function, interact with, and experience the world. In addition, we will define several key concepts including equity, social problems, and the sociological imagination that are  important to your understanding of equity and families in this course.

Because the study of families overlaps multiple disciplines, we will utilize sociological, human development, psychological, and anthropological  theories and concepts. Play this video to learn about five of the foundational theories related to the study of families: Social Exchange, Symbolic Interaction, Feminist, Postmodern, and Life Course. (It is recommended that you play it at 1.25x speed and you can disregard the references to chapter numbers)

Here is a summary table of these five theories and four others that are commonly used in this field and that will be discussed in this text.


Table 2.2. Foundational theories related to the study of families.


Major Principles

Relation to Family Life

Key Vocabulary and Concepts


Conflict Opposition, power, and conflict within the family and society are needed for society to develop and change Emphasizes the competing interests of familial roles including the male dominating the family and providing stability to society
Ecological Systems Individuals are part of a group of concentric systems that impact their development and growth. Children are influenced by the people and environments in which they spend the most time,, as well as  the greater social events, trends and values. Micro, Meso, Exo, Macro, and Chronosystems. Urie Bronfenbrenner developed this theory in the second half of the 20th century; he influenced the creation of HeadStart in the United States.
Exchange (aka Social Exchange) Individuals have different strengths, resources and weaknesses and enter into relationships via the evaluation of benefits and costs. Emphasizes the motivation for familial relationships: that each person is giving and gaining within the family. The “breadwinner-homemaker family” is the classic example.
Feminism (aka Feminist) Society is structured in a way that privileges men over women; the theory works to understand and to transform inequalities. This theory emphasizes the way that gender roles are constructed within the family including the socialization of children. Gender differences are mostly socially constructed. This theory draws on the Conflict, Exchange, and Symbolic Interaction perspectives. Different from the Feminist Activist movement! Read and listen carefully, so that you can distinguish it.
Functionalism Social institutions function together in order to meet individual and group needs. The family can be seen as an institution (e.g. breadwinner-homemaker family) that contributes to a harmonious society Formulated originally in 19th century France, it was the dominant sociological theory in mid-20th century United States
Hierarchy of Needs Individuals meet one set of needs first in order to be motivated and able to achieve other needs. This theory influences family life in its arrangement of what needs are most important. There is evidence that indigenous cultures in North America developed a hierarchy of needs earlier than the more well-known model created by Abraham Maslow.
Life Course Significant social and historical events shape the trajectories of birth cohorts and the individuals in them. Family life is impacted by large national and international events:  wars, natural disasters, pandemics, economic depressions.  In particular, children and adolescents in a given cohort will be impacted by these events over time. Emerging Early Adulthood: the period of life when people shift into adulthood as they end their education, start a career and begin families. This period of life has become more varied and complex because of societal change. Do not confuse this with the Lifespan theory which has a different emphasis! Read and listen carefully, so that you can distinguish it.
Postmodern (aka Modernity) Choice and individuality are emphasized in the postmodern era.  Humans are able to act in the way they choose with society and within institutions. Individuals have a much greater choice than they did in the past about how they form their families, the roles they play and who is in their family. History, family, and tradition have decreasing roles in family life. Reflexivity: the way in which people take in new information, reflect upon it, and adjust and act with new knowledge This theory is a very broad one and applies to many aspects of work, societal, and family life. Social Theorist Anthony Giddens has written about this theory.
Symbolic Interaction This theory focuses on the changing nature of symbols and the ways we interact with one another based on those symbols. Humans see themselves through the eyes of others and this affects the roles they play. Changing roles and symbols affect the ways family members interact with each other and with society. Societal  expectations and social constructions of fathering and mothering roles have changed over time and this interacts with the way fathers and mothers actually behave. Interpretation of shared understandings influences how humans respond and interact. Has a basis in philosophy (George Herbert Mead) and in Sociology (Herbert Blumer.)

What is a Social Problem?

A social problem is any condition or behavior that has negative consequences for large numbers of people and that is generally recognized as a condition or behavior that needs to be addressed systemically. It cannot be solved by an individual; institutional or societal responses are needed. This definition has both an objective component and a subjective component.

The objective component is this: for any condition or behavior to be considered a social problem, it must have negative consequences for large numbers of people. How do we know if a social problem has negative consequences? Reasonable people can and do disagree on whether such consequences exist and, if so, on their extent and seriousness, but ordinarily a body of data accumulates—from work by academic researchers, government agencies, and other sources—that strongly points to extensive and serious consequences. The reasons for these consequences are sometimes debated. For example in the case of climate change: although the overwhelming majority of climate scientists say that climate change (changes in the earth’s climate due to the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere) is real and serious, the percentage of Americans who agree with scientists is lower. In a  2011 poll 64 percent said they “think that global warming is happening.”[1] While the majority of Americans believe in 2020 that climate change is a social problem[2], there is still a discrepancy between the scientific community and the public’s view. Social identity and location influence viewpoints, according to Gallup polls that have found that people in the West and Northeast,[3] as well as younger adults,[4] are more likely to believe that climate change is at least partially caused by human behavior and needs to be addressed.

This type of dispute points to the subjective component: there must be a perception that the condition or behavior needs to be addressed for it to be considered a social problem and that viewpoint can change over time and location. This component lies at the heart of the social constructionist view of social problems.[5] In this view, many types of negative conditions and behaviors exist. Many of these are considered sufficiently negative to acquire the status of a social problem; some do not receive this consideration and thus do not become a social problem; and some become considered a social problem only if citizens, policymakers, or other parties call attention to the condition or behavior.

The history of attention given to rape and sexual assault in the United States before and after the 1970s provides an example of this latter situation. These acts of sexual violence against women have probably occurred from the beginning of humanity and certainly were very common in the United States before the 1970s. Although men were sometimes arrested and prosecuted for rape and sexual assault, sexual violence was otherwise ignored by legal policymakers and received little attention in college textbooks and the news media, and many people thought that rape and sexual assault were just something that happened.[6] Thus although sexual violence existed, it was not considered a social problem. When the contemporary women’s movement began in the late 1970s, it soon focused on rape and sexual assault as serious crimes and as manifestations of women’s inequality. Thanks to this focus, rape and sexual assault eventually entered the public consciousness, views of these crimes began to change, and legal policymakers began to give them more attention. In short, sexual violence against women became a social problem.

Photograph of a group of women at a rally against rape
Fig. 2.13. Before the 1970s, rape and sexual assault certainly existed and were very common, but they were generally ignored and not considered a social problem. When the contemporary women’s movement arose during the 1970s, it focused on sexual violence against women and turned this behavior into a social problem.

The changing view of rape reflects the social constructionist nature of social problems. It also reflects the dynamic in which men have held more power to shape societal views. This raises an interesting question: when is a social problem a social problem? According to some sociologists who adopt this view, negative conditions and behaviors are not a social problem unless they are recognized as such by policymakers, large numbers of lay citizens, or other segments of our society; these sociologists would thus say that rape and sexual assault before the 1970s were not a social problem because our society as a whole paid them little attention. Other sociologists say that negative conditions and behaviors should be considered a social problem even if they receive little or no attention; these sociologists would thus say that rape and sexual assault before the 1970s were a social problem.

This type of debate is probably akin to the age-old question: If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, is a sound made? As such, it is not easy to answer, but it does reinforce one of the key beliefs of the social constructionist view: Perception matters at least as much as reality, and sometimes more so. In line with this belief, social constructionism emphasizes that citizens, interest groups, policymakers, and other parties often compete to influence popular perceptions of many types of conditions and behaviors. They try to influence news media coverage and popular views of the nature and extent of any negative consequences that may be occurring, the reasons underlying the condition or behavior in question, and possible solutions to the problem.

Social constructionism’s emphasis on perception has a provocative implication: Just as a condition or behavior may not be considered a social problem even if there is strong basis for this perception, so may a condition or behavior be considered a social problem even if there is little or no basis for this perception. The “issue” of women in college provides a historical example of this latter possibility. In the late 1800s, leading physicians and medical researchers in the United States wrote journal articles, textbooks, and newspaper columns in which they warned women not to go to college. The reason? They feared that the stress of college would disrupt women’s menstrual cycles, and they also feared that women would not do well in exams during “that time of the month.” [7] We now know better, of course, but the sexist beliefs of these writers turned the idea of women going to college into a social problem and helped to reinforce restrictions by colleges and universities on the admission of women.

In a related dynamic, various parties can distort certain aspects of a social problem that does exist: politicians can give speeches, the news media can use scary headlines and heavy coverage to capture readers’ or viewers’ interest, businesses can use advertising and influence news coverage. News media coverage of violent crime provides many examples of this dynamic.[8][9] The news media overdramatize violent crime, which is far less common than property crime like burglary and larceny, by featuring so many stories about it, and this coverage contributes to public fear of crime. Media stories about violent crime also tend to be more common when the accused offender is Black and the victim is White and when the offender is a juvenile. This type of coverage is thought to heighten the public’s prejudice toward African Americans and to contribute to negative views about teenagers.

Photograph of people holding posters of large feet in front of a bank protesting.
Fig. 2.14. A social problem emerges when a social change group successfully calls attention to a condition or behavior that it considers serious. Protests like the one depicted here have raised the environmental consciousness of Americans and helped put pressure on businesses to be environmentally responsible.

The Sociological Imagination

Many individuals experience one or more social problems personally. For example, many people are poor and unemployed, many are in poor health, and many have family problems, drink too much alcohol, or commit crime. When we hear about these individuals, it is easy to think that their problems are theirs alone, and that they and other individuals with the same problems are entirely to blame for their difficulties.

Sociology takes a different approach, as it stresses that individual problems are often rooted in problems stemming from aspects of society itself. This key insight informed C. Wright Mills’s (1959)The Sociological Imagination. The classic distinction between personal troubles and public issues. Public issues is another term for social problems. Personal troubles refer to a problem affecting individuals that the affected individual, as well as other members of society, typically blame on the individual’s own personal and moral failings. Examples include such different problems as eating disorders, divorce, and unemployment. Public issues, whose source lies in the social structure and culture of a society, refer to social problems affecting many individuals. Problems in society thus help account for problems that individuals experience. Mills felt that many problems ordinarily considered private troubles are best understood as public issues, and he coined the term sociological imagination to refer to the ability to appreciate the structural basis for individual problems.

To illustrate Mills’s viewpoint, let’s use our sociological imaginations to understand some contemporary social problems. We will start with unemployment, which Mills himself discussed. If only a few people were unemployed, Mills wrote, we could reasonably explain their unemployment by saying they were lazy, lacked good work habits, and so forth. If so, their unemployment would be their own personal trouble. But when millions of people are out of work, unemployment is best understood as a public issue because, as Mills put it,[10] “the very structure of opportunities has collapsed. Both the correct statement of the problem and the range of possible solutions require us to consider the economic and political institutions of the society, and not merely the personal situation and character of a scatter of individuals” (p. 9).

The high US unemployment rate stemming from the severe economic downturn that began in 2008 provides a telling example of the point Mills was making. Millions of people lost their jobs through no fault of their own. While some individuals are undoubtedly unemployed because they are lazy or lack good work habits, a more structural explanation focusing on lack of opportunity is needed to explain why so many people were out of work. If so, unemployment is best understood as a public issue rather than a personal trouble.

Another social problem is eating disorders. We usually consider a person’s eating disorder to be a personal trouble that stems from a lack of control, low self-esteem, or another personal problem. This explanation may be OK as far as it goes, but it does not help us understand why so many people have the personal problems that lead to eating disorders. Perhaps more important, this belief also neglects the larger social and cultural forces that help explain such disorders. For example, most Americans with eating disorders are women, not men. This gender difference forces us to ask what it is about being a woman in American society that makes eating disorders so much more common. To begin to answer this question, we need to look to the standard of beauty for women that emphasizes a slender body.[11] If this cultural standard did not exist, far fewer American women would suffer from eating disorders than do now. Because it does exist, even if every girl and woman with an eating disorder were cured, others would take their places unless we could somehow change this standard. Viewed in this way, eating disorders are best understood as a public issue, not just as a personal trouble.

Picking up on Mills’s insights, Psychologist William Ryan pointed out that Americans typically think that social problems such as poverty and unemployment stem from personal failings of the people experiencing these problems, not from structural problems in the larger society.[12] Ryan’s work was widely considered to be a major structuralist response to an influential report published in 1965, The Moynihan Report, which posited that the prevalence of black single parent families was “ghetto culture. The report deemphasized the role of discriminatory laws and practices.[13] Using Mills’s terms, Americans tend to think of social problems as personal troubles rather than public issues. (aka social problems.) As Ryan put it, they tend to believe in blaming the victim rather than blaming the system.

To help us understand a blaming-the-victim ideology, let’s consider why poor children in urban areas often learn very little in their schools. According to Ryan, a blaming-the-victim approach would say the children’s parents do not care about their learning, fail to teach them good study habits, and do not encourage them to take school seriously. This type of explanation, he wrote, may apply to some parents, but it ignores a much more important reason: the sad shape of America’s urban schools, which, he said, are overcrowded, decrepit structures housing old textbooks and out-of-date equipment. To improve the schooling of children in urban areas, he wrote, we must improve the schools themselves and not just try to “improve” the parents.

As this example suggests, a blaming-the-victim approach points to solutions to social problems such as poverty and illiteracy that are very different from those suggested by a more structural approach that blames the system. If we blame the victim, we would spend our limited dollars to address the personal failings of individuals who suffer from poverty, illiteracy, poor health, eating disorders, and other difficulties. If instead we blame the system, we would focus our attention on the various social conditions (decrepit schools, cultural standards of female beauty, and the like) that account for these difficulties. A sociological understanding suggests that the latter approach is ultimately needed to help us deal successfully with the social problems facing us today.

An Equity Lens

This text is written to complement the Difference, Power, and Discrimination outcomes of Oregon State University and Linn-Benton Community College in Albany and Corvallis, Oregon.  This statement appears on the Oregon State University webpage:

The Difference, Power, and Discrimination Program works with faculty across all fields and disciplines at Oregon State University to create inclusive curricula that address intersections of gender, race, class, sexual identity, age, ability, and other institutionalized systems of inequity and privilege in the United States.

Therefore, an equity lens is applied throughout the text as we aim to understand what families need, how and whether those needs are met, and the role that  social institutions play in family outcomes.

To understand families from this perspective, we focus on how families experience personal troubles and social problems as well as the disproportionate ways that families experience them.  In addition we talk about social justice, which has many definitions but commonly includes equal access or opportunity, equal treatment, and equal rights.  In this text we will provide historical  and cross-cultural context related to social justice, but focus on the current status of families in the United States. Here are two websites if you would like to know more about how social justice is defined and how to contribute to greater social justice in the United States:

You will also see thinking related to Critical Theory and Critical Race Theory (CRT). Both of these theories examine institutions and power structures. In this short video, Megan Paulson defines both theories in the first minute.  She then goes on to talk about the positive effect on students of all races and ethnicities when they have usable terms and language to talk about what they experience in terms of difference in their daily lives.

It is the intent of the authors of this text that students use what they learn in this class to understand their own experiences, and the experiences of others, better. Discussion in the face-to-face and online environments is encouraged.  This text examines what families need, and how institutions and society can support those needs, or get in the way of meeting needs. This will lead to better understanding and analysis of how existing social processes and institutions contribute to family inequity.


Licenses and Attributions

Open Content, Shared Previously

“What is a Social Problem” and “The Sociological Imagination” are adapted from “What is a Social Problem” and “Sociological Perspectives on Social Problems” by Anonymous. License: CC BY-NC-SA 4.0. Adaptation: edited for clarity.

Figure 2.13. “Placards at the Rally To Take Rape Seriously” by Women’s ENews. License: CC BY 2.0.

Figure 2.14. “Financing Climate Change” by Visible Hand. License: CC BY 2.0.

All Rights Reserved Content
Theories and Concepts” (c) Liz Pearce. License Terms: Standard YouTube license.

A Minute And Over: Critical Race Theory” (c) PhillipsAndover. License Terms: Standard YouTube license.


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Theoretical Perspectives and Key Concepts Copyright © 2020 by Elizabeth B. Pearce is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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