Family Theory Essay

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There are many different theories in family theory. The following article will therefore set out some of the more influential approaches.

Exchange Theory

Individuals are seen as making choices about behavior based on the balance of rewards and costs that the behavior has for them. Behavior becomes exchange when the actions of one individual enter into the rewards and costs of another individual. Applications of exchange theory include the study of the choice of marriage partner, the quality of the marriage relationship, marriage bargaining, and separation and divorce.

Symbolic Interactionism

Here, the family is seen as a unity of interacting personalities. Whatever unity exists in family life can only be the result of interactions between family members. Interactionist work on family life includes studies of how behavior is negotiated and renegotiated among family members.

Family Life Course Development

The family life course development framework focuses on the systematic and patterned changes experienced by families as they move through stages and events of their family life course. More recently, the focus is upon the individual life course, and on how it affects and is affected by the life courses of other individuals.

Systems Theory

In systems theory, family processes are understood as the product of the entire family system. The systems approach to the family has therefore been welcomed by some scholars and practitioners as a way to understand family problems and intervene in family processes without blaming any one family member.

Conflict Theory

Conflict is a normal part of family life. Sources of conflict include the competition for scarce resources, and incompatible goals. The resources that are available within families are not only the subject of competition, but they are also the means by which one individual may gain power over others.

Feminist Theory

Feminist theory of family life holds three premises. First, there is thought to be an internal stratification of family life, in which men receive more benefits than do women. Second, relations between husbands and wives are identified as power relations, in which men dominate over women. Third, ideological legitimations of gender inequality are held to be responsible for the acceptance by women of their own subjection.

Family Ecology

A concern with individuals and their environment is at the heart of the ecological approach. One of the most popular ways of thinking about this is to conceive of the nested ecosystems in which the individual human being develops. Individuals develop within the family microsystem, which is influenced by the surrounding society.

Current Emphases

The main current emphasis in family theorizing is on the deinstitutionalization of family life. Beck and Beck-Gernsheim have advanced individualization theory. This states that changes occurring in families are the result of a long-term trend in modern societies to accord more autonomy to individuals. Giddens argues that traditional family ties have been replaced by the pure relationship. A pure relationship is one based upon emotional communication, where the rewards derived from such communication are the main basis for the relationship to continue.


  1. Beck, U. & Beck-Gernsheim, E. (2002) Individualization: Institutionalized Individualism and Its Social and Political Consequences. Sage, London.
  2. Bengtson, V. L., Acock, A. C., Allen, K. R., Dilworth-Anderson, P., & Klein, D. M. (eds.) (2005) Sourcebook of Family Theory and Research. Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA.
  3. Cheal, D. (1991) Family and the State of Theory. University of Toronto Press, Toronto.
  4. Giddens, A. (1992) The Transformation of Intimacy. Polity, Cambridge.
  5. White, J. M. & Klein, D. M. (2002) Family Theories, 2nd edn. Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA.

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