Book review: Families As They Really Are edited by Barbara J. Risman
BY MICHAEL ORTIZ
Many of us harbor this sort of normative image of the “ideal” American family as a married, co-parental, child-producing, child-rearing, cohabiting, heterosexual, democratic, working or middle class unit which assumes an essential nature of its own and can prevail through policy and law. However, the strong message that Barbara J. Risman sends out in Families As They Really Are is that contemporary families come in all different forms, shapes, and sizes; outright defying any notion that non-traditional families represent some sort of social crisis. Various types of families have come to be defined as their members see fit; thus making for greater human connectivity and qualitative social bonds.
Families As They Really Are is an anthology consisting of 40 essays written by members of the Council on Contemporary Families with the intention of exploring families as they truly exist, why they exist in the ways that they do, and how the needs of these families can best be met. The purpose of this book, as stated by Risman, is to make a genuine difference in peoples’ lives by getting them to understand the circumstances in which they find themselves so that they may live their lives to the fullest extent possible. By breaking through all stereotypes and boundaries on personal, institutional, and state levels, families will indeed be able to exist and flourish as they really are.
The anthology is divided into five sections that focus specifically on certain aspects of family such as family conceptions, family creation, family resilience, and family relationships. What’s great about the book is that Risman begins part one by explaining scientific, causal, and correlative theories and approaches as they relate to the observed world around us; thus setting the foundation for how the anthology is constructed. For example, chapter three studies the correlation between unwed, single parent households and behavioral problems in children, but then explains how single parenthood is not the cause of children’s behavioral issues. In this way, we can begin to study and account for the social structure that encapsulates all familial phenomena.
Part two predominantly talks about the historical emergence of American family systems, marriage, gender, motherhood, and child socialization as they relate to developing economic production, exchange, land ownership, and patriarchal ideological structure. Chapter eight in particular explores the legal ramifications for changing family structures, and shows how new family forms challenge legal conceptualizations and traditional definitions of biologically-based families. This section also includes great work on interracial marriage and discusses childhood as a period of development that is not necessarily universal to all children, but rather, is socially constructed as it relates to existing social conditions.
Parts three and four generally focus on family quality in its many forms, as opposed to the promotion of one particular nuclear family structure as the ideal pinnacle. Chapter thirteen does a phenomenal job in studying cohabitation as “the most common form of co-residential romantic relationships” among U.S. households. It suggests that the state as an ideological apparatus has real problems viewing non-martial cohabitation as being legitimate. However, further studies in this section show that whether families are married or cohabiting, positive parental effects lead to better cognitive development of children and an overall positive household atmosphere. These sections cover an extensive amount of information beginning with the study of immigrant, gay and lesbian, low income, and divorced families, but ends up driving home the point that public policy reflects a real anxiety about sexual freedom, ability of people to marry, and redefined family forms.
Finally, part five is devoted exclusively to gender. In chapter 30, Risman does excellent work examining just how gender behavior plays out amongst middle school children. She shows how gender policing among children is really a form of socialization leading to the hegemonic reproduction of “normal” families. In this manner, dominant concepts of family are internalized. This section also touches on women’s involvement in the labor force, men’s involvement in the household, and domestic violence as an expression of patriarchal power in the family.
Families As They Really Are does a superb job in explaining the history of American families, illustrating diverse family forms, examining the intricate details of family interaction, and assessing the legal policies that directly affect all families. Risman arms her readers with the tools they need to dissect, analyze, and understand race, class, gender, and family formation. Those looking for ample evidence that family diversity is a good thing, will feel encouraged by what they discover in the pages of this fantastic anthology.
This book happens to be a great source for students and academics alike seeing as Risman also includes in depth review questions and exercises at the end of each section. Another great feature of the book is that Risman includes newspaper and media articles between certain essays. Hence, adding to the wealth of information already devoted to each topic. Once readers get through the entire text, they very well might feel as if they are connected to all types of families mentioned in the book; leading to the conclusion that we are all indeed part of one large human family.
Michael Ortiz is a Sociology grad student at CUNY Brooklyn College where he is currently working on a project studying conceptions of race amongst college students.