The study of the family, in American society, has been and continues to be a monumental task complicated by the very things that make America what it is. While studying the family in most societies social historians, et al, are confronted with a very laborious task of sifting through mountains of family records and comparing then with changes in society. Nevertheless, it’s burden is somewhat lessened by the fact that a particular people (or culture) is being studied. That is, the birthrate, death, age at marriage, size of family, members of family, sex roles, etc. are studied and changes in the social/economic makeup of society that is influenced by or that influences those family patterns are examined. The American family, on the other hand, presents a much more difficult task. If the “melting pot” theory really existed in America it would ease the burden. However, it doesn’t. Consequently, a study of the American family consist of a study of all the aforementioned aspects of the family. In addition, it must include a breakdown of society that is probably unique to America. One must study those family traits in an agricultural society as well as an urban/industrial setting. You must study the family in the context of a pre and post Civil War era. You must study it in light of a pre and post sexual revolution as well as a feminine movement. One would have to study the working class family, the middle class family, the affluent family, the poor family, the white family, the black family and the various ethnic families.
American society is a society of immigrants that brought with them an already established outlook about the composition of the family (some preferred to keep those views while others opted to shed then). What proves true of the family in one of these ethnic groups does not necessarily prove true with another group. Is there a single family type, in America, that we all identify with? Do we all strive to emulate the story book family or the perfect television family (both parents at home. Dad working, mom taking care of the house and joining the civic groups. In addition to that there are usually two children—three at the most—and the spotted puppy). Or, do we have as many family types as we have ethnic groups and/or social classes?
In spite of the difficulty of the task we, nevertheless, will learn (via our study) that the family is (1) the body entrusted with the task of caring for and training the children of our society. Secondly, this body is also expected to care for the elderly and the sick of our society. Thirdly, we will learn that changes in our society—social programs, agencies and institutions—have taken some of the responsibility away from the family and placed it in the hands of the state (children that were educated at home during the nineteenth century are now educated at schools. The mentally and physically handicapped that was once cared for at hone are now institutionalized. Social Security replaces the need for children to care for parents in their older years, and medicare eliminates the need of involvement by offsprings, in some cases, just to cite a few examples). We will also observe the link between what Tamara K. Hareven refers to as “family time” (the time when certain events take place within the family, such as marriage, the birth of children, and the age that children left home, etc.) and “historical time” (the time that changes occur in society, such as the change from an agricultural economy to an industrial one, a pre and post Civil War society, etc.). Lastly, we will observe the high nobility that has characterized our development (the early colonist moved here from the lands of their ancestors seeking a better way of life. Later, generations to come would constantly move west as long as land and gold opportunities existed. Today, we move wherever and whenever job opportunities beckon us to do so). I should mention here that mobility is not a uniquely American phenomenon. However, nomadic tribes of the past moved as a group (taking with them their culture and possessions). Americans moved as individuals, or nuclear families that were willing to “start over” in their new lands.
In essence, the composition of the family has, according to Niles Newton, changed to reflect changes in the “economic and social organization of our world.... We are living a world that was traditionally agricultural but has since evolved into an economy based on industrial manufacturing. Here, “wages and salary” helps to determined the relationship between families and family members. The drive to get ahead, the willingness to relocate and the demands of “the industry” were greater influences on relationships than the old concerns of family unity and autonomy.