In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Marriage and Divorce

  • Introduction
  • Classic Works
  • Journals
  • Data Sources
  • History
  • Twentieth-Century Change in the United States
  • Getting Married
  • Nature and Meaning of Marriage
  • Marriage and Well-Being
  • Broad Treatments of Divorce
  • Effects of Divorce on Adults
  • Remarriage and Stepfamilies
  • Controversy

Sociology Marriage and Divorce
Nicholas Wolfinger
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 June 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 July 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0031


Marriage and divorce have been written about for thousands of years—both are prominently discussed in the Bible—but only became routine subjects for scholarly scrutiny in the 20th century. Sociology has been home to the largest amount of research: conceptualizing marriage, divorce, and the family as demographic phenomena; studying social institutions; and providing sites for interpersonal interaction. Predictably the latter has captured the attention of most psychologists writing on marriage and divorce. Economists generally joined the party later on, particularly as a result of the Nobel Laureate scholarship of Becker 1993 (as cited under Classic Works). Historians started to take an interest in marriage and divorce as the subfield of social history took root. Together these disciplines have produced a multifaceted portrait of marriage and divorce as social, economic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, historical, legal, and religious phenomena. These lines of inquiry have been greatly spurred by two developments. The first is the ascendance of multivariate analysis and the availability of national data on families. The second comprises the dramatic changes in marriage and divorce in the 20th century: the burgeoning importance of love and personal satisfaction as motivations for marriage; the dramatic surge in the divorce rate (and, notably, the larger number of children growing up with divorce); and the delays in marriage concomitant with the rise of alternative family forms such as cohabitation and unwed parenthood. All of this has been grist for the social-scientific mill.

Classic Works

These works provide common ground and points of departure for modern research. Some live on as conceptual treatments, not because their actual findings are relevant. Becker 1993 revolutionized the family as a topic for economists but nowadays does frequent duty as a straw man nonpareil. Bernard 1982 [1972] has long provided evidence for feminist claims about marriage as a social institution that oppresses women. Blumstein and Schwartz 1983 makes the list for its pioneering scale and breadth. Burgess and Locke 1945 offers landmark insights about the changing nature of American marriages. As one of sociology’s founding fathers, it is not surprising that anything Durkheim 2006 contains about marriage remains noteworthy. Goode 1963’, a sweeping international survey of the family, remains a staple of graduate seminars on the family. Moynihan 1965’, a report on African Americans, stoked research and controversy in equal measure. Finally, Spanier 1976’, with its scale of marital quality, has had a remarkably long and influential life.

  • Becker, Gary S. 1993. A treatise on the family. Enlarged ed. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    Becker earned a Nobel Prize partially on the basis of this work, which applied economic theory to marriage and divorce. Theoretical rather than empirical; many of Becker’s hypotheses have been disproved, but continue to be invoked by scholars in need of a theoretical framework. Originally published in 1981.

  • Bernard, Jessie. 1982. The Future of Marriage. New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press.

    This well-known work made the erroneous argument that marriage is good for men but bad for women. As it turns out, the benefits of marriage are smaller for women but still substantial. Perhaps the best-known refutation of Bernard is Waite and Gallagher 2000 (see Marriage and Well-Being). Originally published in 1972.

  • Blumstein, Philip, and Pepper Schwartz. 1983. American couples: Money, work, sex. New York: William Morrow.

    This landmark study has been hailed for its scope, most notably for its inclusion of numerous same-sex couples, but is sometimes criticized for its unrepresentative sampling.

  • Burgess, Ernest W., and Harvey J. Locke. 1945. The family: From institution to companionship. 2d ed. New York: American Book.

    Burgess, a prolific early-family sociologist, and Locke describe the changing nature of the family in this well-known book. The authors contend that interpersonal relationships have become the basis of the family for the first time in human history. Previously, the nature of the family had been governed by a variety of external, primarily structural forces.

  • Durkheim, Emile. 2006. On suicide. Translated by Robin Buss. London: Penguin.

    This seminal sociological text contends that married people have lower suicide rates than do their unmarried counterparts. Marriage has other benefits, according to Durkheim. By proscribing adultery, marriage makes better citizens of men and helps them to find their purpose in life. Originally published in 1897.

  • Goode, William J. 1963. World revolution and family patterns. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.

    This ambitious and oft-cited classic explores the relationship between social structure and family across numerous nations in both the western and developing worlds.

  • Moynihan, Daniel P. 1965. The negro family: The case for national action. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Labor, Office of Policy Planning and Research.

    Moynihan, then Assistant Secretary of Labor and later a US senator from New York, attributed problems in the African American community to the proliferation of single-mother families. His report sparked copious research and many years later remains a lightning rod for controversy.

  • Spanier, Graham B. 1976. Measuring dyadic adjustment: New scales for assessing the quality of marriage and similar dyads. Journal of Marriage and the Family 38.1: 15–28.

    DOI: 10.2307/350547

    Spanier’s scale for measuring marital quality is remarkable for its ubiquity and durability, having been cited over 3400 times. This scale (or modified versions of it) is still used in family research.

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