In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Postmodern Families

  • Introduction
  • Diverging Demographics of Families
  • Diverging Destinies of Children
  • Devolution
  • Same-Sex Families
  • Immigrant and Transnational Families
  • Single-Parent Families
  • Trans Families
  • Cohabitation and Marriage Trends
  • Reproductive Technologies
  • Cyborg Families
  • Poly Families

Sociology Postmodern Families
Jose Martin Aveldanes, Carla A. Pfeffer, Jennifer Augustine
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 September 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 September 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0159


What exactly is a postmodern family and why does it matter? Though they may disagree on specific dates, scholars generally agree that modernism (an era spanning from the late 19th to mid-20th centuries) was anchored in a social foundation of trust in science and rationality, which were seen as sources of social progress. Postmodernism (beginning in the mid- to late 20th century) reflects, at least in part, a fundamental distrust of (or suspicion around) science, technology, and even the very notion of social progress. Much of this distrust and suspicion centers upon challenging assumptions and values around concepts such as universal “objectivity,” “neutrality,” and “truth.” Sociologist Norman Denzin has predicted that the postmodern era, from World War II to the early 21st century, might be characterized by neglected children of single mothers, left alone to watch alienating television images of rich lifestyles. Was Denzin correct in his assessment? Or have we entered an era of a new generation of “postmodern families” that challenges traditionalist assumptions about what constitutes a “true” or “real” family? Sociologist Judith Stacey has claimed that the conjugal family lost its status as a cultural norm and statistical figure in the postmodern era—but has it really? At the height of queer activism, queer individuals were ardently opposed to the institution of marriage. Yet in the year 2015, during which same-sex marriage was granted countrywide legal recognition in the United States, gay and lesbian weddings boomed. It is important to consider how same-sex couples might serve to shore up rather than cast the final shovelfuls of dirt on the caskets of marriage and family as institutions. In this article, we explore such questions by examining changes in the family to flesh out how this social institution, the family, is ever shifting and resilient. We discuss the explosion of single motherhood and cohabitation as well as the implications that these family forms have for women and children. We also explore other changes occurring in our postmodern world, such as the growing gap in the resources of upper- and lower-class children, the changing nature of familial arrangements and attitudes around divorce, the dramatic growth of Hispanic and other immigrant populations in the United States, the expanding social and legal recognition (and misrecognition) of trans families, and dramatic cuts in the social safety nets of Western-industrialized nations. We also attend to pressing questions that confront families in the postmodern era. For example, what happens when we introduce new assisted reproductive technologies that enable same-sex couples, trans families, and queer families to have children who are the biological offspring of at least one partner? Our family units are continuously evolving (e.g., with the rise in visibility of polyamorous families), but what does this mean in the context of rapid technological, economic, and demographic change? This article explores these questions to consider the challenges and strengths of families in this postmodern era.

Diverging Demographics of Families

Since the 1800s, there has been tremendous change in the economic and social organization of families in the United States. In the 19th century, corporate families (i.e., families with self-employed heads) were the dominant family model. This family form’s dominance waned as wage labor opportunities for young men proliferated; these opportunities allowed men to amass high earnings more quickly than in earlier time periods and shift the location of labor from inside the home to outside the home. The corporate family model was supplanted by the male breadwinner/female caregiver model in the early 20th century, followed by the dual-earner model in the latter half (Rugles 2015). This evolution in marriage, dating, and family models tells us much about the ability and willingness of people to match with partners of various social groups (Schwartz 2013) and about the economic and educational trajectories of individuals as well. For example, Isen and Stevenson 2010 finds that college-educated women delay marriage, have few children, and are least likely to divorce. Martin 2006 finds that educational attainment is a robust indicator of marital dissolution. In a similar vein, from the 1950s to 2000s, individuals were more likely to marry those relatively similar to them in terms of education. However, some works, like Charles, et al. 2013, challenge the extent to which individuals marry educationally similar others, finding that a significant amount of marital sorting is attributable to social origin (i.e., the wealth of the parents of these individuals). Other scholars posit that changes in spatial segregation, social networks, and the dramatic growth in income inequality are at least partially responsible for this trend. After World War II, socioeconomic and ethnic residential segregation declined, driven mainly by economic improvement, assimilation by immigrants, and upward economic mobility unleashed by the postwar economic boom. In the 21st century, the social mobility characterizing the 1960s began to disappear as a result of an emerging global economic structure that resulted in stagnant incomes, rising inequality, and growing class rigidity. The era since 1973 is characterized by an economic structure wherein high-paying jobs exist for the well educated, while low-paying jobs exist for the modestly schooled and those with little schooling. These changes are linked to dramatic changes in the family in the 21st century, including a rise in the number of women entering the labor force, an increase in the share of children living with single mothers, the rise of cohabitation, and growth in the number of non-European immigrants (Massey 1996, Lichter 2013).

  • Charles, Kerwin Kofi, Erik Hurst, and Alexandra Killewald. 2013. Marital sorting and parental wealth. Demography 50:51–70.

    DOI: 10.1007/s13524-012-0144-6

    The authors utilize the 1988 wave of the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID) to investigate how individuals sort (i.e., marry) on the basis of parental wealth. They find that individuals in the latter half of the 20th century are more likely to marry spouses from similar parental wealth backgrounds than in earlier eras. They also note that scholars have underestimated how parental attributes may impact mate selection.

  • Isen, Adam, and Betsey Stevenson. 2010. Women’s education and family behavior: Trends in marriage, divorce and fertility. Working Paper 15725. Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research.

    Isen and Stevenson apply theories on how marriage has changed from a model of production complementarities (i.e., gains made from specialization in the labor force and market as a couple) to consumption complementarities (i.e., gains made from consuming as a couple). In so doing, they explore and explain differences across social groups (e.g., by race and education) in rates of marriage, divorce, fertility, likelihood of entry into marriage, and well-being.

  • Lichter, Daniel T. 2013. Integration or fragmentation? Racial diversity and the American future. Demography 50:359–391.

    DOI: 10.1007/s13524-013-0197-1

    Lichter contends that minority populations are expected to double by the year 2050 and that this trend—in conjunction with new immigration (i.e., large-scale, non-European immigration)—will mark a new era that he terms the “Third Demographic Transition.” This transition is characterized by unprecedented changes in the racial and ethnic makeup of the United States. Of notable importance is the growing number of children who are racial minorities expected to be living in poverty.

  • Martin, Steven. 2006. Trends in marital dissolution by women’s education in the United States. Demographic Research 15.20: 537–560.

    DOI: 10.4054/DemRes.2006.15.20

    By analyzing the 1996 and 2001 waves of the Survey of Income and Program Participation, Martin finds that marital dissolution rates diverge by educational attainment. The author analyzes marriage cohorts from mid-1970s to 1990s and finds evidence that marital dissolution rates for less educated women are on the rise; highly educated women, on the other hand, are benefitting from more stable marriages.

  • Massey, Douglas S. 1996. The age of extremes: Concentrated affluence and poverty in the twenty-first century. Demography 33:395–412.

    DOI: 10.2307/2061773

    Massey describes how the arrival of the Industrial Revolution enabled affluence and poverty to become geographically concentrated for the first time, leading to spatial and social distance between mainstream society and the poor. Massey argues that the pace of technological change reinforces existing inequalities and that geographic barriers between the rich and poor will likely continue to reinforce residential segregation in the future.

  • Rugles, Steven. 2015. Patriarchy, power, and pay: The transformation of American families, 1800–2015. Demography 52:527–550.

    Rugles observes that, before the 19th century, the family followed a patriarchal tradition in which wives and children provided unpaid labor to sustain the family. Rugles notes that the family has gone through three forms from 1800 to 2015: corporate, male breadwinner/female caregiver, and dual-earner families. This evolution, across each phase, is linked to specific economic changes, thus suggesting that family change is not driven by ideological changes but rather economic ones.

  • Schwartz, Christine R. 2013. Trends and variation in assortative mating: Causes and consequences. Annual Review of Sociology 39:451–470.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev-soc-071312-145544

    Schwartz provides an overview of the common types of assortative mating explored in sociology and economics; this includes studies that investigate mating by socioeconomic status, race and ethnicity, and religion. Through a focus on romantic relationships, Schwartz reviews the implications of trends in assortative mating for within-generation inequality, between-generation inequality, long-run population change, and relationship quality and dissolution.

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