Archive for the ‘Marriage and Family’ Category


Why do we care about gay marriage?

May 2, 2010

by Sarah Michele Ford

The gay marriage debate casts a light on a wide variety of issues that are relevant to the sociology student.

Fundamentally, this is a debate about our values, about the role of religion and government in our society, and about definitions of family.  Where you come down on the question of gay marriage depends on how you look at each of these issues.

  • Proponents of gay marriage frame the issue in terms of equal rights.  They argue that to exclude gay couples from the legal benefits of marriage is a violation of civil rights; they argue that allowing religious groups to control what couples may or may not get married violates the separation of church and state.
  • Opponents of gay marriage frame the issue in terms of religion and traditional family structures.  They argue that within Judeo-Christian tradition, homosexuality is a sin and marriage is defined as a union between one man and one woman.  Some also add that marriage is the creation of a family and that a family means parents and their children; since it is biologically impossible for a gay couple to have children (that get their genetic material from those two parents) there’s no reason for them to get married.

And therein lies the challenge.  Gay marriage exposes the seams in our society, seams around what constitutes a family and who gets to decide on that definition; seams around the importance of equality and around the role of religion in American culture.  All of these conflicts revolve around things that many people hold so dear, it’s no wonder this has become such a divisive issue.

Can the gay marriage debate be resolved in a way that’s satisfying to everyone?  Or does one of these sides have to lose the fight?


Nature versus Nurture

April 27, 2010

by Sarah Michele Ford

A few weeks ago my family and I took a weekend trip to Boston.  On the way home, we were assigned seats that had the three of us sitting separately.  My five-year-old daughter had been assigned an exit row seat and the two adults had been seated together at the front of the plane.  Not a problem, we thought – I would just take the exit row seat and The Kid would sit up front with her dad.  When our boarding group was called, we went to get on the plane.  The gate agent (a middle-aged woman) asked “Who is The Kid?”  I indicated that it was, in fact, The Kid but added “But I’m going to take her seat.”

Home Again“Oh,” the gate agent says.  “I’m going to change your seat.”
“Why?” I ask.
“You’re a mother.  If there’s an emergency, your first instinct is going to be to go to your child.”  And she printed up a new boarding pass, still in The Kid’s name, that put me even further away from where The Kid and her dad were sitting.  As she handed it to me she said, “There.  Now you can sit with your baby.”  (I assume that she meant for The Husband to take the distant seat.)  And she tousled The Kid’s hair as we walked by.

When we treat gender and socialization in Introductory Sociology courses, the question of the nature versus nurture debate always comes up.  Which has a stronger influence on our behavior – biology or socialization? Clearly the gate agent and I were coming at this “problem” (which really wasn’t a problem at all) from very different perspectives; she thought that, as a mother, I would be incapable of dealing with the responsibilities of sitting in the exit row when seated apart from my child.  That the “mothering instinct” would win out in an emergency situation.  She was favoring nature over nurture.  I, on the other hand, was simply looking forward to a little extra leg room and and hour and a half of peace and quiet.

When it comes to gender, and in particular to parenting, which do you think is more influential: nature or nurture?


Homosexuality: more than just preference

February 26, 2010

Posted by: Chad M. Gesser

Twitter: @profgesser


The issues that gays face go well beyond social acceptance of their sexual preference.  Heterosexuals certainly do not recognize the advantages that they reap in a culture that is deeply rooted in heterosexuality.

The Heterosexuality Questionnaire was developed by Martin Rochlin, Ph.D., in 1977.  While it certainly appears humorous to the average heterosexual reader, a closer examination can help one examine the social implications of a heterosexual society, particularly if you’re homosexual.

1.               What do you think caused your heterosexuality?

2.               When and how did you decide that you were a heterosexual?

3.               Is it possible that your heterosexuality is just a phase that you may grow out of?

4.               Is it possible your heterosexuality stems from a neurotic fear of others of the same sex?

5.               If you’ve never slept with a person of the same sex, is it possible that all you need is a good gay or lesbian lover?

6.               To whom have you disclosed your heterosexual tendencies? How did he or she react?

7.               Why do you heterosexuals feel compelled to seduce others into your life-style?

8.               Why do you insist on flaunting your heterosexuality? Why can’t you just be what you are and keep quiet about it?

9.               Would you want your children to be heterosexual knowing the problems that they’d face?

10.             A disproportionate majority of child molesters are heterosexual. Do you consider it safe to expose your children to heterosexual teachers?

11.             With all the societal support marriage receives, the divorce rate is spiraling. Why are there so few stable relationships among heterosexuals?

12.             Why do heterosexuals place so much emphasis on sex?

13.             Considering the menace of overpopulation, how could the human race survive if everyone were heterosexual like you?

14.             Could you trust a heterosexual therapist to be objective? Don’t you fear (s)he might be inclined to influence you in the direction of her/his own leanings?

15.             How can you become a whole person if you limit yourself to compulsive, exclusive heterosexuality, and fail to develop you natural, healthy homosexual potential?

16.             There seem to be very few happy heterosexuals. Techniques have been developed that might enable you to change if you really want to. Have you considered trying aversion therapy?

For most heterosexuals, perhaps some of the above questions can seem a bit humorous, or even ridiculous.

Consider the plight of the homosexual couple below, and the children.

Besides sexual preference, what other areas of stereotyping, prejudice, and/or discrimination might gays encounter?  Should a gay couple be allowed to legally adopt a child?  She gays be allowed to marry under the rule of law in the United States?  Do gays confer the same legal rights as someone who is heterosexual?  Why are they separate?  Should they be equal?  Why or why not?


For the love…of consumerism

February 15, 2010

Posted by: Chad M. Gesser

Twitter: @profgesser


Happy belated Valentine’s Day!!!!

….wait, humor me for a minute.  Would you rather celebrate a holiday for its meaning or are you moved by the overload of consumerism that surrounds our holidays?

Don’t get me wrong, I like to celebrate events, holidays, birthdays, just about anything.  But I have found that the consumerism in my environment, the availability of too much “stuff”, has gotten to be so much of an overload that I’m turned off from celebrating.  That’s a difficult thing for me to consider, because I try to focus on the intent of events (why the celebration is occurring).
That picture above is not an example of overload in and of itself.  But let me clarify something: that is a picture I took at my local grocery store on New Year’s Day.  Doing some last minute shopping on Valentine’s Day a friend I ran into nearly purchased an Easter gift for Valentine’s Day: the marketing and promotions from Easter goodies had mixed in with the Valentine’s Day goodies.  Valentine’s Day on January 1?  Easter on Valentine’s Day? Do I need to mention when Christmas decorations and Christmas merchandise starts to appear?
I suppose what really opened my eyes to the consumerism of any particular holiday season was when I began to uncover the origin of diamonds.  Remember: diamonds are a girl’s best friend.  If you are going to marry someone in the United States, it most likely will involve an engagement ring and/or a wedding band: with a diamond.  Diamonds, much like red roses, are two of the most popular symbols of love in the United States.

But what do you know about diamonds and flowers?  The movie Blood Diamonds brought international public attention to issue of diamonds mined and produced in conflict torn areas of Africa.  Check out this video produced by Current TV that illustrates the issue of country of origin and the conditions by which some of the most sacred objects of Valentine’s Day originate.
Do consumers bear some responsibility for their consumer habits?  Who, if anyone, should accept some level of responsibility when the market plays unfair?  Does it matter?

Honor Killings

January 26, 2010

by Sarah Michele Ford
e-mail: ford-at-soc-dot-umass-dot-edu

On January 17th, a 21-year old Indian woman was murdered; the alleged killer was her father.

What would drive a father to kill his daughter? In this case, the motivation appears to have been that the daughter had married a man of whom her father did not approve. To those of us who have been raised in Western cultures, this “honor killing” – the murder of a woman by a family member because she has violated social or sexual norms – seems crazy. This practice, however, has a long history in a number of cultures, primarily in the Middle East.

In order to even begin to understand the phenomenon of honor killings, we have to keep a number of things in mind. First and foremost is the concept of “honor”. The honor at stake in these cases is not the woman’s – it is that of her father and other male relatives. In the Turkish context, for example, “A man’s “honour” consists of two main components: His reputation is determined by his own actions in the community (“seref’) and the chastity or virtue of the female members of his family (“names”)” (“They Killed her for Going Out With Boys…”, 35 Hofstra L. Rev. 815 2006-2007). Why, you might ask, is a man’s honor dependent upon the actions of his female family members? This brings to the fore another vast cultural difference between these cultures and the West. In our social context, the individual is the most important social unit. In this particular Middle Eastern context, however, the family is the most important social unit. It is the family’s honor that the young woman in the Indian example has brought into question. And, in that context, it has historically been considered acceptable to restore the family’s honor by eliminating the person who brought it into question.

This social phenomenon raises so many questions for us as sociologists. Is it appropriate for us to take a relativist view and say that these acts are understandable within their cultural context? (Human rights groups condemn the practice – see Stop Honour Killings and reports from Human Rights Watch on Afghanistan and Turkey.) If we conclude that we need to speak out against this practice, what is the best way for us to do so?

Most of all, though, this phenomenon illustrates the ways that all of the questions we ask as sociologists are intertwined. This one topic forces us to think about culture and cultural relativism, gender inequality and family structures, power, human rights, and numerous other issues as well. When we study sociology, we can’t ever boil a question down to one issue, or even to one “type” of sociology. People are so complex, society is so complex, that everything is interrelated.


Forcing Women’s Roles to Evolve?

August 2, 2009

familyWhen I was growing up, it was common for most families to be nuclear in structure (dad, mom, and two or so kids) with the father being the “bread winner” and leader (patriarchal organization). Forty some years later, things have changed a bit. Modern American family structure accommodates same-sex families, single parent families, sandwich families, and families where parents are replaced by grandparents (I haven’t heard a catchy phrase for this structure yet).

The income sources of families have changed, too. Now it is common for the mother (if one is present) to work and have a broader role in family leadership, what sociologists call a equalitarian setup. But, after talking to many of my students and even a few professors—I wonder if this last change was chosen by many women (achieved status) or simply one that women are now inheriting (ascribed status).

Would you like to voice an opinion about this? If so, please respond to one of the questions below:

1. Do you think that when women entered the work force in large numbers, this resulted in a decrease in men’s salaries compared to past cohorts? If so, what effect would this have on newly formed families? Do you think this might have increased the pressure on women to enter the workforce?

2. Many studies have shown that women, whether career-oriented or working in less-skilled jobs, are paid a percentage of what equally educated and experienced men are paid. Why do you think that is? What effect does this have on the quality of life for single parent families headed by a female?

3. Some people complain that while women have taken on more responsibility, men’s roles have stayed the same or even shrunk. What do you think?

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What is Domestic Abuse?

July 17, 2009

Domestic violence is a growing problem, not only in America but in many other countries, as well. Traditionally, when we speak of domestic violence, we think of men abusing their wives. However, domestic violence also includes wives abusing husbands, parents abusing children, and even children abusing the elderly. Domestic abuse can also take many forms other than physical attacks—it can be economic blackmail, psychological abuse, imprisonment in the home, or social isolation.

Above is an Australian public service announcement. After you have watched it, respond to one of the topics below:

1. Do you think forms of domestic abuse other than psychical violence are as serious? Why or why not?

2. What level of involvement do you think should be required of the public in reporting or preventing domestic abuse?

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The Changing American Family?

June 18, 2009

What does a family look like today?

What does a family look like today?

As society has changed, so has the structure or organization of the family. In sociology, a family can be defined as a social group who provide basic functions such as socialization, economic support, emotional support, and sexual regulation. Traditionally in America, the family consisted of a small group of people living in one dwelling and related by either marriage or common ancestry. Today there are many different personal relationships that some sociologists identify as constituting families—the label “family” is based upon the findings that members of these groups not only think of themselves as families but perform the basic functions of more traditionally structured families. However, some of these new family structures are controversial.

In June 2008, the Disney theme park and Sea World in Orlando, Florida had a Gay Family Weekend. The itinerary for this event included character breakfasts and a “dream come true” parade. This annual holiday started, in part, to allow gay people to celebrate with their families along with similarly structured families in an environment of social support and understanding. Gay families have traditionally worn red t-shirts to identify each other and have set meeting points at the parks.

What do you think about non-traditional families? Would you like to express your scholarly insights as a sociologist would? If so, one of the topics below:

1. What structure do you think signifies a family in America today? Do you think family structure should stay static in society? Why or why not?

2. What would be some advantages to accepting gay family structure as “main stream” in society? What would be some disadvantages to society? Look at your responses to this question. How many problems that you have identified could be applied to heterosexual families as well? What insights does this give you about objections to gay families?

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What Does Love Have To Do With It?

April 10, 2009

In many countries marriages are arranged. That usually means people’s relatives select whom they will marry. Criteria for these types of marriages are usually based upon economics and politics—not love. Depending upon the status of the wedding couple, the function of marriage in this situation is often to cement different families, communities, or nations together. Sometimes it’s to link together lands or properties held among the couple’s families.

What do you think about this? Would you like to comment on the topic? If so, please respond to one of the questions below:

1) Do you think marriages such as this occur in America? Why?

2) Which reason for marriage do you think is better: social and economic or love? Why?

3) Which marriages do you think are more stable? Which are better for society? Which do you think is better for the individual?

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Empty Nesters Impact on Socialization

April 8, 2009

Some sociologists have noted a correlation or connection between education and family size. Some research suggests that the higher the level of education obtained by a husband and wife, the fewer children they have in their family. Some people in the X generation (people born after 1960) and the millennium generation (those coming to age now) have decided not to have any children at all. These people are called “empty nesters.”

Current sociological theories regarding socialization hold that the family is the key agent of socialization or teaching the rules of society to our young people. Researchers fear that the continual shrinkage of the middle class and lower upper class (what some neo-Marxists call the petty bourgeoisie) might lead to a future society with a different set of values and beliefs.

What do you think? Do you have anything to add to this topic? If so, please pick a talking point below and respond to it:

1. If the middle class and the upper class become smaller, what changes do you think this will cause of the social fabric of American society?

2. What political effects do you think such a demographic shift might have on the country? Are you seeing any of those effects now?

3. What economic effects do you think having a smaller middle and upper class might have on America? Why?

4. Do you think this demographic shift could lead to a form of social evolution that Karl Marx would support? Why?

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