Posted on by Harshavardhan Kosireddy

Learn What Shaped Family Studies and Where It’s Going

Family dynamics are often complex, but those who study families can help us understand, seeing ourselves, and each other, in more constructive ways. In this article, Family and Consumer Sciences faculty Uma Krishnan shares some of the history of Family Studies, and area coordinator for Family Studies, Sean Jefferson, offers insights about the future of the discipline.

Family Science evolved from beginnings in women’s domestic issues and parenting, to new research and methodologies, and contextual forces that impact individuals, family dynamics/relationships, and best practices for intervention and education. 

Research on families emerged in the 19th century as a result of social, cultural, political and academic forces, together with industrialization, that shifted the American economy. 

These forces brought changes to the traditional norms of families as women sought employment, and families began to move to larger towns and cities. This was also a period of change for women and the prescribed roles they played in their families and in society. The suffragette movement and beginnings of feminism thrust women and families to the forefront as they fought for equality, rights to education and to vote. 

Though change is constant in life, and is progressive in most cases, it also causes some instability. As families were studied systematically, social issues such as race, racism and discrimination surfaced and became more dominant, and raised awareness of other topics and areas of inequalities. 

Initially, the studying of families amidst the social reform, was the interest of policy-makers to understand how policies impacted families, but eventually, it piqued the interests of sociologists, psychologists and scholars from other disciplines, including theology. However, research was fragmented and did not form a cohesive, comprehensive body of work on families. 

Research methods were not as robust as they are today, either. Not until the latter half of the 20th century did Family Science come to be recognized as a discipline on its own. The first college level course on the subject was taught in 1922 at Boston University, by a clergy and sociologist. Family Science emerged not only as the study of families, but as an emerging interdisciplinary, progressive, academic area in colleges with the development of family theories, concepts and research findings derived from multiple disciplines and independently to inform best practices, interventions, and education.

The first conference on marriage and the family was held in 1934 although because of segregationist state laws, conferences were held separately for African American scholars to allow for the meeting, dissemination and discussion of scholarship on and by African Americans.  Following that, race, racism, discrimination, and actions to quash social injustices became dominant in family science studies and activism.  In 1938, the first NCFR (National Council for Family Relations) addressed social issues. 

Today, Family Science has become a distinct discipline area of study, evolved over time in four phases:

  • the discovery stage (exploring complexity of the discipline, applying information to address family challenges)
  • the pioneering stage (deciding name for discipline, gathering scholars, etc.
  • the maturing stage (meeting the criteria for a discipline, and becoming more pronounced)
  • the evaluation and innovation stage where assessment and refinement of programs and practices are currently happening.

Family Science incorporates social issues such as race and discrimination as focal points and necessary in the study of families. New research methods, family theories and new perspectives, such as diversity, have also been incorporated into Family Science.

Though it is still a relatively “new” field of study compared to other social sciences, the distinctiveness of Family Science lies in it:

  • being a robust interdisciplinary area of study (with origins in and potential for collaborative efforts for work with a team of interdisciplinary scholars, i.e. anthropologists, sociologists, home economists, theologians, political scientists, psychologists, criminologists, theologists, and social workers)
  • adopting a systems perspective and systematic scientific translation research (“linking scientific findings to family related programs and policies to improve family health and well-being” in context, to studying, understanding and improving the quality of life of families at various contextual levels (micro and macro)).
  • utilizing a strengths perspective in addressing family issues vs a medical deficit model
  • encompassing the scholarly study, education, application and professional practice areas (prevention and remedial; e.g., marriage/couple and family therapy, family life education)

Family Science has evolved as an established, formalized discipline from beginnings in women’s domestic issues, parenting, to new research and methodologies, to contextual forces that impact individuals, family dynamics/relationships, and best practices for intervention and education, that continue to promote family health and well-being, and shape the discipline today.

Taking a system’s perspective, topics have been added to keep abreast of the dynamic social, cultural and political forces that impact families and relationships.  As the discipline has developed, it has also undergone name changes beginning with Domestic Science, then Home Economics (Textiles and Clothing, Nutrition and Food Science, Institutional Management, etc., many of which have now become their own standalone academic degree programs or departments with their own professional organizations), to Family Studies and Human Development, and in 1985, the National Council on Family Relations voted and endorsed the name Family Science (for occupational and disciplinary identity) for this scientific study of families and close interpersonal relationships (NCFR, 1987).

From Sean Jefferson:

“Education is not the filling of the pail, but the lighting of a fire.”-William Butler Yeats

In keeping with the more relatively recent inclusion of and focus on social issues, advocacy and activism that gained recognition and dominance in Family Science, and as Family Studies visionaries, we are committed to enhancing the quality of life of individuals, families, and communities.

Through forward-thinking perspectives that are clear, realistic, and convincing, we have been able to improve various aspects of people’s lives.  While there is an abundance of issues that are important to address, after reflecting upon my own experiences, I propose that the top three issues that will impact Family Studies in the next 5 years are, a) structural racism, b) immigration, and c) technology.  

As the future leaders and agents of positive change in our community, students are challenged to explore these social issues, take both sides, and impart knowledge which facilitates critical thinking in coursework.

As an interdisciplinary field of study, the Family Studies program is well poised to forge diverse career and graduate education pathways for our students. As educators, there is no greater compliment than our students’ successes, and for students to say that our courses and programs have ignited a spark of interest/passion and awakened in them an ardor to serve our community.

Uma Krishnan, Ph.D., specializes in Marriage and Family Relations and Family Theories.

Sean Jefferson Ph.D. is the area coordinator for Family Studies and specializes in Research Methods and Marriage and Family Relations.  

Uma Krishnan/Sean Jefferson/FCS

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