Family Life in 20th-Century America.
Article Type: Book review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: Mintz, Steven
Pub Date: 09/22/2009
Publication: Name: Journal of Social History Publisher: Journal of Social History Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: History; Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2009 Journal of Social History ISSN: 0022-4529
Issue: Date: Fall, 2009 Source Volume: 43 Source Issue: 1
Topic: NamedWork: Family Life in 20th-Century America (Reference work)
Persons: Reviewee: Warzinik, Kelly; Coleman, Marilyn; Ganong, Lawrence H.
Accession Number: 209577962
Full Text: Family Life in 20th-century America. By Marilyn Coleman, Lawrence H. Ganong, and Kelly Warzinik (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2007. vii plus 324 pp. $65.00).

Part of Greenwood Press's "Family Life Through History" series of reference books for high school students, this volume offers a lucid, accessible, and balanced introduction to the far-reaching transformations that took place in courtship, marriage, and family composition during the twentieth century. Organized thematically, the volume begins by outlining the dimensions of change, encompassing such topics as the origins and evolution of dating, the increasing incidence of unmarried cohabitation, the emergence of a companionate ideal of marriage, the growing disconnect between marriage and childbearing, and the rise in divorce rates. Succeeding chapters focus on work, including the decline of child labor and the increase in women's wage work; family rituals and holidays; changes in the ideology and experience of motherhood; shifts in father's conduct and in cultural norms surrounding fatherhood; and trends in the lives of children and adolescents (including efforts to universalize an ideal of a protected childhood and the resistant elements in young peoples' cultures). The book concludes with chapters on abuse and neglect and alternative family forms.

Several themes give the book conceptual unity. One involves an increase in life expectancy and affluence, which raised individuals' expectations for fulfillment and allowed more individuals to experience multiple transitions in their family lives, such as divorcing or marrying more than once. A second key theme involves the proliferation and legitimization of alternatives to a dominant cultural definition of family. A third major theme involves the lack of well-developed norms and laws surrounding the rapidly expanding alternatives to "traditional" marriage, so that the rights and obligations of stepparents or cohabiting partners remain ambiguous. Challenging the notion that the contemporary family is an institution in decline or crisis, the authors argue that it is more accurate to emphasize an increase in diversity and a breakdown in the normative, expected sequence and timing of life events.

Encyclopedic in coverage, the volume contains capsule histories of domestic architecture, household appliances, cooking and diet, and family vacations. The authors do an effective job of placing present-day controversies into historical perspective, balancing evidence of continuity and change, and identifying long-term trends and processes that impinge on today's families. The book also provides a useful introduction to concepts and terms that sociologists use to understand the family.

A reference book rather than a narrative history, the volume does not present a systematic argument about the cultural, demographic, economic, political, and psychological factors that lie behind the radical late twentieth-century transformations in gender roles, sexual behavior, living arrangements, or childcare. Nor does it advance a thesis about the causes or implications of class, ethnic, and racial diversity in family life. But it certainly fulfills its goal of providing students with a reliable, readable, even-handed introduction to the America's diverse, ever changing families.

Steven Mintz

Columbia University
Gale Copyright: Copyright 2009 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.