Studying Marriage and
Part 1: Theory
Why are Theories
and Research Important?
What we don’t know can hurt us.
Theories and research help us understand
our family life.
Theories and research help us think
critically and make informed decisions.
Theory: Ecological perspective
Urie Bronfenbrenner proposed “interlocking”
systems that shape developmental growth.
Critique: Focus on developmental changes based
on environment does not explain how and when
these changes occur.
Ecological Model of
Structural functional theory explores the relationship
between the family and the larger society.
Instrumental roles & expressive roles are often assigned
Family roles are seen as functional or dysfunctional.
Clearly evident functions are manifest while unintended
functions are latent.
Critique: Conservative perspective that may be
ignoring social changes.
Theory: Conflict perspective
Conflict theory is based on the ways people
struggle over power and compete for scarce
Changes in traditional roles are seen as natural, inevitable
and sometimes desirable.
Society is seen as a system of inequality which causes
tension between the “haves” and the “have-nots.”
Critique: Overemphasizes clash and coercion and
focuses on institutional or macro level rather than
personal choice or micro level.
Theory: Feminist perspectives
Feminist theories examine how gender impacts
relationships and institutions such as politics,
religion, education and families.
There are different types of feminism, including liberal,
radical, and global.
Feminist theory has contributed to better understanding of
family diversity, family violence, and parental roles and
Critique: Feminists often rely more heavily on
qualitative research methods rather than
quantitative methods. Many feminists are part of
an “old girl” network.
Symbolic interaction theory explores
subjective, interpersonal meaning and how
we communicate using symbols and shared
Definition of the situation refers to how we
perceive and react to reality.
Significant others are people in our primary
Critique: Tends to ignore macro level
influences on family functioning and may
have unrealistic views of everyday life.
Theory: Social Exchange
Social exchange theory is based on the
idea that any social interaction is based on
the efforts to minimize costs and maximize
Change occurs when costs are greater than
Critique: Social exchange theory places too
much weight on rational decision making and
may not account for groups which do not
place as much value on individual behavior.
Theory: Family Life Course
Family life course development theory
explores the changes that families
experience over the lifespan.
Specific focus is placed on developmental tasks.
The family life cycle is divided into stages.
Critique: Some researchers feel stage
models are “artificial” and are often restricted
to nuclear and stable families, ignoring
single-parent and gay and lesbian families.
Stages of the Family Life Cycle
Theory: Family Systems
Family systems theory views families as
functioning units that solve problems, make
decisions and achieve collective goals.
Focus is often placed on how families
communicate, how patterns evolve and how
individual personalities affect other family
Critique: Some researchers have suggested
family systems theory is too general and
does not provide much insight on how the
Studying Marriage and
Part 2: Methods
Surveys are used to systematically collect
Questionnaires and interviews can be face to face, by
telephone, or mailed.
Focus groups can be used to explore issues before
launching a larger research project
Strengths: Surveys are inexpensive and quick. Face
to face interviews have high response rates.
Weaknesses: Mailed questionnaires have low
response rates. Data may be falsified on self report
Methods: Clinical Research
Clinical research focuses on individuals or small
groups of people who seek help from mental health
The case study approach provides in-depth information
and descriptions of individuals and families.
Strengths: Case studies are usually based on long-
term counseling where clinicians may offer insights
about family dynamics.
Weaknesses: Case studies are often consuming,
expensive, and not representative.
Methods: Field Research
Field researchers collect data by systematically
observing people in their natural surroundings.
When researchers interact naturally, but do not reveal their
identities as researchers, they are participant observers.
When researchers study phenomena without being part of
the situation they are non-participant observers.
Strengths: Field research can provide a more in-
depth understanding and can be more flexible than
other types of research.
Weaknesses: Field research can be time-consuming
and expensive, as well as providing difficult role
challenges for the investigator.
Methods: Secondary Analysis
Researchers who use secondary analysis are
using data that was collected by someone else.
Sources may include historical documents, public records,
letters and diaries, and/or official statistics.
Strengths: Secondary analysis tends to be
accessible, convenient, and inexpensive, and can
provide good ways to explore longitudinal
Weaknesses: Secondary data may not include all
the information required or may have missing
information. It may also not include the data the
researcher is looking for.
Experiments examine cause and effect
relationships under controlled conditions.
Typically a researcher tests a hypothesis.
Experimental designs are rare in family research, but more
common in medical and psychological studies.
Strengths: Experiments are usually inexpensive and can be
replicated, which strengthens the researcher’s confidence
in the reliability and/or validity of the study.
Weaknesses: Often experimental designs can not be
generalized to larger populations. They typically rely
heavily on student populations for participants.
Methods: Evaluation research
Evaluation research is used to assess the
efficiency and effectiveness of social programs.
Evaluation research is applied research in the sense that
it assesses a specific program for a specific agency or
Strengths: Evaluation research can have important
practical applications and outcomes.
Weaknesses: Often politics can play a role in
determining how evaluation research is used and
The Ethics and Politics of
Most professional organizations subscribe to
codes of ethics to help protect human
Researchers must adhere to these ethical
standards both in collecting data and in
reporting the results.
Political issues can affect both research
agendas and reporting procedures.