Unit Ten: Family and Workplace Issues

What is a Family?

familyIn American society, as in all other societies in the world, group organization revolves around the family unit. Because each culture defines the family differently, a common definition for family is difficult to determine.  This unit will examine how contemporary systems of marriage and family operate.  The sociological perspective should be applied to understand how the family has evolved due to recent economic, political, religious, and cultural changes.

As was mentioned before, every society creates its own definition of a family. But that hasn’t stopped sociologists from trying to define what a family is.  The definition most commonly agreed upon is that a family consists of two or more people who consider themselves related by blood, marriage, or adoption.  Here in the United States and in some European countries, because of the changing definition of family, companies and cities are recognizing families of affinity, which is a group of people with or without legal or blood ties who feel they belong together and wish to define themselves as a family.  Businesses and cities are according this new definition of family with benefits such as health care.

1.  Marriage and the Family Processes

2.  Who’s a Family?  New Study Tracks Shifting US Views


Family Classifications

There are a number of family classifications.  Below is a brief description of each.

Nuclear Family.   The nuclear family consists of a father, mother, and biological and/or adoptive children.  Most people in the United States see this as the preferred family arrangement, yet only about one-third of the nation’s family households fit this model.

Extended Family.  A family where relatives, such as grandparents or aunts and uncles, live in the same home as parents with children.  The move towards Industrialization in a society tends to promote the destruction of extended families and the support of nuclear families.

Family of Orientation.  The family in which you are born into, and/or are subsequently raised.

Family of Procreation.  The family that is formed when a couple have their first child.


Marriage Arrangements and Types

The institution of marriage plays an important role in the structure of the family.  Marriage can be thought of as a group’s approved mating arrangements.  It is also a legally sanctioned relationship involving economic cooperation.  Below is a brief description of the various marriage arrangements.

Monogamy.   Marriage of one male to one female.  They are married only to each other.

Serial monogamy.  A person may have several spouses over his or her life, but only one spouse at a time.  An example would be Elizabeth Taylor.  The world record for marriages is held by a Indiana woman at 23.

polygamy          Polygamy.  A marriage, where an individual may have several spouses at the same time.

Polygyny.   Marriage of one male to several females.  This is the most common form of polygamy.  In polygamous societies, relatively few men have multiple spouses.  Having multiple wives is viewed as a mark of status. It is an indication of how much wealth you have.

Polyandry.   Marriage of one female with more than one male.  Few societies have this marriage arrangement.  The culture of the Todas of southern India is an example.  This form of marriage has been accepted in societies that practice female infanticide, and thus have a relatively smaller number of women.  It can also be found in societies where agriculture is difficult, such as Tibet, where polyandry discourages the division of land into parcels too small to support a family.

1.  Types of Marriage and Families



Sociological Theories on the Family

Structural- Functionalist

According to structural-functionalists, for a society to survive, basic needs must be met. For this perspective, the major question is:  how does the family contribute to the well-being of society?  The family unit is universal because it fulfills basic needs of every society.  These needs are:

Reproduction.   For societies to continue, dying members must be replaced.  Throughout history, the family has served as the legitimate institution to have offspring. When children become adults, they can help support their elderly parents.

Protection.  To develop fully, human infants require an extremely long period of care.  In all societies, family members assume ultimate responsibility for the protection of young children.

Socialization.  The family is probably the most influential agent of socialization. Cultural norms, values, language and behaviors are taught and transmitted within the family unit.  Parents teach their children to be contributing members of society.

Regulation of Sexual Behavior.  Standards of sexual behavior are most clearly defined within the family unit.  Dating, pre-marital sex, marital sex, and extra-marital sex, and other sexual norms of a culture, are regulated primarily by the family.  One universal regulation is the incest taboo, which is a prohibition forbidding sexual relations or marriage between certain family members.  The incest taboo minimizes sexual competition within families, and forces people to marry outside of their families which serves to integrate the larger society.  Regulated sexual behavior within the family makes social order possible.

Affection and Companionship.  If the family is functioning properly, it should provide members with warm and intimate relationships.  Family members expect one another to be there in times of crisis and provide emotional support.

Providing of Social Status.   We are born into a social position because of our parents economic, educational, and social status.  Family resources help to determine the degree of social mobility available.

Conflict Theory

This perspective sees the  institution of the family not as a contributor to social stability, but as a reflection of the inequality in wealth and power found in society at large.  Throughout human history, and in much of the world today, husbands have held overwhelming power and authority within the family.  In fact, until just recently, women and children were often viewed as property of the husband.  Although the egalitarian family is the goal in American society, it is one not often reached.  For example, women are significantly more likely to leave their jobs when their husbands find better employment opportunities, than men when their wives receive better employment opportunities.

JugglerThe “Second Shift”.   Conflict theorists stress the continuing struggle for scare resources.  The demands of housework create a struggle for the scarce resources of time, energy, and pursuing individual interests.  “Second shift” refers to the second job many women have when they come home after work.  Women put in on the average eleven more hours per week more than their husbands in tasks such as shopping, cooking, cleaning and paying bills.  It is not surprising, that this gap in household chores creates discontent among wives and friction within the marriage.  Two factors help to shrink the gap in household chores.  The first is wages.  The smaller the gap between husband and wife pay, the more equitable is the household labor.  A second factor is the existence of the idea that there should be equality in the division of household chores.   This attitude towards equality is usually linked to both spouses having a college education.

  1.    The Second Shift

2.  Truce Declared in War Over Household Chores

Domestic Abuse.  Throughout the world, many husbands reinforce their power and control in the family through acts of violence. Although there exists abuse of men by women, it represents a small percentage of total abuse cases.  For many women and children around the world, the family does not represent a sanctuary, but rather, a personal prison.  One of the leading authorities in the world on spouse abuse, sociologist Murray A. Strauss, through extensive research, has discovered some interesting finding.  The first, is that violent assaults on wives can be found in every social class.  However, violent abuse against wives is more common in the lower class, than in the higher classes where higher education is more common.  His research also indicates that abuse towards wives is more common amongst couples who witnessed their mothers being abused as a child or who were themselves abused as children.

Inheritance of Property.  Throughout history, and even today, many societies have had or currently have, restrictions on the inheritance rights of women.  This unequal distribution of wealth between brothers and sisters, creates unequal opportunities within the family.  Families allow fathers to transmit their property to sons.  Families, therefore act as a mechanism for reproducing gender inequalities from one generation to the next. For conflict theorists, patriarchy within the family structure allows women to be transformed into sexual and economic property of men.


Symbolic Interactionist

Symbolic interactionists focus on the microlevel of the family and its relationships.  They focus on the meanings associated with the interactions of family members.  For example, they might study the connection between  fathers and behavior problems of children.  (Studies show that children who have active fathers in their lives, have fewer behavioral problems than do children with fathers who are not active in their development.)  They might also look at the role of housework, and how housework in general, or even specific chores, may be viewed as male or female.  Symbolic interactionists look at the various ways family members adjust their individual and family identities in response to changing roles and crises.  How do married couples react to a newborn child?  How do they react when the child leaves home?  How do children deal with a divorce?  Ask yourself, how does a person’s identity change with each of these new situations?

1.  Changes in the Black Family Structure

Diversity in U.S. Families

In American society, as in all other societies in the world, the family has undergone change.  This process can be seen in the changing definitions of what constitutes a family, types of marriages, living arrangements, and child rearing practices.   Demographic and structural changes have resulted in great diversity in family forms.  The discussion below examines how the changing nature of families in the United States.

Types of Families

The family is an institution that changes according to social conditions. There is no one natural, or true form for the family.  Yet, the idea of a “golden age” or “idealized” state of the family persists for many people.  The family unit varies substantially by race, social class, age, and income. Below is a brief description of some of the types of families in the United States.

Married- Couple Families.   With all the changes in the family structure, the married-couple family still represents the most common of all household types.  Family households predominated in 1970, when they made up 81 percent of all households. This proportion dropped to around 66 percent by 2012.  Between 1970 and 2013, the share of households that were married couples with children decreased by about half from 40 to 19 percent.  One of the most notable changes in married-couple families is the increased participation of women in the labor force. Among married people between the ages of 25 and 34, 96 percent of the men and 72 percent of the women are in the labor force.  Dual-income families raise issues about the quality of life- marital relationships, child care, and standard of living.  The additional income of the second wage earner does not guarantee marital bliss.  Married-couple families face a great amount of stress.  With respect to child-rearing, studies indicate that despite the widespread belief that the birth of a child will bring a couple closer together, research shows that having children increases stress and may lower marital satisfaction.

1.  Why Marriage Matters

singlemomSingle-Parent Families.   Single-parent families are a family where one parent is the primary care provider.  Since 1970 the number of single-parent families has tripled.  In recent decades the social stigma attached to single parents has decreased.  According to Families and Living Arrangements: 2012, some 74 million children younger than 18 lived in the United States. Of these, 64 percent lived with married parents, 3.9 percent lived with two unmarried parents, 28 percent lived with one parent and 3.5 percent lived with no parent present.  According to a 2013 Census Bureau Report,  a single parent was the head of 21 percent of white families with children under 18, 31 percent for Hispanic families, and 55 percent for African-American families.  Most single parent households are headed by women (78%).  According to Families and Living Arrangements: 2012, there were 21 million children-or 28% of all children- who lived in one-parent families in 2012 — 17.9 million single-mother families and 2.9 million single-father families.  The two major reasons for the increase in single-parent families are: 1) the high divorce rate, and 2)  the high rate of pregnancy among unmarried teens.  A family headed by a single, teenage mother faces especially difficult problems.  Teen mothers, regardless of race, are among the most economically and educationally disadvantaged groups in American society. They find it difficult to get jobs, their schooling is interrupted, and they are unlikely to receive child support.

1.  Single-Parenting: The Sociological Tour Through Cyberspace

2.  1 in 4 Children in the US Raised by a Single Parent

Stepfamilies.  Approximately one-third of all people in the United States will marry, divorce, and remarry.  The rising rates of divorce and remarriage have led to an increase in stepfamily relationships.  According to Census Bureau statistics, in 1980, 9% of families with children included a stepparent, by 1990, that figure had risen to 24%.  This has given rise to the blended family.  A blended family is a family whose members were once a part of another family.  Blended families include those that contain stepchildren and their stepparents, half siblings, or stepsiblings.  Overall, 17% (12.2 million) of all children lived in blended families (2008 Census Bureau Report).   The fictionalized TV family of the Brady Bunch would be an example. Stepfamilies have a unique set of problems.  The parental roles of mothers and fathers are suddenly expanded to include more children.  Jealousy, competition, and demands for time and attention can make the relationships within stepfamilies tense.

1.  Stepfamily Association of America 

Families Without Children.  The number of married couples who choose to remain childless has increased in American society.  Approximately 12 percent of U.S. married couples never have children.   From 2007 to 2011, the most recent year for which there’s data, the fertility rate declined 9%. A 2010 Pew Research report showed that childlessness has risen across all racial and ethnic groups, adding up to about 1 in 5 American women who end their childbearing years maternity-free, compared with 1 in 10 in the 1970s. Some reasons for this is because some couples do not want to give up the excitement and challenges of a career, or they may view raising a child as too expensive. The acronym DINKS (dual income no kids) has worked its way into our society’s vocabulary to designate the rise in the number of married couples without children.

1.  The Impact of Having Children on Marital Satisfaction

2.   Expenditures on Children by Families

Families Headed by Grandparents.  According to Families and Living Arrangements: 2013,  in 2013, approximately 7.1 million (10 percent) of children lived  in a household that included a grandparent. The majority of these children (3.7 million) lived in the grandparent’s home, and of these, about 60 percent had a parent present.  The main reason for the increase in families headed by grandparents is that the parents are incapable of caring for their children.  The most common reasons are because parents have died, become ill, are homeless, addicted to drugs, abused or neglected their children,  or are in prison.

gayhouseholdGay and Lesbian Households.  Recently in the United States, the traditional heterosexual definition of the family has been challenged by the gay and lesbian community.  The relationships between gays and lesbians do not carry the same social blessings as heterosexual relationships.  The dominant culture still denies lesbian and gay couples the benefits and privileges that heterosexual couples receive.  Some businesses and municipalities have recently begun to offer health care plans and other benefits to homosexual couples. Some states and a number of major cities such as San Francisco and New York have passed laws giving limited spousal benefits to gay and lesbian couples.  Many other states have passed legislation allowing homosexual couples to adopt.  Most gay couples with children in the United States are raising the offspring of previous heterosexual unions.  Recent research has found that despite popular stereotypes, there is no harmful effect on children who grow up in gay households.  According to the 2011 American Community Survey, there were 605,000 same-sex couple households, including both married and unmarried couples, of whom 284,000 were male and 321,000 were female couples.

1.  Gay and Lesbian Adoptive Parents


Singles.  In 1957, University of Michigan psychology professors Joseph Veroff, Elizabeth Douvan, and Richard Kulka released a survey that examined American attitudes to being single. The findings were stark: 80% of those surveyed believed that people who preferred being unmarried were “sick,” “immoral,” or “neurotic.” Things have changed. Americans are now within mere percentage points of being a majority single nation: Only 51% of adults today are married, according to census data. And 28% of all households now consist of just one person — the highest level in U.S. history. The trend toward maintaining a single lifestyle for a longer period of time is related to economic and social factors.  Many young people, especially women, delay marriage for educational pursuits and entry into the labor force.  The rise in the number of single people is a consequence of the fact that men and women are marrying at a later age.    Yet despite the increases in delaying marriage, fewer than 5 percent of men and women will remain single throughout their lifetimes.  According to Families and Living Arrangements: 2013, slightly more than one in four households (28 percent) consisted of a person living alone in 2013, up from 17 percent in 1970.

1.  Singlehood as an Alternative Family Form


Adoption. Adoption refers to the transfer of legal rights, responsibilities, and privileges of parenthood to a new legal parent or parents.  The largest single category of adoption in the United States is adoption by relatives.

1.  Adoption Statistics

2.  Yearly Inter-Country Adoptions Statistics for the United States


Comparison of the Traditional Nuclear Family With New Alternative Family Forms

Traditional Nuclear Family New Alternatives
legally married never-married, singlehood, cohabitation
with children voluntary childlessness
two parent single-parent (never married or previously married)
male primary provider, ultimate authority egalitarian marriage (including dual career and commuter marriage)
sexually exclusive extramarital affairs ( including sexually open marriage and swinging)
heterosexual same-sex intimate relationships or households
two-adult household multi-adult households (including multiple spouses, communal living, and multigenerational families)

Source:  Macklin, Eleanor D.  1980.  “Nontraditional Family Forms: A Decade of Research.”  Journal of Marriage and the Family  42:   p. 906


Trends in U.S. Families

Marriage is no longer the assumed route from adolescence to adulthood.  As seen from our discussion above, the structure of the family has undergone change.  Listed below is a short description of some of the trends in the United States with respect to families and marriage.

Postponing Marriage.   Americans are postponing marriage.  According to a Census Bureau Report, the proportion of never married women 25 to 34 increased between 1970 and 2005, from 9 percent to 32 percent. Among men, this age, the share rose from 15 percent to 43 percent.   The median age at first marriage in 2013 was 29.0 for men and 26.6 for women, up from 23.2 for men and 20.8 for women in 1970. There are a number of factors responsible for this.  First, freed from financial needs, many women don’t necessarily have to marry to enjoy a satisfying life.  As sexual attitudes towards greater sexual permissiveness have changed, many people also find the same sexual gratification in single life as they would in marriage. Approximately 95 percent of Americans will get married at some point in their lifetimes.

1.  Historical and Social Analysis of When Americans First Wed

2.  U.S. Economy and Adults Postponing Marriage

3.   4 in 10 Americans Say Marriage is Obsolete

cohabitation1Cohabitation.  Cohabitation refers to adults living together in a sexual relationship without being married.  According to the Census Bureau, at any given time, one out of every ten opposite sex couples are unmarried.  Half of all people between the ages of 25 and 40 have cohabitated. Twelve times more Americans were cohabitating in 2008 than in 1970 (U.S. Census Bureau 2000). Many sociologists (particularly symbolic interactionists) believe that one reason why married couples who lived in separate residences before marriage have lower divorce rates than married couples who cohabitated before marriage is in how the two groups view the term “commitment”. Those who did not cohabitate before marriage placed a stronger emphasis on commitment than those who cohabitated.

With respect to cohabitation, there has also been a cultural shift in how and when cohabitating couples have children. In the past if a cohabitating couple had a baby, a “shotgun wedding” might occur shortly afterwards to avoid family embarrassment. Today that is less likely to occur. With marriage in decline, cohabitation has emerged as an acceptable form for child bearing and child rearing.  The share of unmarried couples who opted to have “shotgun cohabitations” — moving in together after a pregnancy — surpassed “shotgun marriages” for the first time over the last decade, according to  the National Center for Health Statistics, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  About 18.1 percent of all single women who became pregnant opted to move in with their boyfriends before the child was born, according to 2006-2010 data from the government’s National Survey of Family Growth, the latest available. That is compared to 5.3 percent who chose a post-conception marriage.  As recently as the early 1990s, 25 percent of such couples got married.

Cohabiting mothers are spurring increases in out-of-wedlock births, now at a high of 41 percent. In all, about 60 percent of all births during the 2000s were to married mothers, compared to 24 percent to cohabiting mothers and 16 percent to non-cohabiting mothers. That was the first time that cohabiting births exceeded births from single mothers who weren’t living with their child’s father.

Since the early 1990s, the share of out-of-wedlock, cohabiting births has grown from 11 percent to 24 percent, while those to non-cohabiting, single mothers has remained steady at 16 percent.


1.  Cohabitation and its Effects on Eventual Marriage

2.  Cohabitation: Maybe Not Bad For Marriage?

3.  Cohabitation is Replacing Dating

4.  Sociological Reasons Not to Cohabitate


Unmarried Mothers.  With the exception of Japan, all other industrialized nations have seen an increase over the past 40 years in the number of unmarried mothers.  Many of these unmarried mothers are teenagers.

Forty-four percent of single mothers have never been married. This is 11 times the percent of never-married single mothers in 1960.  In 2012, over 40 percent of all children are born to single women, compared with less than 10 percent in 1960.


1.  Worldwide Increase in Number of Children Born to Unwed Mothers 


The Sandwich Generation and Elder Care.   Families in the United States are increasingly being affected by the need to provide elder care.  Because our family size is shrinking in the United States, there are fewer younger people available to take care of the elderly. The term “sandwich generation” refers to people who find themselves sandwiched between taking care of two generations, their children and their parents.   In our society, as in most societies, women are expected to shoulder the work of elder care.  Elder care in the United States is provided in two ways: institutions for the elderly and private care in the home.  Most of the care of older people in the United States is provided by families. A relatively small percentage of the elderly are placed in long-term institutional care, but that percentage is increasing.

1.  The Sandwich Generation:  A Cluttered Nest

Families and Social Problems

Family Violence.   Although the family is often depicted as sanctuary where members are nurtured, families can also be a private sphere of violence and conflict.  Although husbands and wives are about equally likely to attack one another,  women are far more likely to need medical attention because of marital violence.  The American Medical Association has estimated that one in three women in the United States will be physically assaulted by her husband at some point in their married life. According to a Department of Justice Report from 2005,  The majority (73%) of family violence victims were female. Females were 84% of spouse abuse victims and 86% of victims of abuse at the hands of a boyfriend or girlfriend.  While about three-fourths of the victims of family violence were female, about three-fourths of the persons who committed family violence were male.  Eight in ten murderers who killed a family member were male.

Child abuse is another form of family violence.  Child abuse may involve physical or emotional abuse, as well as neglect.  Factors associated with abuse include: drug and alcohol abuse, unemployment, and isolation of the family.  Incest is a particular kind of child abuse involving sexual relations with persons who are closely related.  Studies have found that fathers and uncles are the most frequent incest abusers.  New research has indicated that brother-sister incest is more common than father-daughter incest.

1.  Domestic Violence in the United States


Teen Pregnancy.  The United States has one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy in the world.  Each year close to half a million teenage girls have babies.

1.   Children Having Children

2.   Teenpregnancy.org

3.   US Teen Birth Rate Hits All Time Low



Families and the World of Work.  One new area of research is the conflict between the demands of the workplace and the demands of family life.  Sociologists are beginning to conduct research looking at the possible connection between such things as workload and child neglect and/or abuse.  Among industrialized nations, the United States provides the fewest federally supported maternity and child-care policies.   The Family and Medical Leave Act adopted by Congress in 1993 is meant to address the competing demands of work and family. The FMLA requires employers of 50 or more people to provide 12 weeks of unpaid leave to any worker who has a medical emergency or needs to care for an adopted or newborn child or a seriously ill child, spouse, or parent.  Part time workers are not covered by the FMLA.

1.  The Emerging 21st-Century American Family

2.  Paid Leave Benefits Lagging for Working Moms in the US





divorceGetting Divorced.   The United States leads the world in the number of people who divorce. Just how common is divorce?   Divorce statistics are hard to interpret.  The mass media frequently reports that half of all marriages end in divorce.  This figure is misleading because many marriages last for decades.  The couples who divorce during a given year, are for the most part, not from the same group that married that year.  How then could we measure divorce?  We could compare the total number of married couples and then look at how many of those obtained a divorce in a given year.  Or we could look at the number of divorces per thousand married women.  Which ever statistics are used, the divorce rates have increased over the past fifty years.  Divorce is not equally distributed across all groups.  Divorce is more likely for couples who marry young (teens or early 20’s).  Second marriages are more likely to end in divorce than first marriages.  Divorce rates also differ according to race and class.  For the most part, divorce rates are higher among low income couples.  The higher one’s education, the less likely one’s marriage is to end in divorce.  Finally, those who are married to a spouse who engages in “bad” behavior, such as alcohol and drug abuse, adultery, and crime, have a higher chance of their marriage ending in divorce.

1.    U.S. Divorce Rates for Various Age Groups, Faith Groups, and Geographic Area

2.    Divorce Statistics Collection

3.    The Divorce Revolution

Causes of Divorce.  There are a number of factors that contribute to the increase in divorce in the United States.  Demographics play a role in divorce.  We are living longer. Many marriages that would have ended with the death of a spouse, now end with a divorce.  Cultural factors also contribute to increased divorce rates.  Individualism is a cultural trait in  the United States.  A high value is placed on individual satisfaction. People often terminate a marriage looking for happiness elsewhere. We have become more concerned with personal happiness than with the well-being of our families and children.  In addition to individualism, there has been a growing acceptance of divorce in American society.  People no longer believe one should endure an unhappy marriage.  This can be seen in the expansion of no-fault divorce laws over the past few decades.  Finally, the change in women’s roles over the past half century have changed the views of divorce.  Women are less financially dependent on the resources of husbands as they were in the past.  They feel economically and emotionally more confident to leave a marriage that seems hopeless.

Characteristics That Make It More Likely A Person Will Get Divorced

*   Marriage at an early age

*   A short acquaintanceship before marriage

*   Disapproval of the marriage by relatives and friends

*   Limited economic resources and low wages

*   A high school education or less

*   Parents who are divorced or have unhappy marriages

*   The presence of children at the beginning of the marriage

Although the emotional trauma of a divorce is a heavy burden, some sociologists believe it can be a positive option.  Divorce may be the only option for people in unhappy marriages.  Without it, they would be resigned to a life of misery.  Secondly, new research suggests that it is more harmful to children to remain in a marriage with a high level of conflict, than in staying together for the sake of the children.

Remarriage.  Some sociologists view the high rate of remarriage in the United States as an endorsement of the institution of marriage.  Four out of five people who divorce remarry, most within five years.  However, research seems to indicate that divorce rates are higher for those who remarry.  Most divorced people remarry others who have been divorced.  At all ages, a greater percentage of men remarry than women.

1.  Remarriage in America (Psychology Today) 


childrenanddivorceChildren and Divorce.  Divorce has a special meaning to the approximately one million children whose parents divorce each year. Most children will feel confused and insecure.  Some may see the divorce as a welcomed end to a dysfunctional relationship.  A recent study in 1997 by sociologists Paul Amato and Alan Booth found that in about one-third of divorces children benefit from the separation of parents because of a decrease in exposure to conflict. Yet for the remainder, divorce represents the beginning of an emotionally painful time.  It is important to remember, that not all problems experienced by children whose parents divorce are attributable to the divorce.  Many of these difficulties were present before the breakup.  A number of factors influence how children adjust to a divorce.  Children adjust better if:  1)  both parents show understanding and affection, 2)  the child is living with a parent who is making a good adjustment, and 3) the family has adequate money to meet its needs.

1.  Trends in the Well-Being of American Children 

Workplace Issues

Work occupies a central position in people’s lives.  Societies are organized to allocate work to produce the goods and services its members need.  Work provides individuals and families with their social identities. After you find out a new acquaintance’s name, what is the next question you ask them?  Work takes up a good portion of a person’s lifetime.  Work can provide a meaning and a livelihood, but it has a dark side as well and is a source of many social problems.  Work can be alienating, exploitive, dehumanizing, and harmful. This section will explore how the workplace contributes to social problems.


Control of Workers

workercontrolAs people moved from the countryside to cities during the Industrial Revolution they encountered a new type of work in factories.  Work in factories was difficult, dangerous, boring and tedious. Factory owners were focused on productivity and were constantly pressuring workers to work harder. The owners of business introduced scientific management into industry. Scientific management involves the standardization of tasks, a focus on specialization, and a reliance on repetitive work in order to increase productivity and hence profits. Instead of possessing a wide range of skills, workers were asked to master one skill. Instead of expressing their human abilities on the job, people are forced to deny their humanity and act like robots. This specialization had the effect of making workers susceptible to automation and to be replaced by cheaper workers.

Along with specialization came bureaucracies.  Work settings, whether in factories, universities, offices or corporations, became bureaucratic hierarchies. In the modern bureaucracy, orders are given from above and trickle down to those below.  To receive better wages and benefits, workers become obedient order followers and learn not to question authority.

Management uses a number of methods to control workers.  Some businesses use lie detector tests, psychological tests and drug tests to screen applicants. Email, internet activity and phone use are all monitored.  If workers make demands for higher wages, benefits or better working conditions, management can threaten to replace them with cheaper workers, firing, or to move the plant out of the country.

Working conditions have deteriorated for many workers. Today many workers toil in sweatshop conditions. A sweatshop is a substandard work environment where workers are paid less than the minimum wage and where federal and state rules for workers are ignored.  Sweatshop businesses occur in many types of industries but are frequently found in the garment sector. In addition to sweatshops, many workers are forced into modern slavery.  The state department estimates that 50,000 people are trafficked into the United States to work as sex slaves, domestic servants, garment slaves, or as agricultural laborers.


Alienation is the separation of human beings from each other, from themselves, and from the products they create. Workers only use a fraction of their talents and are unable to take pride in their own creativity and in the final product.  In the absence of satisfaction and personal fulfillment, work becomes meaningless.  Some workers might channel their resentment into forming a collective group to improve their situations, but others will see their alienation at a personal level and turn to absenteeism, disruption of the workplace, and alcohol or drug abuse on the job.


Dangerous Work Conditions

workersafetyOne way for businesses to keep labor costs low and profits up to reduce money spent on safe working conditions. Historically factories and mines were extremely unsafe.  Yet today, many owners of businesses continue to consider the safety of their workers a low priority. In the United States the federal government created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to make the workplace safer. In a 2012 report from OSHA, Nearly 3.0 million nonfatal workplace injuries and illnesses were reported by private industry employers

in 2011.  Approximately 820,900 injury and illness cases were reported among state and local government workers in 2011, resulting in a rate of 5.7 cases per 100 full-time workers–significantly higher than the rate among private industry workers (3.5 cases per 100 workers).  Also according to OSHA, in 2011, 4609 workers were killed on the job in the United States.  Since 1970, workplace fatalities have been reduced by more than 65 percent and occupational injury and illness rates have declined by 67 percent. At the same time, U.S. employment has almost doubled.  Minorities, especially Latinos, have the highest work-related death rates. The reason is that Latinos have taken the dangerous and hard-to-fill jobs in construction, meatpacking and farming.

Discrimination in the Workplace

Women and minorities have long been the objects of discrimination in the United States. Each year in the United States, approximately 50,000 charges of discrimination are filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The charges typically focus on hiring policies, seniority rights, limited opportunities for advancement, and lower pay for equal work. The following link goes to the Equal Opportunity Commission webpage which explores the filings by type of discrimination.

1.  Charge Statistics FY 1997 to 2011


Job Insecurity

jobinsequirityIn previous generations workers in the United States had a realistic hope of lifetime employment with the same employer.  Since the 1980’s, through corporate downsizing, automation, and mergers, job security has declined. In addition to a lack of job security, workers today are faced with stagnating wages, reduced benefits, and higher unemployment.

Weaker unions and competition from low-wage economies have allowed U.S. businesses to reduce their benefits to workers. Many businesses have declared bankruptcy to avoid paying on benefits promised to their workers. The number of employers offering health insurance has declined as well. Most Americans, particularly those under age 65, rely on health insurance offered through the workplace.  Given persistent  high unemployment, the share of Americans under age 65 covered by employer-sponsored health insurance (or ESI) eroded for the tenth year in a row in 2010, falling from 59.4 percent in 2009 to 58.6 percent.  Finally, Americans work more hours per week than in any other industrialized country.

   actionSocial Problems in Film

Below are a list of movies that exhibit sociological concepts learned in this unit.

American Beauty.   A depressing look at suburban American family life.

Parenthood.  A funny, yet enlightening look at the demands of parenting.



books03 Social Problems in Books

Below are a list of books that exhibit sociological concepts learned in this unit.

1.  Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Intimacy or How Love Conquered Marriage  by Stephanie Coontz

2.  A History of the Wife   by Marilyn Yalom

3.  Promises I Can Keep : Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage by Kathryn Edin

4.  The Sandwich Generation: Caught Between Growing Children and Aging Parents by H. Michael Zal

5.  A Generation at Risk:  Growing Up in an Era of Family Upheaval  by Paul R. Amato, Alan Booth






Eitzen, D. Stanley and Zinn, Maxine Baca      2012  Social Problems  (Twelfth Edition) Boston:   Pearson (Allyn and Bacon)

Sullivan, Thomas J.

2012  Introduction to Social Problems   (9th Edition) Boston:  Pearson (Allyn and Bacon)



The Childfree Life – TIME http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2148636,00.html#ixzz2rGFww222



Copyright ©2014 Glenn Hoffarth All Rights Reserved



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