Over at Cato Unbound, family historian Stephanie Coontz kicks off this month's set of essays on "The Future of Marriage." Coontz's essay is, in my view, right on the money, especially her last paragraph that distinguishes between the form that families take and the effectiveness with which families function. Our concern should be with the latter and not the former, although the two are certainly interrelated. That point has been central to my own work on the family (see working papers here and here and Cambridge Journal of Economics article here and Freeman piece here), which owes much to Coontz's excellent historical scholarship.
There is also a discussion thread at Reason's Hit & Run in which I've been posting. Some good stuff there, mixed in with the usual snarkiness.
Below the fold, I excerpt a section from one of my book's draft chapters that makes the point about function and form.
From draft Chapter 2 "Evolutionary Theories and the Family as a Social Institution" in Two Worlds at Once: A Classical Liberal Approach to the Evolution of the Modern Family:
Although form and function are analytically distinct, there is no doubt that they are interrelated when we turn to look at the history of the family and its current state. As the chapters to follow will argue, both the forms and functions of the human family have changed over the course of known human history. The speed of those changes has largely paralleled the speed of social evolution more generally, with most of human history being relatively stable and much more rapid change in the last several hundred years, and especially since the Industrial Revolution. In particular, the emergence of the spontaneous order of the Great Society has been central to those changes in form and function, as the wealth produced by capitalism, and the organization of production that has been at its center, have been major factors in changes in the family. From the outset, we note that the family has in fact changed significantly over the course of human history, especially over recent history, which should make us skeptical of claims that invoke the “traditional family.” In our own times, this phrase most frequently refers to the nuclear, heterosexual family with children, often to the specifics of a working father and stay-at-home mother. As we shall see, there is plenty of historical evidence (e.g. Coontz 2005) to indicate that the demographic dominance of that family form was the product of a unique set of forces following World War II and that to refer to it as “traditional” is to cloak it with a rhetorical power, normally coming from some other ideological or political belief, that history cannot justify. Although biology, at least until recently, has required a male-female proximal bond to create children, how that sexual act was located within the social organization of child-raising and other functions we associate today with families has varied immensely across human history. Who has comprised families and what those families did and how they came to be show a remarkable diversity.
Form and function, however separate analytically, have co-evolved historically. In general, changes in form have followed changes in function, as we might expect. Those changes in function have most often resulted from changes in the institutions that surround the family, such as the economic, political, and legal orders. The focus in this study will be on the economic factors, but the others have mattered as well. In some cases, those economic changes have led to changes in the political and legal rules that have in turn led to changes in the functions of families (e.g., the ending of coverture laws as women’s economic status improved enough to create pressure to end them). In other cases, political and legal changes have had a direct impact on form (e.g., Loving v. Virginia (1967) overturning laws in US states that prohibited interracial marriage). But over the long-run, the general direction of change has been from surrounding institutions to family function to family form. As with other evolutionary processes, faced with new environmental challenges, those families that altered their forms in adaptive ways were better able to prosper, leading to imitation by others. To the extent that these changes in the family have largely been adaptive, the evolution the family as a social institution can be seen as an example of unplanned or “spontaneous” social order, a key concept in classical liberal social theory.