One of the first and foremost problem in our society is the Family. Ever since the beginning of civilization, family served as the main support for physical, emotional, and psychological guidance. Nevertheless, it is also said that these days the family and its function for helping individuals in their formation of normative values have declined due to a combination of an encroachment from other players such as the media (aka mediatization) (Hjarvard, 2008), and external factors such as the failing economy and disparity between the different classes of society (Cherlin, 2016). On one hand, it is said that through the process of mediatization, the roles of traditional institutions (e.g. religion, family, and school) are gradually becoming subsumed under the logic of media, thus making them more independent on these new forms of expression. On the other hand, the external factors in the economy and culture, has also made the problems within family relationships more persistent as it correlates to a ‘radical shift’ in the family’s social structure as characterized by an increase in the number of “cohabitating” couples as compared to those engaged in traditional marriage systems. From this perspective, it could easily be seen that the increasing dominance of mass media could’ve led to the increase in the number of couples who are cohabitating together. Nevertheless, based on the seminal work done by Cherlin (2014), he identified that one of the greatest reasons for this shift in the family structure is education. In his study, he was able to identify there exist a “marriage gap” between individuals who were able to finish a 4-year Bachelor’s degree as compared to those who were only able to finish a high school degree or lower. Nevertheless, looking at a much wider perspective, the author of this article believes that while education could present as one of the strongest factors for the increasing marriage gap, it is the overall structure (i.e. the economy and culture) which creates the disparity in terms of the opportunity for education and employment. Thus, leading to a shift in the traditional structure of the society, a phenomenon called by Durkheim as Anomie. In line with this, this article would focus on the work of Vance, as an example of this phenomenon of ‘normlessness’, especially with regards to the traditional family structures. The next sections would also incorporate the works of Macionis, Wilson, Brooks, and Cherlin, in order to discuss particular topics in class and race, relating to the topic on the ongoing shift in family structures. The said section would also include a discussion about the plight of the working class as discussed in Brook’s lecture, and what we can do to be able to increase our level of happiness. Lastly, the author would also suggest ideas about the role of the state as an over-arching traditional institution and the potential policy programs that it could ‘initiate’ in order to reduce the numbers of couples who are cohabiting together, and thus increase the likelihood for a family to develop a much more conducive environment for the development of a child’s well-being.
Hillbilly Elegy and the Economic Crisis of Marriage
The Seminal work by Vance, entitled Hillbilly elegy, narrates his life in the small town of Jackson, Kentucky, which is primarily a coal country of southeastern Kentucky (Vance & Vance, 2016). From the article, he described how he grew up with his mamaw and papaw, and started to develop “a sense of community” with the hillbilly people. The story starts when Vance was only a child and was adopted by his grandparent's mamaw and papaw in order to help him continue his studies. Just as many children living in the United States, Vance was then conflicted with the problem of a “broken family”. Specifically, he experienced living with five different sets of fathers, and all while re-marrying a different one, their family moves from one place to the other. In Vance’s words, he said that this circumstance left him saying that he has no “address” when people ask him where he lives. Nonetheless, when asked where he finds a mental image of his own “home”, Vance would always have a picture of living in Jackson, Kentucky, together with his mamaw and papaw. While Vance’s story is interesting and eye-opening for many people with regards to the pertinent issues of the family today, the most important part is that it reflects the very reality of today’s pattern in Marriage Gap. In the book written by Andrew Cherlin (2014), entitled Labor’s Love Lost, he discussed the correlation between an individual’s amount of educational attainment and his/her tendency to marry or simply commit to a “co-habiting” relationship. In his study, he was able to find out that as one’s educational attainment increases, the less likely are they to commit to a cohabiting relationship and decide to have kids without getting married. Particularly, his data showed that for couples with less than a High school degree, 30% of this population are in their first marriage, 42.3% for those with high school degrees, 42.6% for those with some college education, and 61% for those with bachelor’s degree or more. From this data, Cherlin argued that as the educational attainment of individual increases, the less likely will he commit to a relationship and have kids, without getting married first. Interestingly, Cherlin also found out that the main reason as to why those with more a bachelor’s degree marry and decide to have kids later in their lives is because they know that they would still be able to do so in the future. Knowing this, most of them invest in themselves, establish their reputations, and seeks to augment their knowledge by taking up post-graduate degrees.
In relation to the social problem posed above – shift in the dominant family structure – the author of this article believes that Cherlin’s and Vance’s work are both crucial in understanding the negative repercussions that co-habitation has in our society. On one hand, Cherlin presented data showing that couples who are cohabiting are most likely to have kids break up within five years. In a recent survey done in the United States, they found out that about 51% of all the pregnancies where the parents are not married where due to cohabitation. On the other hand, Vance’s work shows a case study of the very nature of our problem, providing greater affirmation for Cherlin’s studies.
In his book The Economy, The Family, and The Working Class Disorient, Cherlin showed how economic forces and cultural forces tie up to create this enormous shift in the family structure. Although economic forces are much more influential, cultural factors still come into play. This fact was taken as Cherlin compared the Marriage Gap in the United States with other wealthy countries in the European Nations. In his estimates, he found out that there for Children in the United States, there is an 8.2% chance that they would experience living with more than 3 maternal partners as they reach the age 15, as compared to other nations with only about 2% in average.
The second chapter, in Vance’s book, shows a clearer example of Cherlin’s findings. As papaw narrates his “romantic” journey with mamaw, Vance figured out that his grandparents were only 13 when mamaw got pregnant. However, due to financial constraints and the fear that mamaw’s cousins would hurt him, both of them eloped and tried to find a place where they could raise the child together. While this chapter shows a tragic twist – the child died within a week having been born – it also detailed out the economic forces for the migration of the hillbillies to the Appalachian to the Midwest, since the WWI has left most of these people without jobs in their rural areas.
In the third chapter of Vance’s book, this idea of a broken family was even more exemplified. Particularly, it was in the third chapter when papaw told Vance that both of them has serious quarrels before since papaw was a drunkard and that mamaw would react violently to this habit. In one instance, mamaw even doused papaw in gasoline and lit him on fire as he fell asleep drunk on their couch. This domestic instability has then left Uncle Jimmy and their mother, in a state where they would repeat this instance towards their future families. However, by the end of the chapter, it would show that mamaw and papaw would eventually reconcile and live a happy life. In a deeper analysis of their story in relation to Cherlin’s findings, it could be said that perhaps another reason why having higher educational attainment leads to less domestic instability is because marrying later in life also leads to more emotional maturity, just as exemplified by mamaw and papaw as they grew up.
In the fourth chapter of Vance’s work, the relationship between economic constraints and lack of education is detailed out. While telling his story, papaw narrated how the policies on home ownership of presidents Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush led to the housing crisis in their town. He even said that many of the residents in Middletown have bought houses that have already accrued too much debt, that no one even wants to buy them anymore. As for the quality of education back then, papaw told Vance that during those days high school teachers have not given much when it comes to teaching as they see the students as if they’re “destined to fail academically”. As for the students’ perceptions of reality, they always see two sides of the opportunities that face them in the future. On one hand, they aspire to work for the local company, despite the fact most of their fathers work there. On the other hand, they also see Armco – the local company which was only recently saved by Kawasaki back then – as a safety net, where they could always fall back and finds a relatively safe job in any case where they fail their higher aspirations.
The Sociological Imagination and the Formula for Happiness
Following from the ideas of Vance’s fourth chapter, the author of this article believes that we could glean a sense of C. Wright Mills’ concept of the “Sociological Imagination” from the students own aspirations. Specifically, Mills described the “Sociological Imagination” as our ability to think of ourselves away from the familiar routine of our immediate environment. Thus by the virtue of the high school students in Middletown’s, ability to think of themselves in situations that are not similar to the persisting trend during those times, they were able to make themselves as agents of their own fate (Isaksen, 2013). In relation to Professor Brook’s idea of happiness, our ability to fulfill our sociological imagination encompass 12% of our ability to become truly satisfied with our selves. This is, in turn, a big chunk of “agencies” ability to become happy, since it is estimated that 88% (40% genetics; 48% life-circumstances) are attributed to structures that we cannot control (Brooks, 2014). While this is a great example that could be found in the chapter, the whole story of Vance is an even more specific case of Mill’s concept. Particularly, this is because as Vance grows up, he also aspired to contribute more the general society, by aspiring (and achieving) to become a lawyer someday.
From the ideas provided in the discussion above, it could easily be seen how both economic and cultural factors act as the most dominant factors for this shift in family structure. Following from this, the next section would expound on the relationship of the economy and culture in creating this phenomenon characterized with fewer opportunities as discussed in the ideas of Harvard Professor William Julius Wilson and Durkheim’s concept of the Anomie.
Race, Education, and Opportunity
William Julius Wilson is a Harvard Professor who dedicated his life to studying racism in great detail. In his book “More than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City”, he detailed out a unique way of looking at the issues of the causes and the effects of Racism. Particularly, he said that since most studies focus on the structural aspects of the issue, one of the most critical aspects – culture – is usually left out. By combining an analysis of both the structural and cultural aspects of racism, he pointed out that we could develop a more precise methodology of not only studying but resolving the matter. Wilson’s argument is that the reason for criminal behaviors and non-normative acts of the ghettos in black neighborhoods is not only the lack of opportunity for them to pursue their studies and get a decent job but also because of the inherent culture that persists within that neighborhood. As we could clearly see, this argument differs from most of the studies that state that the lack of opportunity and discrimination towards black people are the main cause of the rising crime rates in black neighborhoods. From his analysis of causes of racial inequality, he concluded that due to the intricate combination of cultural and economic factors in increasing racial segregation, the only way to change this status quo is to reform the very institutions (e.g. media, education, and the state) that reinforce it.
In line with the previous discussion on Cherlin’s and Vance’s works, a thematic similarity could be found. That is, culture and economic forces play a crucial role in the emergence of “deviant behaviors” such as “crime and cohabitation” (Macionis, 2015). However, this thematic similarity shows a much larger picture in our society. Specifically, it shows that both of this phenomenon are simply linked to an even greater shift in the ideologies and mindsets of our society and culture, that is characterized by a negligence in the existing norms. In the field of Sociology, this lack and/or persistent negligence in the established norms of society by the society itself, a social group, and/or an individual is what we call as “Anomie” (Macionis, 2015). Popularized by Durkheim, while studying suicide behaviors, he said anomic actions comes “from the breakdown of the social standards necessary for regulating behavior” (Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., 2014). In other words, there exists an absence or a confusion for commonly held values and beliefs throughout the society. To further this argument, the author of this paper would like to attempt another causal relationship between the underlying structures of our society and this persisting state of anomie, as discussed in the next chapter.
The Anomic Cause of Alienation
In discussing the concept of alienation, it is most likely that there would be a disagreement especially due to the fact that the three forefathers of sociology – Marx, Durkheim, and Weber – have different ideas about how this persists. In this article, however, the concept of alienation would be discussed in relation to Max Weber’s idea, that alienation is tied to what we call as a “legal rationality”. As used in his idea, legal rationality refers to the idea that the law (including its characteristic of bureaucracy) should be obeyed at all times, for the fact that it is “rational”. However, going back to the discussion of Wilson, while we try to solve our problems using the instrumentalities of our laws, we fail to recognize the fact that it is perhaps, the law itself, which is the one flawed and disorganized (Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., 2014).
In the previous chapters, we have discussed that there exist a persisting relationship between the structures (economy) and the anomic characteristics of our society today (e.g. co-habitation, crime rates, and racism). Some examples of this anomic attitudes perpetrated by the structures are the case of Vance’s family (where his mamaw and papaw has eloped at a very young age, because of the economic constraints) and the ever-increasing crime rate in the black neighborhood across the United States. Nonetheless, while we think that we are trying to resolve this through our own actions against the structures, Wilson argued that the reason why we always fail to change the status quo is that we also fail to recognize that these structures include culture itself. In response to this, Wilson also added that the state should have the greatest responsibility when it comes to reforming the very structures of our society since it is also the one with the monopoly of power over its individuals. This has already been proven especially by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, as he pushed reforms in public policies including the Family Assistance Program of 1969.
The discussions provided above simply showed that despite our greatest efforts to resolve the anomic tendencies of our society today, one of the mistakes that we continue to do is based on our own understanding of society. Nevertheless, as exemplified by the numerous studies by Wilson, Vance, Macionis, Brooks, Cherlin, Weber, and Durkheim, among others, our use of sociological lens and theories could give us an insight of what really is happening deep inside our society. All in all, what follows is this article’s author’s suggestion that these insights are not left as such. Rather, he strongly suggests that we must take a proactive stance towards reforming the very structures (not in a chaotic way) through peaceful reasoning and administration of strong public policies.
- Brooks, A. (Director). (2014). A Formula for Happiness [Motion Picture].
- Bureau, P. R. (Director). (2015). The Vow Factor Briefing: Andrew Cherlin [Motion Picture].
- Cherlin, A. (2014). Labor's Love Lost. Russell Sage Foundation.
- Cherlin, A. (Director). (2016). Andrew Cherlin - 'The Economy, the Family, and Working-Class Discontent' [Motion Picture].
- Choklay, T. T. (Director). (2010). Daniel Patrick Moynihan on Meet the Press [Motion Picture].
- Cross, C. o. (Director). (2015). The Other America: Then and Now — William Julius Wilson [Motion Picture].
- Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. (2014, November 26). anomie. Retrieved from Encyclopædia Britannica: https://www.britannica.com/topic/anomie
- Hjarvard, S. (2008). The mediatization of religion - A theory of the media as agents of religious change. Northern Lights: Film & Media Studies Yearbook, 6(1), 9-26.
- Isaksen, J. V. (2013, April 29). The Sociological Imagination: Thinking Outside the Box. Retrieved from PopularScience.com: http://www.popularsocialscience.com/2013/04/29/the-sociological-imagination-thinking-outside-the-box/
- LaBier, D. (2010, May 10). Why The So-Called 'Marriage Gap' Is Good For Your Relationship. Retrieved from PsychologyToday.com: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-new-resilience/201005/why-the-so-called-marriage-gap-is-good-your-relationship
- Macionis, J. J. (2015). Social Problems, Books a la Carte Edition Plus.
- Vance, J. D., & Vance, J. D. (2016). Hillbilly elegy. New York: HarperCollins.
- Wilson, W. J. (Director). (2011). William Julius Wilson: Being Black & Poor in the Inner City [Motion Picture].