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Analyze contemporary social issues using the sociological imagination and use sociological theories and concepts to analyze everyday life.

Please choose one of the following questions: 

1.  Since the 1970s, the traditional family has been changing as we have experienced steady trends with growing numbers of divorces and more children born out of wedlock. Should the legal system make it more difficult for married couples to obtain a divorce, and harder for people to cohabit outside of marriage, especially when children are involved? What can the United States government do to strengthen families and marriages in American society? How can the people change the culture to strengthen families and marriages? Refer to examples from the text to support your answer. Now, critique your answer from the point of view of a functionalist or a conflict theorist.

2.  What is a “credential society?” Is there too much of an emphasis on credentials in the United States? If so, how might this be harmful? To whom? Discuss education in the U.S. from the point of view of a functionalist or conflict theorist.  Also use examples in your answer.

3.  What is the role of religion in society?  In your response, include a comparison of the theories on religion of Marx, Weber, and Durkheim.  Has the role of religion in society changed over time?  How does this relate to the current generational shift in religious affiliation in the U.S.?

The Week 6 Forum meets the following course objectives:

· Apply a sociological perspective to the social world

· Analyze contemporary social issues using the sociological imagination and use sociological theories and concepts to analyze everyday life.

· Describe the family, education, and religion from a sociological perspective.

Instructions for all Forums:

Each week, learners will post one initial post per week.  This post must demonstrate comprehension of the course materials, the ability to apply that knowledge in the real world.  Learners will engage with the instructor and peers throughout the learning week.  To motivate engaged discussion, posts are expected to be on time with regular interaction throughout the week.  All posts should demonstrate college level writing skills. To promote vibrant discussion as we would in a face to face classroom, formatted citations and references are not required.  Quotes should not be used at all, or used sparingly.  If you quote a source quotation marks should be used and an APA formatted citation and reference provided.

  Points  Exemplary (100%)   Accomplished (85%)   Developing (75%)  Beginning (65%)  Not Participating (0%) 
Comprehension of course materials 4 Initial post demonstrates rich comprehension of course materials.  Detailed use of terminology or examples learned in class.  If post includes opinion, it is supported with evaluated evidence. Initial post demonstrates clear comprehension of course materials.  Use of terminology or examples learned in class. If post includes opinion, it is supported with evaluated evidence. Initial post demonstrates some comprehension of course materials.  Specific terminology or examples learned in class may be incorrect or incomplete.  Post may include some opinion without evaluated evidence. Initial post does not demonstrate comprehension of course materials.  Specific terminology or examples learned in class are not included.  Post is opinion based without evaluated evidence. No posting, post is off topic, post does not meet minimum criteria for demonstrating beginning level of comprehension. Post may be plagiarized, or use a high percentage of quotes that prevent demonstration of student’s comprehension.
Real world application of knowledge 2 Initial post demonstrates that the learner can creatively and uniquely apply the concepts and examples learned in class to a personal or professional experience from their life or to a current event. Initial post demonstrates that the learner can apply the concepts and examples learned in class to a  personal or professional experience from their life or to a current event. Initial post does not clearly demonstrate that the learner can apply the concepts and examples learned in class. Unclear link between the concepts and examples learned in class to personal or professional experience or to a current event. Initial post does not demonstrate that the learner can apply the concepts and examples learned in class. No link to a personal or professional experience or to a current event is made in the post. No posting, post is off topic, post does not meet minimum criteria for demonstrating beginning level of application. Post may be plagiarized, or use a high percentage of quotes that prevent demonstration of student’s ability to apply comprehension.
Active Forum Engagement and Presence 3 Learner posts 4+ different days in the learning week. Replies to at least one response from a classmate or instructor on the learner’s initial post to demonstrate the learner is reading and considering classmate responses to their ideas.  Posts two or more 100+ word responses to initial posts of classmates.  Posts motivate group discussion and contributes to the learning community by doing 2+ of the following:· offering advice or strategy· posing a question,· providing an alternative point-of-view,· acknowledging similar experiences· sharing a resource Learner posts 3 different days in the learning week. Posts two 100+ word responses to initial posts of classmates.  Posts motivate group discussion and contribute to the learning community by doing  2+ of the following: · offering advice or strategy· posing a question,· providing an alternative point-of-view,· acknowledging similar experiences· sharing a resource Learner posts 2 different days in the learning week.  Posts one 100+ word response to initial post of classmate.  Post motivates group discussion and contributes to the learning community by doing 1 of the following: · offering advice or strategy· posing a question,· providing an alternative point-of-view,· acknowledging similar experiences· sharing a resource Learner posts 1 day in the learning week.  Posts one 100+ word response to initial post of classmate.  Post does not clearly motivate group discussion or clearly contribute to the learning community. Responses do not:· offering advice or strategy· posing a question,· providing an alternative point-of-view,· acknowledging similar experiences· sharing a resource Learner posts 1 day in the learning week, or posts are not made during the learning week and therefore do not contribute to or enrich the weekly conversation. No peer responses are made.  One or more peer responses of low quality (“good job, I agree”) may be made.
Writing skills 1 Post is 250+ words.  All posts reflect widely accepted academic writing protocols like using capital letters, cohesive sentences, and no texting language. Dialogue is also polite and respectful of different points of view. Post is 250+ words.  The majority of posts reflect widely-accepted academic writing protocols like using capital letters, cohesive sentences, and no texting language. Dialogue is polite and respectful of different points of view. Post is 175+ words.  The majority of posts reflect widely-accepted academic writing protocols like using capital letters (“I am” not “i am”), cohesive sentences, and no texting language. Dialogue may not be respectful of different points of view. Post is 150+ words.  The majority of the forum communication ignores widely-accepted academic writing protocols like capital letters, cohesive sentences, and texting; Dialogue may not be respectful of different points of view. No posting, post is off topic and does not meet minimum criteria for demonstrating beginning level of comprehension.

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Media Library

CHAPTER 11 Media Library


Racially Mixed Families

Same-Sex Couple Rights


Student Debt in America

Defining Family

Immigrant Family Issues

Domestic Violence


The Fatherhood Movement

Domestic Abuse in Families


Student Loan Debt

Female Perceptions of Strength and Divorce


Consequences of Parental Divorce

Social Class and Childrearing

Family Violence and Police


Divorce in Families



Some Concepts Sociologists Use to Study Families

Theoretical Perspectives on Families

U.S. Families Yesterday and Today

Socioeconomic Class and Family in the United States

Violence and the Family

Globalization and Families

Why Study Family Through a Sociological Lens?


1.   Is the burden of student debt preventing some young people from marrying and starting families?

2.   Why are poor and working-class women in the United States less likely than their middle-class counterparts to marry—and more likely to divorce?

3.   What is a family? Who should have the power to decide what constitutes a family?



© Bryan Denton/Corbis

According to an article on the CNN website’s CNNMoney page, students today are graduating from college with unprecedented levels of debt:

College seniors who took out loans to fund their college education owed an average of $25,250, [or] 5% more than the class of 2009 owed, according to a report from the Institute for College Access & Success Project on Student Debt….

“Most students in the Class of 2010 started college before the recent economic downturn, but the economy soured while they were still in school, widening the gap between rising college costs and what students and their parents could afford,” the report stated. (Ellis, 2011)

Student loan debt now exceeds consumer credit card debt: The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau estimates that student loan debt is more than $1 trillion, and an estimated 14% of student loans are past due (Brown, Haughwout, Lee, Mabutas, & van der Klaauw, 2012; Chopra, 2012).

Why is this topic of interest to us in a chapter on families in the United States? Here is why: Research has begun to show a correlation between the student debt burden and the ability or willingness of young adults to start families—that is, to marry and have children (Smock, Manning, & Porter, 2005). Whereas in the past young people in their early to middle 20s were marrying and perhaps purchasing first homes, today’s substantial and widespread student debt may be delaying entry into both family life and the associated consumption of “big-ticket items” such as houses and cars. Indeed, students graduating from higher education in the past decade are the first U.S. generation to finance so much of their education with interest-bearing loans. The relationship between rising student debt and social trends like the declining rate of marriage among young adults is relevant to sociologists, students, and society.

Student Loan Debt CLICK TO SHOW


So what does research show? A 2002 survey from Nellie Mae, a nonprofit corporation and until recently the largest private source of student loans, offers some early insights into the relationship between debt and delayed family formation. In the survey, 14% of borrowers indicated that “loans delayed marriage,” a rise from 9% in 1987, when the debt burden was smaller. More than one fifth responded that they had “delayed having children because of student loan debt,” an increase from 12% in 1987. Among low-income recipients of Pell Grants, the figures were still higher: 19% indicated they delayed marriage, and 24% delayed childbearing due to debt (Baum & O’Malley, 2003).

The findings of a study concerning debt and life choices further reinforce this point: About half the young single adults in the study “indicate that their current debts will probably delay their plans to start a family” (Manning, 2005, p. 56). More recently, an IHS Global Insight report highlighted the fact that while other types of debt have declined, student loan debt continues to rise—and it correlates with a discernible trend among young adults of delaying marriage and childbearing (Dwoskin, 2012).

As we will see later in this chapter, marriage rates among today’s young adults have declined compared to those of earlier generations. Some suggest that marriage is an outdated institution, or that more economically independent women are choosing singlehood over marriage, while others cite a shortage in some communities of “marriageable” men. There are a host of possible explanations. Might debt be one that sociologists should further explore? Is it an obstacle to family formation, and is this a generational and “public issue” rather than just a “personal trouble”? What do you think? 

Student Debt in America CLICK TO SHOW

In this chapter, we focus on the U.S. family, its demographics, trends, variations, and challenges. We begin by introducing the key concepts used in the sociological study of families and discuss the idea of the family as an institution. Then we review the functionalist and feminist perspectives on families and, in particular, on the character of sex roles in marital relationships. We devote a broad section of the chapter to an overview of U.S. families today, looking at trends in marriage and divorce, as well as family life in a sampling of subcultures—immigrant, Native American, and deaf families. Sociologists take a strong interest in issues of social class and its roots and effects, so next we explore practices of child rearing and differences across class, the decline of marriage in the poor and working classes, and work and family life in the middle class. Finally, we explore the relationship between globalization and family in the United States and beyond.


Families come in a broad spectrum of forms, but they share basic qualities. A family, at the most basic level, is two or more individuals who live together and have a legally or normatively recognized relationship based on, among other things, marriage, birth, or adoption. The family is a key social institution. Though families and their structures vary, the family as an institution is an organized system of social relationships that both reflects societal norms and expectations and meets important societal needs. It plays a role in society as a site for the reproduction of community and citizenry, socialization and transmission of culture, and the care of the young and old. Families, as micro units in the social order, also serve as sites for the allocation of social roles, like “breadwinner” and “caregiver,” and contribute to the economy as consumers.

Many families are formed through marriage. Sociologists define marriage as a culturally normative relationship, usually between two individuals, that provides a framework for economic cooperation, emotional intimacy, and sexual relations. Marriages may be legitimated by legal or religious authorities or, in some instances, by the norms of the prevailing culture. Although marriage has historically united partners of different sexes, same-sex marriages have become increasingly common in the United States and other modern countries, though their legal recognition is still incomplete.

Most societies have clear and widely accepted norms regarding the institution and practice of marriage that have varied across time and space. Two common patterns are monogamy, in which a person may have only one spouse at a time, and polygamy, in which a person may have more than one marital partner at a time. Within the latter category are polygyny, in which a man may have multiple wives, and polyandry, in which a woman is permitted to have multiple husbands. In feudal Europe and Asia monogamy prevailed, though in some parts of Asia wealthy men supported concubines (similar to mistresses; Goody, 1983). George Peter Murdock’s (1949) classic anthropological study of 862 preindustrial societies found that 16% had norms supportive of monogamy, 80% had norms that underpinned the practice of polygyny, and just 4% permitted polyandry.


Stephan Gladieu / Contributor/Getty Images

The polygynist practice of a man taking multiple wives is unusual (and not legally recognized) in the United States, but according to researchers at Brigham Young University, an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 U.S. residents practice polygamy. Many are members of breakaway sects of the Mormon church.

The polygynist practice of a man taking multiple wives is unusual (and not legally recognized) in the United States, but according to researchers at Brigham Young University, an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 U.S. residents practice polygamy. Many are members of breakaway sects of the Mormon church

Some sociologists have suggested that, because divorce and remarriage are so common in postindustrial countries such as the United States, our marriage pattern might be labeled serial monogamy, the practice of having more than one wife or husband, but only one at a time.Most modern societies are strongly committed to monogamy, and to the selection of a lifelong mate—in principle, if not always in actual practice. Later in this chapter, we will explore another key trend in families: More women and men in modern countries are forgoing marriage altogether, turning the tables on an institution that has long been considered normative and necessary in the life course—and the social order.

In many societies, marriages tend to be endogamous—that is, limited to partners who are members of the same social group or caste. Sexual or marital partnerships outside the group may be cause for a range of sanctions, from family disapproval to social ostracism to legal consequences. Consider that in the United States, antimiscegenation laws—that is, laws prohibiting interracial sexual relations and marriage—were ruled unconstitutional only in 1967. Until then, some states defined miscegenation as a felony, prohibiting residents from marrying outside their racial groups. Today such laws are history. In fact, the Pew Research Center reported in 2010 that nearly 15% of new marriages were between spouses of different races or ethnicities. The data show that among newlyweds in 2008, about 9% of Whites, 16% of Blacks, 26% of Hispanics, and 31% of Asians married outside their own race or ethnicity (Passel, Wang, & Taylor, 2010).

While intermarriage has increased, more than doubling between 1980 and today, most people who marry still do so within their own racial or ethnic group. Think about married couples you know: Would you say that most “match up” on the basis of characteristics such as race, ethnicity, religion, and class? How much of this matching might be attributable to chance or personal preferences? To exposure in the “marriage markets” such as college or places of worship? To normative pressures?

Clearly, marriage in modern societies is most often the outcome of choices made by two people in a relationship. At the same time, as sociologists, we need to attend to the social context in which “choice” is exercised. Later in this chapter we examine U.S. patterns of partnership and family dissolution in greater detail.


The role of parent or primary caregiver in the United States and much of Europe has traditionally been assumed by biological parents (occasionally stepparents), but this is one of many possible family formations in which adults have raised children in different times and places. Consider the Baganda tribe of Central Africa, in which the biological father’s brother was traditionally responsible for raising the children (Queen, Habenstein, & Adams, 1961). The Nayars of southern India offer another variation, assigning responsibility to the mother’s eldest brother (Renjini, 2000; Schneider & Gough, 1974). In Trinidad and other Caribbean communities, extended family members have often assumed the care of children whose parents have migrated north (to the United States in most instances) to seek work (Ho, 1993).

A substantial minority of children in the United States also live in extended families, social groups consisting of one or more parents, children, and other kin, often spanning several generations, living in the same household. An extended family may include grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, and other close relatives. In Northern and Western Europe, Canada, the United States, and Australia, most children live in nuclear families—that is, families characterized by parents living with their biological children and apart from other kin—while extended families are more common in Eastern and Southern Europe, Africa, Asia, and Central and Latin America. In the United States, the extended family form is most common among those with lower income, in rural areas, and among recent migrants and minorities.

Racially Mixed Families CLICK TO SHOW


© AF archive/Alamy

In the film We Bought A Zoo (2011), actor Matt Damon portrays a widowed father of two children who buys and revives a failing animal park. His new endeavor, grief over the loss of his wife, and a troubled young teenager are the key challenges that underpin the film. Even today, only a small percentage of children live exclusively with their father and few films offer stories of such families. 

For close and extended family members to function as caregivers is neither new nor unusual. In fact, a growing number of children in the United States live with one or a pair of grandparents, though the proportion who live with neither parent is still just 4%. In 2013, 69% of children lived with two parents, and just under 24% lived with only their mothers, while 4% resided with just their father (U.S. Census Bureau, 2013b).


When sociologists study families, their perspectives are shaped by their overall theoretical orientations toward society. Thus, as in the study of other institutions, it is helpful to distinguish between the functionalist and conflict perspectives, though, as we will see, there are some important variations and additions to these classic categories.


Recall a key functionalist question: What positive functions does a given institution or phenomenon serve in society? Based on this question and the foundational assumption that if something exists and persists, it must serve a function, functionalist theory has tended to highlight in particular the economic, social, and cultural functions of the family. Arguably, the shift from agricultural to industrial to postindustrial economies has made the family’s economic purpose less central than its reproductive and socializing functions, though the family’s micro-level consumption decisions continue to drive a macro-level economy that is deeply dependent on consumer activity and acquisition.

In his work on sex roles in the U.S. kinship system, functionalist sociologist Talcott Parsons (1954) theorized that men and women play different but complementary roles in families. In the “factory of personalities”—in other words, the family—socialization produces males and females prepared for different roles in the family and society. Parsons posited that women were socially prepared for the expressive role of mothers and wives, while men were prepared for instrumental roles in the public sphere, working and earning money to support the family. As well, socialization prepares men and women to want to enact the roles that society needed them to do. These complementary roles, Parsons suggested, were positively functional, as they ensured harmony rather than the conflict that might emerge from husbands and wives competing for status or position. Distinct sex roles also clarified the social status of the family, which was derived from the male’s social position.

Aside from his belief that the family served the function of primary socialization—that is, the process of learning and internalizing social roles and norms (such as those relating to gender)—Parsons suggested that the nuclear family of his time functioned to support adult family members emotionally, a phenomenon he called personality stabilization (Parsons & Bales, 1955). In industrial societies, in which the nuclear family unit was often disconnected from the extended kin networks that characterized earlier eras, this stabilization function was of particular value.

Writing in the 1950s, Parsons worried that disruption of the roles he observed in families could have dysfunctions for the family and society. Indeed, though he did not live to see it, there has been some correlation between women’s assumption of autonomous roles outside the home and the rise of divorce. Correlation is, of course, not causation. Possible explanations for the link include the advent of no-fault divorce laws, decline in the normative stigma related to divorce, and women’s greater economic independence, which has enabled them to leave unhappy marriages that might earlier have been sustained by their dependence on spouses’ wages.


Lambert / Contributor/Getty Images; FOX / Contributor/Getty Images

According to the Census Bureau, about one fifth of U.S. households today consist of married couples with children. In 1950, about 43% of households fit this description. Some contemporary television shows including Family Guy both parody and reproduce traditional family images and gender roles 

Critics see Parsons’s work as reinforcing and legitimating traditional roles that have both positive functions and problematic dysfunctions. The functionalist perspective—and Parsons’s expression of it—has been criticized for neglecting the power differentials inherent in a relationship where one party (the wife) is economically dependent on the other (the husband). In a capitalist system, power tends to accrue to those who hold economic resources. Functionalists also neglect family dysfunctions, including ways in which the nuclear family, central to modern society yet in many respects isolated from support systems such as kin networks, may perpetuate gender inequality and even violence.


You can probably anticipate that in looking at the family, the conflict perspective will ask how it might produce and reproduce inequality. Feminist theorizing about the family has reflected a conflict orientation in its efforts to unpack and understand the family as a potential site of both positive support and unequal power. From the 1970s, a period following intense activity in the women’s movement and an increase in the number of women taking jobs outside the home, feminist perspectives became central to sociological debates on the family.

While early theorizing about the family highlighted its structure and roles, as well as its evolution from the agricultural to the industrial era, feminist theorizing in the late 20th century turned its attention to women’s experiences of domestic life and their status in the family and social world. Feminists endeavored to critique the sexual division of labor in modern societies, the phenomenon of dividing production functions by gender (men produce, women reproduce) and designating different spheres of activity, the “private” to women and the “public” to men. While theorists including Parsons saw this division as fundamentally functional, feminists challenged a social order that gave males privileged access to the sphere offering capitalism’s prized rewards, including status, independence, opportunities for advancement, and, of course, money.

HIS AND HER MARRIAGE  An important sociological analysis that captures some of liberal feminism’s key concerns is Jessie Bernard’s The Future of Marriage (1982). (See Chapter 10 for a fuller discussion of varieties of modern feminism, including liberal feminism.) Bernard confronts the issue of equality in marriage, positing that husband and wife experience different marriages. In her analysis of marriage as a cultural system comprising beliefs and ideals, an institutional arrangement of norms and roles, and a complicated individual-level interactional and intimate experience, Bernard identifies his and her marriage experiences:

•    His marriage is one in which he may define himself as burdened and constrained (following societal norms that indicate this is what he should be experiencing) while at the same time experiencing authority, independence, and a right to the sexual, domestic, and emotional “services” of his wife.

•    Her marriage is one in which she may seek to define herself as fulfilled through her achievement of marriage (following societal norms that indicate this is what she should be experiencing) while at the same time experiencing associated female dependence and subjugation.


Bernard understood these gender-differentiated experiences as rooted in the cultural and institutional foundations of marriage in the era she studied. Marriage functioned, from this perspective, to allocate social roles and expectations—but not to women’s advantage. In a good example of the sociological imagination, Bernard saw a connection between the personal experiences of individual men and women and the norms, roles, and expectations that create the context in which their relationship is lived.

Bernard’s analysis pointed to data showing that married women, ostensibly “fulfilled” by marriage and family life, and unmarried men, ostensibly privileged by “freedom,” scored highest on stress indicators, while their unmarried female and married male counterparts scored lowest. Although this was true when Bernard was writing several decades ago, recent social indicators show a mix of patterns. Some are similar to those she identified. For instance, a 2010 article in the Harvard Men’s Health Watch Newsletter reported:

A major survey of 127,545 American adults found that married men are healthier than men who were never married or whose marriages ended in divorce or widowhood. Men who have marital partners also live longer than men without spouses; men who marry after age 25 get more protection than those who tie the knot at a younger age, and the longer a man stays married, the greater his survival advantage over his unmarried peers. (Harvard Medical School, 2010)

Other studies paint a different picture. For instance, a 2007 examination of a spectrum of marriage studies determined that married women were less likely to experience depression than their unmarried counterparts. Researchers controlled for such factors as the possibility that less depressed people were more likely to get married (which would confound results) and found that self-selection was not an issue. That is, marriage did seem to have positive health effects for women (Wood, Goesling, & Avellar, 2007).

In fact, however, the issue is more complex than either Bernard’s work or recent scientific studies can embrace in a single narrative. Consider some other variables at play here. For example, men do seem to have more health benefits than women from marriage, even if women have some. Yet marriage as an institution does not appear to confer health benefits; rather, it is the quality of marriage that matters. Solid and low-conflict marriages are healthy, and unstable, high-conflict marriages are not. The never married are better off than those in high-conflict marriages (Parker-Pope, 2010).

Bernard’s work gives us an opportunity to look at marriage as a gendered institution—that is, one in which gender fundamentally affects the experience on a large scale. While her 30-year-old analysis cannot fully capture the reality of today’s U.S. marriages, her recognition that men and women can experience marriage in quite different ways remains an important insight.

The feminist perspective and other conflict-oriented perspectives offer a valuable addition to functionalist theorizing. However, their focus on the divisive and unequal aspects of family forms and norms may overlook the valuable functions of caring, socializing, and organizing that families have long performed and continue to perform in society. Indeed, both these macro-level approaches may have difficulty capturing the complexities of any family’s lived experiences, particularly as they evolve and change over years through interpersonal negotiations and decisions. Nonetheless, they offer us a useful way of thinking about families and family members, their place in the larger social world, and the way they influence and are influenced by societal institutions and cultures.

THE PSYCHODYNAMIC FEMINIST PERSPECTIVE  Sociologist Nancy Chodorow (1999) asks, “Why do women mother?” She suggests that to explain women’s choice to “mother,” a verb that describes a commitment to the care and nurturing of children, and men’s choice to “not mother” (that is, to assume a more distant role from child rearing), we must look at personality development and relational psychology. While mothering is rooted in biology, Chodorow argues that biology cannot fully explain mothering, because fathers or other kin can perform key mothering functions as well.

Drawing from Sigmund Freud’s object relations perspective, Chodorow argues that an infant of either sex forms his or her initial bond with the mother, who satisfies all the infant’s basic needs. Later, the mother pushes a son away emotionally, whereas she maintains the bond with a daughter. Through such early socialization, daughters come to identify more fully with their mothers than with their fathers; boys, on the other hand, develop “masculine” personalities, but those draw from societal models of masculinity (or, sometimes, hypermasculinity) rather than predominantly from their fathers, who take a far less prominent role in child rearing than do mothers. Chodorow suggests that “masculinity” in boys may thus develop in part as a negation and marginalization of qualities associated with femininity, which is rejected for both social and psychological reasons.

Women, reared by mothers who nurture close and critical bonds, are rendered “relational” through this process, seeking close bonds and defining themselves through relationships (Anna’s mom, Joe’s wife, and the like). Men, by contrast, define themselves more autonomously and have a harder time forming close bonds. Again, the roots of this difficulty are social (society defines men as autonomous and independent) and psychological (the pain of an early break in the mother–son bond results in fear or avoidance of these deep bonds). So why do women “mother” then? Because men in heterosexual relationships are not socially or psychologically well prepared for close relational bonding, women choose to mother in order to reproduce this connection with someone else.


Lambert / Contributor/Getty Images; The Granger Collection, NYC — All rights reserved.

“White flight” to residential suburbs in the post-World War II period left many minority families behind in economically struggling neighborhoods. Suburban advantages in access to good education, housing, and recreation were in many cases a stark contrast to the disadvantages of poor urban areas. 

While these processes play out primarily on the micro level of the family and relationships, Chodorow also recognizes macro-level effects. For instance, if, for lack of available male role models at home, the masculine personality develops in part as a negation of the feminine personality, when the boy makes his psychological break from the mother, this devaluation of the feminine and its associated traits may be reflected in the societal institutions that men still dominate. That is, the higher valuation of traits associated with masculinity in areas such as politics, business, and the labor market is, at least in part, linked to the devaluation of the feminine that men carry with them from their early childhood experiences.

Chodorow’s work on sex roles and socialization in the family offers a merger of Freud and feminism that is both challenging and compelling, asking us to consider the effects that psychological processes in early childhood have on social institutions from the family to politics and the economy.


The traditional nuclear family often appears in popular media and political debates as a nostalgic pinnacle of values and practices to which U.S. families should return. Historian Stephanie Coontz (2000, 2005), who has written about the history of U.S. families, points out that this highly venerated traditional nuclear family model is, in fact, a fairly recent development.

Consider that in the preindustrial era, when the U.S. economy was primarily agricultural, families were both social and economic units. Households often included multiple generations, and sometimes boarders or farmworkers too. The family was large, and children were valued for their contributions to its economic viability, participating along with the other members in the family’s productive activities. Marriages tended to endure; divorce was neither normative nor especially easy to secure. At the same time, average life expectancy was about 45 years (Rubin, 1996). As life spans increased, divorce also became more common, replacing death as the factor most likely to end a marriage.

The period of early industrialization shifted these patterns somewhat, not least because it was accompanied by urbanization, which brought workers and their families to cities for work. The family’s economic function declined; some children worked in factories, but the passage of child labor laws and the rise of mass public schooling made this increasingly uncommon (though, according to one source, at the end of the 19th century a quarter of textile workers in the American South were children, whose cheap labor was a boon to employers; Wertheimer, 1977). Over time, children became more of an economic cost than a wage-earning benefit; in a related development, families became smaller and began to evolve toward the nuclear family model.

The basic nuclear family model, with a mother working in the private sphere of the home while focused on child rearing and a father working in the public sphere for pay, evolved among middle-class families in the late 19th century. It was far less common among the working class at this time; working-class women, in fact, often toiled in the homes of the burgeoning middle class, as housekeepers and nursemaids.

Coontz (2000) points out that, just as the popular imagination suggests, the mother-as-homemaker and father-as-breadwinner model of the nuclear family is most characteristic of the widely idealized era of the 1950s. The post–World War II era witnessed a range of interconnected social phenomena, including suburbanization, supported by federal government initiatives to build a network of highways and encourage home ownership; a boom in both economic growth (and wages) that brought greater consumption power, along with technologies that made the home more comfortable and convenient; and a “baby boom,” as a wave of pregnancies delayed by the years of war came to term.


FIGURE 11.1 Living Situations of Children Under 18, 2013

SOURCE: U.S. Census Bureau. (2013a). America’s families and living arrangements: 2013: Children (C table series).

While prosperity and technology brought new opportunities to many, mass suburbanization largely left behind minorities, including Black Americans, who were not given access to the government’s subsidized mortgages and were left in segregated, devalued neighborhoods. As the jobs followed White workers to the suburbs, the economic condition of many Black families was further diminished.

Further, it is not clear that all was well in the prosperous suburbs either. As we noted in the section on feminist theoretical perspectives, some sociological observers detected a streak of discontent that ran through the nuclear family so idealized today. Betty Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique(1963) highlighted “the problem that has no name,” a broad discontent born of women’s exclusion from or marginalization in the workplace and the disconnect between their low status and opportunities and society’s expectation that marriage and children were the ultimate feminine fulfillment. Coontz (2000) points out that tranquilizers, one of many medical innovations of the era, were largely consumed by women, and in considerable quantities—at least 1.15 million pounds in 1959 alone.


The traditional nuclear family with the man as breadwinner and the woman as caregiver is still in existence, though it has changed in many respects since the 1950s and today represents only about 7% of U.S. households (see the Behind the Numbers box on page 275). At the same time, while commentators often lament the “decline of the family,” most children in the United States (69% in 2013) still live in two-parent households, and, as we saw above, all but 3% live with at least one parent (U.S. Census Bureau, 2013b; see Figure 11.1). More children are living with single parents than in the past, but more adults are also living in nonfamily households, consisting of either a single householder or unrelated individuals. The trend toward living alone—which about 27% of people in the United States do (Figure 11.2)—is one we will discuss more below.

One reason for the growth of single-person households is the rising age at first marriage, now about 29 for men and 27 for women (Taylor et al., 2011), which means many people are not marrying until their 30s or even later. Most U.S. adults indicate a wish to marry, and most will at some point in their lives; more than 2.1 million married in 2011, and the U.S. marriage rate exceeds that of most other modern societies (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2013). By contrast, Western and Northern Europe are home to very high rates of cohabitation and common-law marriage, in which partners live as if married but without marriage’s formal legal framework.

FIGURE 11.2 Changes in U.S. Household Composition, 1940–2010

SOURCE: U.S. Census Bureau. (2003). Statistical Abstract of the United States, No. HS-12. Households by Type and Size: 1900 to 2002. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office; U.S. Census Bureau. (2012). Households and Families: 2010. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Divorce in Families CLICK TO SHOW


While marriage remains socially normative in most U.S. communities, rates of marriage have declined (Figure 11.3). Between 1960 and 2010, the rate per 1,000 women declined by about 20 percentage points, and today only about half of U.S. adults over age 18 are married, compared to about 72% in 1960 (Taylor et al., 2011). These declines have been far more pronounced among the less educated than among those who have a college education, though the latter also marry later. In the section below on class and marriage, we will look at some of the factors driving this decline, particularly among poor women.

With the decline of marriage, the United States has also experienced a decline in divorce. After rising through the 1960s and 1970s, the rate of divorce has leveled off. There is a logic to these two phenomena, since a smaller number of marriages reduces the pool of people who can divorce. The rate overall is still high, however, and the United States has one of the highest divorce rates in the world, with the rate for second and later marriages exceeding that for first marriages (Figure 11.4).

Why is the U.S. divorce rate, while declining, persistently high? Historian Stephanie Coontz (2005) argues that divorce is in part driven by our powerful attachment to the belief that marriage is the outcome of romantic love. While historically many societies accepted marriage primarily as part of an economic or social contract, and some still do, modern U.S. adults are smitten with love. Yet the powerful early feelings and passion that characterize many relationships are destined to wane over time. In a social context that elevates romantic love and passion in films, music, and books, we may have less tolerance for the more measured emotions inherent in most long-term marriages. Could our strong focus on romantic love be a driver of both marriage and divorce? What do you think?

FIGURE 11.3 Marital Status in the United States, 1960–2012

SOURCE: U.S. Census Bureau. (2013). America’s families and living arrangements: 2013: Adults (A table series): Table A1.

FIGURE 11.4 U.S. Divorce Rate, 1950–2010

SOURCE: National Center for Health Statistics. (2012). Aggregate data 1950–2010. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Families are surely in the process of changing—and not only in the United States. See the Global Issues box on page 279 for a look at family issues in Japan.


In the Behind the Numbers box on page 275 we ask, “What is a family?” As the box explains, by the definition of the federal government many U.S. household configurations are not counted as “families,” including same-sex partners. At the same time, in 2012 there were more than 180,000 married same-sex households and more than 630,000 nonmarried same-sex partner households in the United States. More than 115,000 of the same-sex households were raising children (U.S. Census Bureau, 2012a).

Many U.S. states follow the federal government in their rejection of same-sex marriage; in mid-2014, 33 states prohibited it while just 17 states and the District of Columbia permitted it (Ahuja, Barnes, Chow, & Rivero, 2014). States that reject same-sex marriage often use the same language as the federal law, the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA): “The word ‘marriage’ means only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife.” DOMA was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996. It also includes the provision that states are not obligated to recognize same-sex marriages conducted in states or cities that permit them.

Some states that do not permit same-sex marriage do recognize civil unions, which are legal unions that fall short of marriage but provide some state-level legal rights and benefits, or domestic partnerships, which are legal unions that provide a circumscribed spectrum of rights and benefits to same-sex couples. The more expansive set of social and economic opportunities available to couples recognized as legally married by the federal government, including Social Security and survivor benefits and joint filing of income taxes, is not available to those in civil unions or domestic partnerships.

Female Perceptions of Strength and Divorce CLICK TO SHOW




Reuters/Lucas Jackson

For same-sex couples, the struggles and joys of family life do not differ significantly from those of heterosexual couples. 

The U.S. Census Bureau uses the household as a key unit in calculating a spectrum of national statistics, from income to poverty. A householdis composed of all the people who occupy a given housing unit. The Census Bureau further distinguishes between family households—consisting of immediate relatives such as a husband, wife, and children or a mother and her children—and nonfamily households, which include just about everyone else, such as those who live alone and those who live with “nonrelative” household members. Implicit in these bureaucratic categories is a definition of what a family is from the government’s perspective.

In 2011, of more than 114 million households in the United States, more than a third were nonfamily households (Vespa, Lewis, & Kreider, 2013). But aside from those living alone, are these households necessarily “nonfamilies” from a sociological perspective? Sociologist Brian Powell sought to answer this question in a study that surveyed more than 2,300 U.S. adults about their definitions of family. Powell and his team identified three categories of respondents in the study: “exclusionists,” who embrace a narrow and largely traditional definition of family; “moderates,” who expand beyond the traditional to include, for instance, same-sex couples if there are children; and “inclusionists,” who hold an expansive view of what can constitute a family, ranging from opposite- or same-sex cohabiters to people with pets. Children seemed to be a decisive factor in whether a household was seen as a family: For instance, while only 33% of respondents agreed that a gay male couple was a family, the addition of children to this unit raised the figure to 64% (Powell, Bolzendahl, Geist, & Steelman, 2010).

The public’s definition of what constitutes a family is rapidly changing. Powell noted a significant change even in a short period of time; for instance, the proportion of respondents favoring a narrowly traditional view of a family as married parents and children dropped by 11% between 2003 and 2010. More people are accepting cohabiting and gay or lesbian couples as families as well.

The definitions used by the Census Bureau and other institutions, including those that govern estates and inheritance, adoption, and hospitalization and medical consent, lag behind those embraced by a growing number of U.S. adults. Perhaps within the third of the population living in “nonfamily” households, we would find quite a few families too.


 How would you define the term family? What experiences or influences led you to that particular definition?


FIGURE 11.5 Same-Sex Marriage Laws as of October, 2014

SOURCE: National Public Radio. (2012). “State by State: The Legal Battle Over Gay Marriage.” Associated Press; “The Changing Landscape of Same-Sex Marriage,” by Masuma Ahuja, Robert Barnes, Emily Chow and Cristina Rivero. Washington Post, July 28, 2014.

While state legislatures and Congress have not been as quick to adopt broad definitions of marriage and family as many individuals have, the picture of legal prohibition and recognition around the country makes for a rapidly changing map. Figure 11.5 shows the laws in effect at the time this book went to press.

Same-sex couples who seek to marry—and their advocates—often argue that they face mass denial of a basic civil right on the grounds of sexual orientation. Why should those in a committed relationship be denied the right to sanctify and legalize it regardless of sexual orientation? Those who object to same-sex marriage respond that this broad definition of marriage constitutes a threat to traditional marriage and families, not least because same-sex marriage cannot produce shared biological children. As well, say some opponents, the legitimation of same-sex marriage could lead to its spread, threatening heterosexual marriage. While more people are beginning to favor the legalization of same-sex marriage, a substantial minority of Americans remain vehemently opposed (Figure 11.6).

With about half of all U.S. marriages ending in divorce, it is not surprising that the battle for same-sex partners to secure marriage rights has recently evolved into a fight for their right to divorce, particularly in cases where couples share children or own property in common. U.S. divorce rates may be driven by many factors, including frustration with waning passion, economic stress, and poor compatibility of partners. One factor sometimes noted by observers, however—the ease of divorce in the United States, partly a product of no-fault divorce laws—does not apply to same-sex partners.

A problem arises when a same-sex couple married in a state permitting their legal union seek a divorce in a state that does not recognize gay and lesbian marriages. In a 2012 case in the state of Maryland, a lesbian couple married in 2008 in California sought a divorce. The women were, according to the Washington Post, expecting a smooth and simple legal procedure; their property had been divided, the divorce was uncontested, and they had no children. They were stunned when the judge denied them. As the Post’s story points out, the “case represents just one of the many blind spots in the legal infrastructure of same-sex marriage in America. Couples often have different rights when they cross jurisdictional lines and may not have the same status in the eyes of the federal government as they do in their home states. The laws are constantly evolving” (McCarthy, 2012). A Maryland court ruled in May 2012, however, that the couple could proceed with their divorce—though, ironically, same-sex couples were denied the right to marry in Maryland until 2013.

Cases like these present a conundrum in a country where states may make their own laws governing the prohibition or recognition of unions the federal government has not legally recognized. While Maryland had no law in place expressly banning the recognition of same-sex marriages performed in other states, it also had no law allowing such recognition. Is the manifest function of divorce law to permit a couple to legally end a union that is no longer viable, or is it to act as a symbol of a state’s position on marriage and family? How can a conflict between these two functions of divorce law be resolved?

FIGURE 11.6 Changing Attitudes of U.S. Adults: Approval of Same-Sex Marriage, 2001–2012

SOURCE: Adapted from Newport, F. (2012, May 8). Half of Americans support legal gay marriage. Gallup Politics.

Same-Sex Couple Rights CLICK TO SHOW


© Patrick Semansky/ /AP/Corbis

In U.S. political discourse, we encounter discussions of “family values,” which are often linked to traditional heterosexual marriage. How would you define family values? Do you think most people could agree on a common definition? 


In a reversal of a longtime (nearly four-decade) trend in the United States, increasing numbers of mothers are staying home to care for children: In 2012, 29% of mothers reported that they did not work outside the home. About two thirds of today’s stay-at-home mothers are part of “traditional” families; that is, they care for children in the home while their husbands work for pay. The rest include single and cohabiting women, as well as women whose husbands are unemployed. The shift toward fewer mothers working outside the home is driven by a variety of social, cultural, and economic factors. Among these are the growing percentage of immigrant women who are mothers and stagnating wages that have led some women to conclude that the costs of outside child care outweigh the benefits of working for pay (Cohn, Livingston, & Wang, 2014).

At the same time, in the slow growth of another trend, more fathers are assuming the primary child-care role in the home. According to a recent study, about 16% of stay-at-home parents today are fathers, up from 10% in 1989. Interestingly, this trend appears to be driven by labor market and health issues more than by changes in social or cultural norms that support more active fathering. Data show that while about three quarters of mothers are motivated by a desire to care for the family, only one fifth of men offer the same explanation: Almost 60% of stay-at-home fathers indicate that they are at home because they are either ill or disabled or because they are unemployed (Livingston, 2014). Notably, public attitudes about men as primary caregivers are, in spite of myriad changes in family life, still only nominally supportive. Livingston (2014) reports on a Pew Research Center poll in which about 76% of respondents said that they believed children are “just as well off” if their father works, but only 34% said that children are “just as well off” if their mother works, and 51% said that children are “better off” if the mother stays home; just 8% responded that the children are “better off” with the father at home (Figure 11.7).

Most mothers and fathers of young children are, in fact, in the labor force, though child care has remained largely in the domain of the family. Data show that about half of children age 4 and younger whose mothers work for pay are cared for by relatives. A quarter get their primary care in child-care centers or preschools, and around 13% are looked after in home-care arrangements or by a nanny or other nonrelative (ChildStats, 2013).

While choosing who will care for a young child is a highly personal decision for a family, there are some discernible patterns in child-care arrangements by socioeconomic status. For example, poorer fathers are more likely to be stay-at-home parents than are their better-off male peers (Livingston, 2014). As well, working mothers who hold college degrees are most likely to use center-based child care, which is often very costly (ChildStats, 2013). How would you explain these patterns? What other patterns of child care could you hypothesize?


The United States has more foreign-born residents than any other country in the world. Given its low fertility rate, a substantial proportion—about a third—of the country’s population growth is the result of immigration (Table 11.1 and Figure 11.8). With the proportion of foreign-born residents at about 13%, it is not surprising that immigrants and the cultures they carry with them have important effects on family patterns in the United States.

FIGURE 11.7 Public Opinion of the Importance of Stay-at-Home Moms and Stay-at-Home Dads 2014

Note: The questions were asked separately for mothers and fathers. “Don’t know/Refused” now shown.

SOURCE: Growing Number of Dads Home With the Kids: Biggest Increase Among Those Caring for Family, by Gretchen Livingston, Kim Parker, and Caroline Klibanoff. June 5, 2014. Pew Research, Social & Demographic Trends. Reprinted with permission.

Consequences of Parental Divorce CLICK TO SHOW
The Fatherhood Movement CLICK TO SHOW


TABLE 11.1   Top 10 Feeder Countries for Migration to the United States, 2010

SOURCE: U.S. Census Bureau. (2010). Place of birth for the foreign-born population. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Predictably, more recent immigration correlates with a group’s stronger ties to its homeland culture (Moore & Pinderhughes, 2001). Many scholars are now focusing on the transnational nature of immigrant families. Embodying transnationalism may mean living, working, worshipping, and being politically active in one nation while still maintaining strong political, social, religious, and/or cultural ties to other nations (Levitt, 2004). Family members may send money to relatives in their countries of origin, keep in nearly constant contact with those they left behind through modern communication technologies, and travel back and forth between countries frequently in order to maintain close emotional ties.

Many immigrant parents also prefer their children to marry within the group. According to research by the Center for Immigration Studies, in some devout Muslim communities parents’ traditional values exist in a tense relationship with new norms embraced by their children:

Just when Muslim girls traditionally would be separated from boys, taken out of school, and perhaps start wearing a head covering, their American counterparts begin to discover and experiment with their sexuality. To prevent such experimentation, Muslim parents seek to enforce the traditional rules… sometimes even cloistering their daughters. [However,]… by law, girls must go to school until 16 or so; and at 18, they acquire additional rights….

  To encourage the young to marry within the faith, American Muslims are developing a number of novel solutions, including summer camps, socials for singles, and marriage advertisements. But even these Muslim institutions have a difficult time keeping boys and girls apart. (Pipes & Durán, 2002, pp. 5–6)

Interestingly, reflecting the influence of home cultures on migrants that we discussed in the opening of this section, first-generation migrants often have birthrates above those of the native-born U.S. population. One study found that among some groups, immigrant women in the United States were having more children on average (2.9) than women in their home countries (2.3; Camarota, 2005). In the second generation, however, the rate typically declines to the average U.S. rate—that is, approximately 2.1 children per woman (Hill & Johnson, 2002). However, some studies have found that the trend toward decreasing fertility in first- and second-generation immigrant women may actually be reversed in the third generation for some groups (Parrado & Morgan, 2008). Historically, fertility rates have decreased for immigrant families the longer they reside in the United States. However, it is important to note that factors such as country of origin, education, religion, and cultural attitudes add to the complexity of understanding these trends.

FIGURE 11.8 Region of Birth as Percentage of Total Migrant Population, 2010

SOURCE: U.S. Census Bureau. (2010). Place of birth for the foreign-born population. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.




Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty Images

The high-tech robot “Pepper” greets some young and curious visitors. Pepper’s creators say that the robot can understand between 70% and 80% of spontaneous conversations, though it must choose from a set of programmed responses. 

People need and want families for a wide variety of reasons. Some are emotional: Families can provide warmth, comfort, and pleasurable interactions. Others are social and cultural: Families are expected to be in attendance at key cultural rituals in our lives, such as holidays, weddings, and religious ceremonies. Some needs are practical, as families also fulfill important caregiving functions. But what if family members are estranged or far away? Or if someone has no living relatives? In Japan, modernity has brought what Robert Merton termed “functional alternatives” to the family. Below we describe two of them.

Japan is the first country to develop a nascent market in “rental families.” In the early 1990s, Japan Efficiency Corporation was “doing a booming business renting families to the lonely,” especially the elderly. Asked to comment on the small but significant phenomenon, a Japanese sociologist stated, “It’s extremely strange to me that people would want to rent families, and even more surprising that they seem to be satisfied…. I suppose people nowadays really find the need for kinship. Compared to 50 years ago, the family system in Japan has really changed, and family-like relationships are gradually disappearing” (quoted in Watanabe, 1992).

Today the market for rental families has expanded further. Office Agents, a Tokyo firm, offers “friends” and “family members” for rent as event guests. “Many in Japan see weddings as a formal event that must be attended by as many family members, friends, and co-workers as possible…. But what if you’ve got no one to do that for you?” Office Agents has about 1,000 “fakes” available for occasions that may vary from weddings to funerals to training seminars. The company’s head notes that sometimes even a marriage partner is unaware there are fake guests at his or her wedding (Kubota, 2009).

In 2014, global media reported on a technological breakthrough with implications for society—and the family in particular. In June, the Japanese company Softbank introduced Pepper, a robot with the capability of sensing and responding to emotions. According to a press report on Pepper, “with a rapidly ageing population, coupled with a falling birth rate, the demand for robots is expected to increase…. The growth is expected to come not only from businesses looking to offset labour shortages and rising wage costs, but also from households seeking an alternative to paying for care workers for elderly relatives” (BBC, 2014c). Pepper may soon be a resident in some Japanese homes—and perhaps homes across the aging Western world.


 What do the phenomena described above say about family and its functions? Are rented “relatives” a viable functional alternative for people who lack families? Are robots a viable alternative? Could you see these phenomena taking root in the United States? Why or why not?


Lawrence Migdale / Photo Researchers, Inc.

The 2010 U.S. Census counted just over half a million (557,185) American Indian and Alaska Native families in the United States. About 57% were reported to be married-couple families. 

Below we narrow our focus to a pair of specific examples of family subcultures in the United States—those of Native Americans and deaf families.


Family patterns among Native Americans are highly diverse. There are nearly 500 different nations, although more than half of all American Indians identify as coming from just 6 of these (U.S. Census Bureau, 2011b). American Indians often live in extended family households that include uncles, aunts, cousins, and grandparents. According to Harriett Light and Ruth Martin (1996), writing in the Journal of American Indian Education, “the central unit of Indian society is the family…. Indian families do not have the rigid structure of relationships found in Western white culture. Instead, Indians relate to people outside the immediate family in supportive and caring ways (Levine & Laurie, 1974).”

An example of family involvement in child rearing outside the immediate parents is found in Sioux families. This involvement begins early in a child’s life, when a second set of parents are selected for the newborn (Sandoz, 1961). Therefore, the “total” family involved in child rearing and support includes unrelated members of the Indian community (Ryan, 1981). This community support and protection can be viewed as responsibility for others’ actions (Light & Martin, 1996).

More recent studies have shown that Native American family ties extend across generations. Native American grandparents have shown high levels of involvement in the care of their grandchildren (Mutchler, Baker, & Lee, 2007). Native Americans also report high levels of caregiving to their elderly relatives (McGuire, Okoro, Goins, & Anderson, 2008). Indeed, Native American culture and families traditionally emphasize sensitivity toward kin, tribe, and land and value the collective over the individual, in contrast to the mainstream U.S. emphasis on individual fulfillment and achievement (Light & Martin, 1996; Newcomb, 2008). Research on Native Americans of the Southwest suggests that many members of these groups see their children as belonging to the entire American Indian nation: to the land, the sky, the tribe, and its history, customs, and traditions (Nicholas, 2009).

Some controversies over family life taking place within Native American communities mirror those taking place in U.S. society more generally. For instance, beginning in 2008, some tribes began to permit same-sex marriage; in that year, the Coquille tribe of Oregon was the first to pass a law defining marriage or domestic partnership as a “formal and express civil contract entered into by two persons, regardless of their sex.” Today, eight tribes offer similar marriage rights. The sovereign Navajo Nation, however, has resisted this step, defining marriage exclusively as a relationship between one man and one woman (Hamedy, 2014). Interestingly, some research shows that gay partnerships were historically accepted in many tribal cultures, where the term two spirits was used to categorize gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender members (Kronk, 2013).


Census Bureau data show that about one-fifth of the U.S. population has some kind of disability. How does disability affect family life? In this subsection, we examine the case of deaf people and the choices and challenges that family life brings for them. According to the Gallaudet Research Institute (2005), approximately 2 to 4 of every 1,000 people in the United States are “functionally deaf,” or unable to hear normal conversation even with the use of a hearing aid. Fewer than 1 in 1,000 were deaf before the age of 18; more than half became deaf at some point after childhood. Family life poses unique challenges for many deaf people, and, as a consequence, some prefer to practice endogamy, marrying others who are deaf and therefore share a common experience.

There has been a movement within the deaf community to redefine the meaning of deafness to denote not a form of disability but a positive culture. Some deaf people see themselves as similar to an ethnic group: sharing a common language (American Sign Language, or ASL), possessing a strong sense of cultural identity, and taking pride in their heritage. Identifying as an ethnic group rather than as a disability group, some deaf people believe that cochlear implant surgery, a procedure through which some deaf people can become hearing, is problematic, especially when it is performed on children who cannot consent. Often, deaf people who undergo this surgery are still unable to attain mastery of any oral language (Lane, 2005). The National Association of the Deaf (2000) takes a cautionary stance on cochlear implants, advising hearing parents of deaf children to conduct thorough research, create a support system, and, most important, communicate with their children before undertaking the transition. Julie Mitchiner takes pride in being deaf. She writes,

Defining Family CLICK TO SHOW


Andy Nelson / Contributor/Getty Images

Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., is unique in serving specifically the deaf and hearing-impaired, offering bilingual instruction in English and ASL. The rising proportion of students who are hearing or come from mainstream schools and do not know ASL has led to debates over the centrality of deaf culture at the school. 

Growing up with deaf parents and attending deaf schools, I have a strong sense of pride of being deaf and being part of the Deaf community. I do not look at myself as disabled. I often say if I were given a choice to hear or stay deaf, I’d choose to stay deaf. It is who I am. My family, my friends, and my community have taught me that being deaf is part of our culture and is a way of life. (Mitchiner & Sass-Lehrer, 2011, p. 3)

Many deaf people succeed in the hearing world, but they may confront daunting problems (Heppner, 1992). Often they are not able to speak in a way that hearing people fully understand, and most hearing people do not know ASL. It is not surprising that an estimated 85% of deaf people choose to marry others who share their own language and culture (Cichowski & Nance, 2004), or that many deaf parents are wary when their deaf children form relationships with hearing people. When a deaf couple has a hearing child, the family must make difficult choices as they negotiate not only the ordinary challenges of child rearing but also the raising of a child who may be “functionally hearing” but “culturally deaf” (Bishop & Hicks, 2009; Preston, 1994).

Families ordinarily confer their own cultural status on their children, but this may not be true for 9 of 10 deaf children born to hearing parents. On one hand, hearing parents want the same sorts of things for their deaf children as any parents want for their children: happiness, fulfillment, and successful lives as adults. Many would like their children to mainstream into the hearing world as well as possible, in spite of challenges. On the other hand, some in the deaf community argue that the deaf children of hearing parents can never fully belong to the hearing world. Many in the deaf community believe hearing parents should send their deaf children to residential schools for the deaf, where they will be fully accepted, learn deaf culture, and be with people who share their experience of deafness (Dolnick, 1993; Lane, 1992; Sparrow, 2005).

The situations of deaf parents raising a hearing child and hearing parents raising a deaf child raise interesting and fundamental questions about what happens when family members are also members of different cultures and how the obstacles of difference within a micro unit such as the family are negotiated.


An array of family differences are linked to social class differences. In this section we consider research showing that social class may have an effect on child-rearing practices, as well as on family formation through marriage.


Parents are often caught in a dilemma: They must instill some degree of conformity in their children as they attempt to socialize them into the norms and values that will be socially appropriate for adult behavior, but at the same time they must foster a degree of independence—after all, children must eventually leave the nest and survive in the adult world. Given the tension between protecting children and instilling independence, it should not be surprising that in most families neither is fully achieved. Parents may understand that they need to help build their children’s independence yet still be unwilling to trust their children’s judgment, especially during adolescence. They may hang on to their children, prolonging dependence past the point where the children are ready to make decisions on their own. Growing up includes some degree of conflict no matter what approach parents use.

Some studies suggest that parental attitudes toward children’s independence differ markedly by social class. In U.S. culture, middle- and upper-class families tend to value self-direction and individual initiative in their children. Working-class parents, by contrast, have been observed by some researchers to value respect for authority, obedience, and a higher degree of conformity, and to rely on punishment when these norms are violated. Sociologist Melvin Kohn (1989), who spent many years studying class differences in child rearing, attributes these differences to the parents’ work experiences: Middle- and upper-class jobs often require individual initiative and innovation, while working-class jobs tend to emphasize conformity.

Annette Lareau (2002) goes beyond Kohn’s focus on work experiences to argue that social class, which we experience in a multitude of ways, has an impact on family life, in particular on the styles of child rearing in which parents engage. In reporting her study, in which 88 White and Black American families were interviewed and 12 were closely observed at home, Lareau writes,

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Social Class and Childrearing CLICK TO SHOW


© Gene J. Puskar/ /AP/Corbis

Are middle-class parents “overparenting,” raising risk-averse young people characterized by a sense of entitlement? Popular magazines have run articles with provocative titles such as “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy” (Gottlieb, 2011), expounding the virtues of less-involved parenting. How might this debate fit into Lareau’s characterization of middle-class parenting styles? 

It is the interweaving of life experiences and resources, including parents’ economic resources, occupational conditions, and educational backgrounds, that appears to be most important in leading middle-class parents to engage in concerted cultivation and working-class and poor parents to engage in the accomplishment of natural growth. (pp. 771–772)

These two concepts, concerted cultivation and accomplishment of natural growth, form a key foundation for Lareau’s argument. She defines concerted cultivation as a style of parenting associated most fully with the middle class and characterized by an emphasis on negotiation, discussion, questioning of authority, and cultivation of talents and skills through, among other things, participation in organized activities. Lareau explains the accomplishment of natural growth as the parenting style associated with working-class and poor families. Directives rather than negotiation and explanation, a focus on obedience, and an inclination to care for children’s basic needs characterize this style, in which parents leave children to play and grow in a largely unstructured environment. Notably, Lareau identifies a tension between obedience and trust in this style, suggesting it is characterized by something close to distrustful consent born of frustration with authority and dominant institutions but a sense of powerlessness in their presence. From this, she suggests, children take away an emerging sense of constraint. Consider the following observation by Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas (2005):

While poor mothers see keeping a child housed, fed, clothed, and safe as noteworthy accomplishments, their middle-class counterparts often feel they must earn their parenting stripes by faithfully cheering at soccer league games, chaperoning boy scout camping trips and attending ballet recitals or martial arts competitions. (p. 141)

What are the outcomes of these differing styles of child rearing, which Lareau argues are associated with class status? Examining the outcomes for children of parents she studied in the years of young adulthood, Lareau (2002) concludes that the accomplishment of natural growth style not only tends to cultivate early independence but also leads young people toward jobs that require respect for authority and obedience to directives, like those associated with the working class. In contrast, the concerted cultivation approach to child raising leads young people both to hold a sense of entitlement and to pursue careers that require a broad vocabulary and ease in negotiating with people in authority. Following up with the families she studied, Lareau found that all the middle-class children had completed high school and that most were attending college. Many of the children of low-income families had left high school and few were in college. “In sum,” she writes, “differences in family life lie not only in the advantages parents obtain for their children, but also in the skills they transmit to children for negotiating their own life paths” (p. 749).

The studies discussed above strongly suggest that family life, and practices of child rearing in particular, contributes to the reproduction of class status. While structural factors, including obstacles related to education and other important resources for mobility, are an important part of the picture, Lareau suggests that the orientations and skills developed in childhood, which become part of a young adult’s human capital as he or she negotiates the path through school and toward a job, are also relevant to understanding socioeconomic outcomes and the reproduction of class status.


Class status is linked with changing patterns of family life in another important way. Some sociologists believe that macro-level economic changes, in particular the rise of a postindustrial economy and associated labor market, have had a powerful effect on micro-level practices of family formation (Edin & Kefalas, 2005; Wilson, 1996, 2010). In this section we examine the sociological roots of the decline of marriage and the rise of nonmarital births in poor and working-class Black, White, and Latino communities.

In 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a former professor of sociology who was then assistant U.S. secretary of labor and would later become a U.S. senator from New York, published a controversial study of the African American family titled The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, which later came to be called the Moynihan Report. In it, Moynihan argued that lower-class Black family life was often dysfunctional, as reflected in high rates of family dissolution, single parenting, and the dominance of female-headed families.


Moynihan saw the breakdown of Black families, together with continued racial inequality, as leading to “a new crisis in race relations.” He identified the legacy of slavery, which intentionally broke up Black families, as one of the roots of the problem. He also argued that many rural Blacks had failed to adapt adequately to urban environments. Moynihan concluded that these patterns in family life were at least in part responsible for the failure of many low-income Black Americans to make it into the economic mainstream in the United States. He saw Black poverty and inner-city violence, which exploded in the urban riots of the 1960s, as partly the result of Black family breakdown.

The Moynihan Report was widely criticized as racist and sexist, and Moynihan was accused of blaming the victims of racism and poverty (primarily Black female heads of household) for their disadvantages. Many critics ignored Moynihan’s attention to structural as well as cultural factors in his analysis, however. While he wrote that “at the center of the tangle of pathology is the weakness of the family structure,” he also implicated social phenomena such as unemployment, poverty, and racial segregation in the decline of families and the rise of dysfunctions. Still, critics focused largely on his cultural analysis, and Moynihan’s findings were disregarded while sociologists avoided examining the connections among race, family characteristics, and poverty for at least two decades.

In 1987, sociologist William Julius Wilson published The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy, in which he revisited the issues Moynihan had raised in the 1965 report. In the two intervening decades, much had changed—and much had stayed the same. The family patterns that Moynihan had identified as problematic, including nonmarital births and high levels of family dissolution, had become more pronounced among poor and working-class Black Americans. At the same time, social problems such as joblessness in the inner city had grown more acute, as deindustrialization and the movement of jobs to the suburbs dramatically reduced the number of positions available for less educated and low-skilled workers. These changes, Wilson noted, had important consequences for family formation.

Almost 10 years later, Wilson (1996) argued that falling rates of marriage and rising numbers of nonmarital births were, at least in part, rooted in the declining numbers of “marriageable men” in inner-city neighborhoods. He posited that the ratio of unmarried Black women to single and “marriageable” Black men of similar age was skewed by male joblessness, high rates of incarceration, and high death rates for young Black men. The loss of jobs in the inner city had a powerfully negative effect on male employment opportunities. The consequences were felt not only in the economic fortunes of communities but also, and no less importantly, in families, where women were choosing motherhood but options for marriage were diminished by the uneven ratio of single women to marriageable men. While rates of nonmarital births had previously been high in Black communities, where extended families have traditionally been available to support mothers and children (Gerstel & Gallagher, 1994), Wilson saw new urban circumstances as central to the rise of nonmarital births among Black Americans from one-quarter in 1965 (when Moynihan published his report) to about 70% by the middle 1990s, where it remains today (Figure 11.9). By then about half of Black American families were headed by a woman (Wilson, 2010).

When Wilson revisited this issue in 2010, he found that research on the relationship between male employment and rates of marriage and single parenthood offered mixed findings:

Joblessness among black men is a significant factor in their delayed entry into marriage and in the decreasing rates of marriage after a child has been born, and this relationship has been exacerbated by sharp increases in incarceration that in turn lead to continued joblessness. Nevertheless, much of the decline in marriages in the inner city, including marriages that occur after a child has been born, remains unexplained when only structural factors are examined. (p. 108)

Wilson (2010) also cited cultural factors in the fragmentation of the poor Black family. While sociologists have been reluctant to use culture as an explanation, not least due to fear of the backlash generated by the Moynihan Report, Wilson writes that structure and culture interact to create normative contexts for behavior. He points out, for instance, that “both inner-city black males and females believe that since most marriages will eventually break up and no longer represent meaningful relationships, it is better to avoid the entanglements of wedlock altogether…. Single mothers who perceive the fathers of their children as unreliable or as having limited financial means will often—rationally—choose single parenthood” (p. 125). In this social context, the stigma of unmarried parenthood is minimal, and behaviors rooted in structure become culturally normative.

FIGURE 11.9 Nonmarital Birthrate by Race/Ethnicity in the United States, 2013

SOURCE: Based on “Appendix 1—Percentage of All Births that Were to Unmarried Women, by Race and Hispanic Origin, and Age: Selected Years, 1960–2013.” Child Trends DataBank.


Examining the phenomenon of low marriage rates and high nonmarital births in some communities, sociologists Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas (2005) looked at data on low-income White, Black, and Puerto Rican single mothers in Camden, New Jersey, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Black communities have historically had higher nonmarital birthrates and lower rates of marriage than White and Latino communities, but in low-income White and Latino communities comparable trends have taken root.

Edin and Kefalas found that the women in their study placed a high value on both motherhood and marriage. They saw motherhood as a key role and central achievement in their lives, and few made serious efforts to delay motherhood. If anything, they saw early motherhood as something that had forced them to mature and kept them from getting into trouble. At the same time, they held a utopian view of marriage that may, ironically, have put it out of their reach. Many dreamed of achieving financial security and owning a home before marrying—but their poverty made this a challenge. More problematic, perhaps, was that they did not consider the men in their lives—often the fathers of their children—to be good partners, their marriageability undermined by low education, joblessness, poor economic prospects, criminal records, violence, drug and alcohol abuse, and infidelity.

Notably, then, while they highly valued marriage, the women had few realistic opportunities to achieve stability and independence first, and little hope of finding stable partners. Motherhood, however, was an achievable dream, an opportunity to occupy an important social role and to achieve success as a parent, where other paths of opportunity were often blocked by poor structural circumstances.

Statistics show that children in single-mother homes are among those most likely to be born and to grow up impoverished. They are also more likely than their better-off peers to repeat the patterns of their parents and to remain in poverty. Here some interesting sociological questions emerge: Is single parenthood a cause (not the only one) of poverty, or is living in poverty a sociological root of single parenthood? Or perhaps both are true? What are the implications of the answers to these questions for the design of public policies that address poverty?

The relationships among class, poverty, and family patterns are complex, but Wilson and Edin and Kefalas offer sociological lenses for understanding some of the structural and cultural roots of low marriage rates and high nonmarital birthrates in many poor U.S. communities. As Wilson notes in his 2010 book More Than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City, “How families are formed among America’s poorest citizens is an area that cries out for further research” (p. 129). What other factors should sociologists examine? How would you conduct such a study? What kinds of questions would you ask?


Today, parents in the U.S. middle class, particularly its upper fraction, devote an unprecedented amount of resources to child rearing. While some of the rising financial outlays are for basic needs and child care, parents are also committing time and money to “enrichment” activities intended to give their offspring advantages in competition, education, and the future labor market. According to a 2013 study, the growing U.S. income gap is reflected in a gap in spending on children that opened up in the period from the 1990s to the 2000s, with families in the top half of the income distribution spending more on their progeny while the bottom spend less (Kornrich & Furstenberg, 2013). More economically advantaged parents are actively engaged in building what Hilary Levey Friedman (2013) calls “competitive kid capital.” Friedman’s study of 95 families with elementary school–age children who were involved in competitive after-school activities such as chess, dance, and soccer found that many parents “saw their kids’ participation in competitive afterschool activities as a way to develop certain values and skills: the importance of winning; the ability to bounce back from a loss to win in the future; to succeed in stressful situations; and to perform under the gaze of others” (p. 31). Interestingly, Friedman points out that parents of upper-middle-class girls are more likely to enroll their girls in soccer or chess than in dance, pursuing an “aggressive femininity” that they perceive to offer their daughters a future labor market advantage.

Middle-class family life is often characterized by a strong commitment to constructive and active child rearing (as we saw in Lareau’s study and the research described above) and to the parents’ pursuit of careers. These competing commitments often leave parents without the time to do everything, to do it well, and to feel satisfied instead of rushed and stressed.

Sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild (2001b) has come to some interesting and perhaps surprising conclusions about this modern dilemma. Hochschild conducted a series of interviews with employees at a well-known Fortune 500 firm that had gone to some lengths to be family-friendly, offering flextime, the option of part-time work, parental leave, job sharing, and even a course titled “Work-Life Balance for Two-Career Couples.” But she noticed that the family-friendly measures didn’t make much of a difference. Most employees said they put “family first,” but they also felt strained to the limit, and almost none cut back on work time. Few took advantage of parental leave or the option of part-time employment.


Why do people say they want to strike a better balance between work and the rest of their lives yet do nothing about it when they have the opportunity? Some reasons are practical; a number of employees in Hochschild’s study feared that taking advantage of liberal work policies would count against them in their careers, while others simply needed the money—they couldn’t afford to work less. Yet Hochschild identified a more surprising reason many people worked long hours: They liked being at work better than being at home. Previous research had shown that many men regard work as a haven, and Hochschild found that a notable number of working women now feel the same way. Despite the stress of long hours and guilt about being away from their families, they are reluctant to cut back on their commitment to paid work.

Hochschild found that both men and women often derive support, companionship, security, pride, and a sense of being valued when they are working. In the absence of family time and kin and community support at home, some parents sought and found—and sometimes preferred—a sense of competence and achievement in the workplace. In about a fifth of the families Hochschild studied, work rather than home was the site at which the parents derived the most satisfaction.

Many studies since have found that workplaces with more “family-friendly” policies have higher levels of workplace satisfaction and productivity, as well as lower levels of stress (Bilal, Zia-ur-Rehman, & Raza, 2010; Frye & Breaugh, 2004). Still, Hochschild’s (2001b) research suggests that many people derive satisfaction from being workaholics. As she concludes, “Working families are both prisoners and architects of the time bind in which they find themselves” (p. 249).

Family stresses reach across the socioeconomic spectrum and create a variety of challenges. Sometimes problems manifest as violence, an issue we tackle below.


Domestic (or family) violence is physical or sexual abuse committed by one family member against another. It may be perpetrated by adults toward their children, by one spouse against another, by one sibling toward another, or by adult children against their elderly parents. As little as three to four decades ago, domestic violence was rarely studied. Many people regarded violence in the home as a private matter, an attitude that was reflected in lawmaking as well, which provided few sanctions for violence that did not reach the level of severe injury or death. Today domestic violence is understood to be a serious public issue, as researchers have come to realize that it is sadly commonplace (Catalano, 2012).

Accurate data on family violence are difficult to obtain for a variety of reasons. Abused partners or children are reluctant to call attention to the fact that they are abused. Police do not want to mediate or make arrests in family conflicts, and even today the courts are hesitant to intervene in what are often perceived as family matters (Tolan, Gorman-Smith, & Henry, 2005). Some good estimates of the prevalence of this crime are available, however. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, family violence accounted for about 11% of both reported and unreported violence between 1998 and 2002. Of the 3.5 million violent crimes committed against family members, 49% were crimes against spouses, 11% involved victimized sons or daughters, and 41% were crimes against other family members (Durose et al., 2005).

The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, an ongoing survey developed and administered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, found in 2010 that one in three women and one in four men surveyed had been victims of intimate partner violence (IPV) in their lifetimes. As defined by the CDC, IPV includes physical violence, rape, and stalking by a former or current partner or spouse. About one in four women and one in seven men surveyed had experienced severe physical violence at the hands of their partners. While these data are for experiences over the life course, even the data from a single year reveal a serious epidemic of intimate partner violence. According to the survey, more than 12 million people experienced IPV in 2010 (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2010b).

Child abuse—sexual and/or physical assaults on children by adult members of their families—is also common in our society. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2010), approximately 3.3 million child abuse reports and allegations were made in 2009 involving about 6 million children. On any given day, no fewer than 5 children die as the result of abuse (U.S. Government Accountability Office, 2011), though the main form of abuse is neglect (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2010). Boys and girls are equally likely to be physically abused, but girls are more likely to be sexually abused as well. According to Childhelp (2010), an organization dedicated to the prevention of child abuse, the cycle of abuse is difficult to break; one study suggests that about 30% of abused and neglected children will later abuse their own children.

Elder abuse is the victimization of elderly persons by family members or other caregivers. In a 2009 National Institute of Justice study, 11% of elderly U.S. adults (those 65 or older) surveyed reported experiencing either emotional, physical, or sexual abuse or potential neglect (Acierno, Hernandez-Tejada, Muzzy, & Steve, 2009). Like child abuse, elder abuse is likely underreported, because victims are often in a subordinate position in the family and unable to access help outside the home. Elder abuse also shares with child abuse some of its forms, including neglect—the failure of caregivers to provide for basic needs like nutritious food and hygienic conditions—and physical abuse. Some aspects of elder abuse differ from abuse of other kinds of victims, however. For example, elder abuse may take the form of financial exploitation or outright theft of property. Those who care for elderly relatives may feel entitled to the resources the seniors possess—or they may just take advantage of the older persons’ vulnerabilities.

Family Violence and Police CLICK TO SHOW
Domestic Abuse in Families CLICK TO SHOW




© Viviane Moos/Corbis

Domestic violence is an underreported crime, and many official reports fail to capture the extent of the problem. Why are many people reluctant to report incidents of domestic violence to the police? 

How are women’s experiences of poverty and homelessness linked to the societal phenomenon of domestic violence? In addition to consequences such as physical and psychological injury, violence is both a cause and a consequence of homelessness among women.

According to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (n.d.), “Domestic and sexual violence are leading causes of homelessness nationally, especially for women” (p. 1). By one 2008 estimate, 28% of homeless families were homeless as a result of domestic violence (National Coalition for the Homeless, 2009a). A 2011 study conducted by a Los Angeles women’s center noted that nearly half of the homeless women surveyed had experienced domestic violence in their lifetimes, and a third of the women had experienced domestic violence in the past year. Nearly a third of the women surveyed had gone to the women’s shelter directly after experiencing domestic violence and/or assault (Downtown Women’s Action Coalition, 2011).

Other violence-linked causes of homelessness include a failure to secure alternative housing, which may be the result of unemployment or denial of resources by a controlling abuser. In a 2003 study, 44% of homeless women in Fargo, North Dakota, reported they had previously stayed in abusive relationships for lack of alternative places to live; in Minnesota, the figure was 46% (National Coalition for the Homeless, 2007). In 2012, the city of Chicago reported that 33% of its homeless residents were victims of domestic violence (Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, 2014). Notably, 39% of U.S. cities name domestic violence as the single largest cause of family homelessness (National Coalition for the Homeless, 2009a). While women may face violence upon returning home to abusers, they are also at risk on the streets, since homelessness makes them vulnerable to assault, robbery, rape, and other threats.

Domestic violence is a key precipitator of homelessness, particularly among poor and minority women, who may already face considerable obstacles to finding safe and adequate housing and solid employment opportunities. One societal response is to support safe housing for survivors of domestic violence. A more important one for the long term is to address the causes of abuse and to end both the acceptance and practice of domestic violence.


 How might communities effectively address the problem of domestic violence, as well as associated troubles such as homelessness? Consider issues of both attitudes and policies in answering this question.

Domestic Violence CLICK TO SHOW


© Lara Solt/Dallas Morning News/Corbis

The effects of economic globalization on families have been uneven, with negative consequences borne disproportionately by those with less education. Can you identify any current trends that suggest the circumstances of households headed by adults with a high school education or less will improve or worsen in coming decades? 

As sociologists examining a problem that is both a private trouble and a public issue, we need to ask, “Why does domestic violence exist and persist as a widespread phenomenon?” The acceptance of a husband’s “right” to subject his wife to physical discipline has roots in Anglo-American culture. British common law permitted a man to strike his wife and children with a stick as a form of punishment, provided the stick was no thicker than his thumb; the phrase “rule of thumb” originates in this practice. Through the end of the 19th century in the United States, men could legally beat their wives (Renzetti & Curran, 1992). Research has found that domestic violence is most likely to be prevalent in societies in which family relationships are characterized by high emotional intensity and attachment, there is a pattern of male dominance and sexual inequality, a high value is placed on the privacy of family life, and violence is permitted or occurs in other institutional spheres, such as entertainment or popular culture (Straus & Gelles, 1990; Straus, Gelles, & Steinmetz, 1988).

People have become far more aware of child and spouse abuse and its spectrum of consequences in recent years, largely because of efforts by the women’s movement to bring them into the open (see the Inequality Matters box on page 286). Shelters for battered women and children enable victims to be protected from violence. While still limited in number, such refuges have enabled women to get counseling while terminating abusive relationships in relative safety (Haj-yahia & Cohen, 2009). Family violence is clearly a dysfunctional social phenomenon. It is both a personal trouble and a public issue. A fuller understanding of its roots and consequences can contribute to both a better-informed national conversation about the problem and more robust efforts to address it.


The impact of globalization on families depends to a substantial degree on social class and country or region of residence. In this section, we look at the experience of globalization among families, its costs and benefits, and the uneven way in which those costs and benefits are distributed.

Consider the economic and labor market impact of globalization on U.S. families. Among upper-class and upper-middle-class families, globalization has increased employers’ demands for men and women with high degrees of skill and formal training as professionals, managers, administrators, and engineers. While low-skilled U.S. workers have been priced out of many sectors of the global job market by their replaceability (lower-wage labor is readily available elsewhere), high-skilled labor in fields that are not easily “offshored” or replaced by technology may still benefit, because globalization can produce national economic gains even as it diminishes the prospects of some categories of workers.

About 70% of the individuals who make up the U.S. labor force do not hold 4-year college degrees. As we see elsewhere in this text, these are the workers who have been hit hardest by global economic change. Writing about domestic manufacturing industries, journalist Louis Uchitelle (2007) observes: “As customers defected, sales plummeted and failed to bounce back. Nowhere was that more apparent than in the auto industry’s struggle with [lower-cost] Japanese imports. But nearly every manufacturer was hit, and the steep recession in 1981 and 1982 compounded the damage. The old world has never returned” (p. 8).

Many working-class families have found themselves confronting flat or declining incomes as a result of competition with a global workforce. Household incomes at the bottom of the economic spectrum have declined most dramatically since the 1970s, when globalization began to transform the domestic economy. This decline has had a multitude of effects on U.S. families. Recall our earlier discussion of the diminished pool of “marriageable” males. Here we see some of the effects of declining job opportunities and wages in manufacturing, which used to offer gainful employment to less educated men.

The need for a family to have two incomes to make ends meet is one of the reasons for the dramatic increase in the number of women working outside the home. The movement of women into the paid workforce has, in turn, provided some women with a degree of economic independence and an opportunity to rethink the meaning of marriage. As women join the paid workforce, some postpone marriage until they are older. Couples choose cohabiting as an alternative to marriage, and when they do decide to have children, their families are likely to be smaller. Some may never marry; as we learned earlier, marriage has declined most among those with the least education.


Globalization means greater mobility for families and more fluid ways of organizing work and life. The benefits of globalization enjoyed by some U.S. families are accompanied by the losses suffered by others. Globalization may be having the effect of further stratifying U.S. families economically.


We have seen that macro processes of globalization have affected U.S. families at different socioeconomic status levels. In this section, we examine the dual phenomena of international familiesand the global woman to emphasize some of the micro-level effects of globalization, and to consider the ways that women, particularly women from the developing world, are experiencing globalization in their own lives.

Anthropologist Christine Ho (1993) has examined what she terms international families—that is, families that result from globalization. Focusing on mothers who emigrate from the Caribbean to the United States, Ho documents how they often rely on child minding, an arrangement in which extended family members and even friends cooperate in raising the women’s children while they pursue work elsewhere, often thousands of miles away. This practice adds a global dimension to cooperative child-rearing practices that are a long-standing feature of Caribbean culture.

Ho suggests in her profiles of these female global citizens, most of whom work in lower-wage sectors of the economy, including clerical work and child care, that such global family arrangements enable Caribbean immigrants to avoid becoming fully Americanized: International families and child minding provide a strong sense of continuity with their Caribbean homeland culture. Ho predicts that Caribbean immigrants will retain their native culture by regularly receiving what she characterizes as “bicultural booster shots” through the shuttling of family members between the United States and the Caribbean. At the same time, Ho notes, this process contributes to the Americanization of the Caribbean region, which may eventually give rise to an ever more global culture.

Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Russell Hochschild (2002) have turned their attention to what they call the “global woman.” Like Ho, they examine the female migrant leaving home and family to seek work in the wealthy “first world.” Unlike Ho, however, they take a pointedly critical view of this phenomenon, suggesting that these female workers, most of them engaged in “care work” as nannies or housekeepers (or even prostitutes), are filling a “care deficit” in the wealthier countries, where many female professionals have pursued opportunities outside the home. In doing so the migrants create a new deficit at home, leaving their own children and communities behind: “Third World migrant women achieve their success only by assuming the cast-off domestic roles of middle- and high-income women in the First World—roles that have been previously rejected, of course, by men. And their ‘commute’ entails a cost we have yet to fully comprehend” (Ehrenreich & Hochschild, 2002, p. 3).

Ehrenreich and Hochschild (2002) argue that Western global power, previously manifested in the extraction of natural resources and agricultural goods, has evolved to embrace an “extraction” of women’s labor and love, which is transferred to the well-off at a cost to poorer countries, communities, and—most acutely perhaps—families:

The lifestyles of the First World are made possible by a global transfer of the services associated with a wife’s traditional role—child care, homemaking, and sex—from poor countries to rich ones. To generalize and perhaps oversimplify: in an earlier phase of imperialism, northern countries extracted natural resources and agricultural products… from lands they conquered and colonized. Today, while still relying on Third World countries for agricultural and industrial labor, the wealthy countries also seek to extract something harder to measure and quantify, something that can look very much like love. (p. 4)

While the women from the developing world are, for the most part, agents in their own choice to migrate to countries of the developed world in search of work (unless they are trafficked or tricked into migration), Ehrenreich and Hochschild point to powerful social forces that figure into this “choice.” On one hand, many women encounter the “push” factor of poverty, the choice of facing destitution at home or leaving families behind to earn what are, for them, substantial wages abroad. On the other hand, there is the “pull” factor of opportunities abroad: Their services are welcomed and needed. While these women make choices, their decisions are often driven by desperation and carry substantial noneconomic costs.


In the United States today, there are many possible ways of understanding what constitutes a family. They range from the narrower definitions embraced by the U.S. government and socially conservative communities to the broader options a growing number of groups are recognizing. A sociological perspective helps us to understand the roots of both stasis and change in family life and family formation. The decline of marriage, the rise of divorce beginning in the latter part of the 20th century, and the dramatic increase in nonmarital births are, as Émile Durkheim might have suggested, “social facts,” and social facts can be explained only by other social facts. These are not changes that appear randomly; rather, they are the results of complex sociological phenomena with identifiable and interesting social, cultural, and economic antecedents.


© Catherine Karnow/Corbis

Arlie Hochschild defines the nanny chain thus: “An older daughter from a poor family in a third world country cares for her siblings, while her mother works as a nanny caring for the children of a nanny migrating to a first world country, who, in turn, cares for the child of a family in a rich country” (Hochschild, 2001a). 

Theoretical perspectives on the family and associated sex roles add another layer of analysis to the picture. Functionalist theory looks at the family’s functions for societal stability, emphasizing reproduction, the nurturance and socialization of children, and the allocation of family members into complementary roles that ensure harmony and order. The more conflict-oriented feminist theory looks at the way the family reproduces gender inequality, ignoring the differential experiences and resources of men and women in relationships. The psychodynamic feminist perspective blends psychology and sociology to draw together the experiences of early childhood with relationship choices of adulthood and structural obstacles and opportunities. While all these perspectives have strengths and weaknesses, they offer us a range of possible lenses through which we can consider why families and roles are constituted as they are. The field remains open for new theoretical perspectives, and the family remains a fruitful area of research for sociologists.

Sociologists are concerned with commonalities and differences across families and explanations for these. Class, race, immigration status, health status—all of these may influence the ways that family formation, roles, cultures, and practices are manifested. Macro-level societal changes also have powerful impacts on families; globalization, deindustrialization, and the massive growth of student debt in an era of rapidly rising college costs are all seemingly “nonfamily” phenomena that may, in fact, have important impacts on families across the globe. Sociology helps us to make these connections.




Sociologists use qualitative research skills to gather rigorous, in-depth information on social behaviors, phenomena, and institutions. Qualitative research highlights data that cannot be quantified (that is, cannot be converted into numbers). It relies on the gathering of data through methods such as focus groups, participant and nonparticipant observation, interviews, and archival research. Generally, population samples are small in qualitative research because the aim of the research is to gain deep understanding.

In this chapter, we reviewed research that used qualitative data to examine issues as broad as the decline of marriage in the U.S. working class and the struggle for a work–life balance among middle-class families. Annette Lareau (2002) used nonparticipant observation and interviews to look at child-rearing practices in middle- and working-class White and Black families. In this qualitative work with a small sample (88 families were interviewed, and 12 were closely observed at home), Lareau sought to develop a detailed and in-depth understanding of how class-associated styles of parenting contribute to the reproduction of class status. Throughout this book you will encounter numerous qualitative research studies, and you will see how they contribute to our knowledge of the social world. As you advance in your sociological studies, you will have the opportunity to learn how to do qualitative sociology. For example, you may learn to prepare interview questions that will allow you to accurately assess respondents’ attitudes toward a particular social trend, or you may learn to take detailed field notes on observations you make of a practice or population you seek to study.

Knowledge of qualitative research methods is a beneficial skill in today’s job market. Learning to collect data through observation, interviews, and focus groups, for instance, prepares you to do a wide variety of job tasks, including survey development, questionnaire design, data collection and reporting, and market research. Further, qualitative research experience fosters communication competencies through the processes of small-group management and rapport building, as well as negotiation with study participants. These kinds of tasks are associated with job titles such as market research analyst or manager, social science research assistant, program analyst, community engagement analyst, and survey designer, and with occupational fields as broad as sociology, psychology, marketing, politics, public relations, community relations, and business and management, among others.


 Think about a topic you have read about in your sociology class that was of particular interest to you. What kind of qualitative research method might offer an effective and rigorous way of studying that issue?

 How might you imagine using your knowledge of qualitative research methods in a career field like public relations, community relations, politics, management, or marketing?



•    The meaning of family is socially constructed within a particular culture, and in the United States, as in other modern societies, the meaning and practices of family life have been changing.

•    Marriage, found in some form in all societies, can take several different forms, from the most common, monogamy, to many variations including polygamy, in which a person has multiple spouses simultaneously.

•    The functionalist perspective highlights the family’s functionality in terms of social stability and order, emphasizing such activities as sex-role allocation and child socialization.

•    Feminist perspectives on the family are more conflict oriented, highlighting the sexual division of labor in society and its stratifying effects. Feminist perspectives also examine the different experiences of men and women in marriage and the way social expectations and roles affect those experiences. The psychodynamic feminist perspective takes a sociopsychological approach, emphasizing the impact of early mothering on the later assumption of gender roles.

•    In U.S. society today the composition of families and the roles within families are shifting. The age at first marriage has risen across the board, and rates of marriage have declined, particularly among the less educated; currently, nonmarital births account for more than 40% of all births. Divorce has leveled off but remains at a high level. Same-sex marriage has growing public support, though legislation at the state and federal levels legalizing it—and addressing same-sex divorce—lags behind changes in public attitudes.

•    Socioeconomic class status affects child-rearing practices and family formation patterns. Lower rates of marriage and high rates of nonmarital births are present in the working class and among the poor. Middle-class family life is often structured around the needs of children.

•    In addition to being a site of nurturing and caring, the family may be a site of violence such as spousal abuse and child abuse (both of which occur at high rates), as well as elder abuse.

•    In the United States, the effects of globalization include changes in household income and employment opportunities. Women from developing countries often leave their homes and children to work for families in the developing world.


family, 267

marriage, 267

monogamy, 267

polygamy, 267

polygyny, 267

polyandry, 268

serial monogamy, 268

endogamous, 268

antimiscegenation laws, 268

extended families, 268

nuclear families, 269

sexual division of labor in modern societies, 270

cohabitation, 273

common-law marriage, 273

civil unions, 276

domestic partnerships, 276

domestic (or family) violence, 285

international families, 288



1.   Why do people get married? Why do people not marry? Think about individual and sociological reasons. Link your answers to the discussion of marriage trends and the experience of marriage discussed in this chapter.

2.   Recent data show some changes in the child-care practices of U.S. families. What do trends show? How do sociological factors help to explain the changes?

3.   How does the case of deaf families with hearing children show the opportunities and challenges of family life characterized by different cultures? Can this case be compared to immigrant families with children? What similarities and differences can you identify?

4.   Lareau’s research suggests that middle- and working-class families have different child-rearing styles. How does she describe these styles? Why might the differences be sociologically significant?

5.   Who is the “global woman”? What are the costs and benefits to women and families of a global labor market for care work?

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Media Library

CHAPTER 12 Media Library


College Dropouts

School Segregation


Changing Education Paradigms

Pattern of Inequality

Affordable Online Education


College and Social Mobility

Desegregation in School


Cost of a Degree


The Troublesome Legacy of Brown v. Board of Education

Global Achievement Gap

The Rise and Fall of Education Inequality



Education, Industrialization, and the “Credential Society”

Theoretical Perspectives on Education

Education, Opportunity, and Inequality

Issues in U.S. Higher Education

Education in a Global Perspective

Why Study Education From a Sociological Perspective?


1.   Why do significant numbers of students drop out of college before completing their degrees?

2.   Why does racial segregation exist and persist in many U.S. public schools?

3.   Why do schoolchildren in the United States have long summer holidays? What are the benefits and consequences of a long holiday from school?



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Most high school graduates in the United States today go to college. According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics (2013b), in 2012, 66% of high school completers enrolled in college. This figure has grown over time: In 1960, it was just 45%. Data suggest that education is more critical than ever for raising earning potential and ensuring competitiveness in the job market. In light of this, it is not surprising that more students are seeking to continue their education beyond high school.

Some critical observers, however, point out that all is not well in the hallowed halls of U.S. higher education. In fact, they suggest, the high rate of enrollment obscures a more troubling reality: Many students leave college with debt—and no degree. Journalist David Leonhardt (2009) writes that “in terms of its core mission—turning teenagers into educated college graduates—much of the system is simply failing.”

Leonhardt observes that while the United States does an excellent job getting high school graduates to enroll in higher education, colleges on the whole have been far less successful in retaining students and fostering their timely graduation. A study done by the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 2011 notes that in the United States as a whole, just over half of college students (56%) complete 4-year degrees in a period of 6 years—and only 29% of those who enroll in 2-year college programs complete them in 3 years (Symonds, Schwartz, & Ferguson, 2011). The low graduation figures put the United States at the bottom of an 18-country Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) list for completion rates, with 46% of students completing college once they begin higher education—far behind countries such as Japan (89%) and Poland (61%).

What happens to the students who don’t complete college? Why do they leave? Where do they go? These questions are of critical importance. On one hand, at the macro level, the U.S. economy needs an educated workforce. Dropouts diminish the potential for productivity and are costly in other ways as well: States paid out about $6.2 billion to 4-year colleges and universities between 2003 and 2008 to support the education of students who never returned for a second year of studies (American Institutes for Research, 2010). On the other hand, at the micro level, most workers are better off for having completed college: Median weekly earnings for those who have a bachelor’s degree are nearly 50% higher than the earnings for those who have some college, but no degree (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2013a). The differences are even greater when those without a college degree are compared with those who have graduate, professional, and doctoral degrees. In this chapter, we examine the issue of college dropouts in more detail, looking into the sociological antecedents of this widespread phenomenon. 

College Dropouts CLICK TO SHOW


We begin the chapter with a discussion of the roots of mass public education in the United States and the development of the “credential society” that is driving rising enrollments in higher education today. We continue with a critical look at education, using the functionalist, conflict, and symbolic interactionist perspectives to think about its functions and outcomes in modern society. We then turn to the fundamentally important issue of education and inequality, examining education as a key to understanding how inequality is both reproduced and reduced. We next return to the theme introduced in the opener—that is, higher education in the United States. We consider the relationship between higher education and income, the growing internship phenomenon, and the problem of college dropouts. Finally, we look at education in a global perspective, comparing the United States to other countries in terms of the relationship between education and employment and discussing the growing interest of U.S. students in studying abroad.


As societies change, so too does the role of education, the transmission of society’s norms, values, and knowledge base by means of direct instruction. For much of human history, education occurred informally, within the family or the immediate community. Children often learned by doing—by working alongside their parents, siblings, and other relatives in the home, in the field, or on the hunt.

With the emergence of industrial society, formal education, education that occurs within academic institutions such as schools, became increasingly common. As schooling became increasingly important in industrial societies, it came to be seen as the birthright of all society members. Mass education, or the extension of formal schooling to wide segments of the population, is the norm today. Not only is mass education consistent with the democratic ideals held in most modern and economically advanced or advancing societies, but it is also the principal means by which people acquire the skills they need to participate effectively as workers and citizens in the midst of technological, cultural, and economic change of dramatic proportions.

Modern society requires its members to master a large number of complex skills. People must know how to read and write, but that is rarely enough. Societies need people to organize production, invent new products, and program computers—others engage in creating art or literature, curing diseases, resolving human conflicts, and addressing scientific challenges like climate change. Building an educated population requires more than the on-the-job training of apprentices or helpers. It requires the transmission of more knowledge than most families are willing or able to pass on from one generation to the next.

The first educational institutions in the United States were created in the 17th century by the religious leaders of the New England Puritan communities. Their original intent was to provide religious education; children were taught to read so that they could study Scripture (Monroe, 1940; Vinovskis, 1995). In 1647, the Massachusetts Bay Colony passed a law requiring every community of 50 or more people to establish a town school. The law, named Ye Old Deluder Satan Act, was intended to protect New England’s youth from acquiescing to the temptations of the devil.

By the 18th century, the goal of education had shifted from religious training to cultivating practical and productive skills (Vinovskis, 1995). The emergence of industrial societies not only increased the need for people to be literate—literacy is defined as the ability to read and write at a basic level—but it also required that they learn skills, work habits, and discipline that would prepare them for jobs as industrial laborers, accountants, inventors, designers, merchandisers, lawyers, operators of complex machinery, and more (Bergen, 1996).

From the outset, schools in the United States were divided along social class lines. The sons of the middle and upper classes went to private schools that trained them for business and the professions. There were initially few public schools, and those that existed provided working- and lower-class children with the minimal education necessary for them to acquire the skills and obedience for factory work or farming (Bowles & Gintis, 1976; Wyman, 1997).

Changing Education Paradigms CLICK TO SHOW
College and Social Mobility CLICK TO SHOW


The Granger Collection, NYC — All rights reserved

The Granger Collection, NYC — All rights reserved

In the United States, girls and boys used to be educated separately and unequally in many public schools. Far fewer young women than today had the opportunity to go on to college and their high school education was more likely to emphasize skills in cooking and homemaking.  

When workers began forming labor unions in the 19th century, one of their demands was for free public education for their children, a universal education system provided by the government and funded by tax revenues rather than student fees (fees served to exclude economically disadvantaged students from the classroom; Horan & Hargis, 1991). Political activists, philanthropic organizations, and newspapers joined the unions in their demand. By the late 19th century, public elementary schools had been established in most of the industrial centers of the United States, and mass public schooling soon spread throughout the country, though segregated by gender and race. In some places, no schooling was provided for girls or African Americans. In other places, girls and boys were educated separately and unequally, with girls receiving training in cooking and homemaking skills and boys being educated to be literate (Riordan, 1990; Tyack & Hansot, 1982). Schools for African Americans were segregated by law in the southern states until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the practice unconstitutional in 1954; elsewhere in the country, Blacks and Whites attended different schools that offered unequal opportunities in education because they lived in different neighborhoods and schools were locally funded (Aviel, 1997; Bergen, 1996).

In some states, school attendance was compulsory for at least the first 6 years. The concept of public education was soon expanded to include high schools, and by the end of the 19th century, the average U.S. student achieved 8 years of schooling, while 10% completed high school and 2% completed college or university (Bettelheim, 1982; Vinovskis, 1992; Walters & James, 1992).

With the creation of mass public education, the United States increasingly became a credential society, one in which access to desirable jobs and social status depends on the possession of a certificate or diploma certifying the completion of formal education (Collins, 1979; Vinovskis, 1995). A socially validated credential such as a bachelor’s degree or professional degree thus serves as a filter, determining the kinds of jobs and promotions for which a person is eligible. People with only high school diplomas have a difficult time competing in the job market with those who have college degrees, even if they possess keen intellect and good skills. If a position announcement indicates that a college degree is required, the candidate with only a high school diploma is unlikely to be considered at all. Since a person’s job is a major determinant of income and social class, educational credentials play a major role in shaping opportunities for social and economic mobility.

Next we look at some key theoretical perspectives on education and its functions in modern society.


What is the role of the educational system in society? While functionalist theorists highlight the ways in which the educational system is positively functional for society, conflict theorists point to its role in reinforcing and reproducing social stratification. Symbolic interactionist theories help to illuminate how relational processes in the classroom may contribute to educational success—or failure.


© Gideon Mendel/Corbis

School is an important agent of socialization. Among the lessons young children learn in school are obedience to authority and conformity to schedules, imperatives that some sociologists say are rooted in early capitalism’s need for compliant workers.  


Émile Durkheim (1922/1956, 1922/1973b), whose work forms a foundation for functionalist theorizing in sociology, wrote about the importance of education in modern societies. According to Durkheim, modern societies are complex, with specialized yet interdependent institutions. This complexity creates a special problem for social solidarity—that is, the bonds that unite the members of a social group. Modern society is no longer characterized by communities with high degrees of cultural, religious, or social homogeneity, so social ties have weakened. One function of mass education is to address this problem by socializing members of a society into the norms and values necessary to produce and maintain social solidarity. Durkheim talked about this function in terms of moral education, meaning that educational institutions not only provide the knowledge and training necessary for members to fulfill their economic roles in modern society but also function to socialize individuals, building solidarity in the group.

Contemporary functionalist theories echo Durkheim’s concerns about social solidarity, emphasizing the function of formal education in socializing people into the norms, values, and skills necessary for society to survive and thrive (Parsons & Mayhew, 1982). Functionalist theory also proposes that education has both manifest and latent functions (Bourdieu & Coleman, 1991; Merton, 1968). What are these functions?

The manifest, or intended, functions of education include the transmission of general knowledge and specific skills needed in society and the economy, such as literacy and numeracy. The latent, or unintended, functions include the propagation of societal norms and values that Durkheim argued should be explicit concerns of moral education. For example, beginning with kindergarten, children learn to organize their lives according to schedules, to sit at desks, to follow rules, and to show respect for authority. Sociologist Harry Gracey (1991) has argued that “the unique job of the kindergarten seems… to be teaching children the student role. The student role is the repertoire of behavior and attitudes regarded by educators as appropriate to children in school” (p. 448). Having “mastered” the student role, children internalize the external social norms and rules that govern the school day and their academic lives.

Consider other latent functions of the system of mass public education in the United States. For example, in keeping children occupied from about 8:00 a.m. until 3:00 p.m., schools serve as supervisors for a large population of children whose parents work in order to contribute to both the micro-level economies of their homes and the productivity of the macro-level economy. Schools are also sources of peer socialization, offering an environment in which conventional gender roles are enacted and enforced. While some young people challenge expected roles through dress, for example, many conform in order to avoid conflict or ostracism. Can you think of other latent functions of mass education that are social, cultural, economic, or political?

What are the weaknesses of the functionalist perspective in furthering our understanding of the system of education? Critics suggest that it ignores schools’ contribution to reproducing social inequality. Functionalist theory assumes, for instance, that the educational system educates people in accordance with their abilities and potential, giving credentials to those who deserve them and who can contribute most to society while withholding credentials from those incapable of doing the most demanding work. Critics, however, say schools function to reproduce the existing class system, favoring those who are already the most advantaged and putting obstacles in the paths of those who are disadvantaged. They point to substantial differences in educational attainment across socioeconomic groups (a topic we take up later in this chapter) as evidence that socioeconomic class status is just as important as intellectual capability in influencing educational attainment within the institution of education (Bowles & Gintis, 1976).

Notably as well, although education may socialize students into society’s norms and values, it also undermines societal authority by promoting a critical approach to dominant ideas. Education contributes substantially to the development of a capacity for “self-direction” (Miller, Kohn, & Schooler, 1986), and students often develop inquiring, critical spirits because they are exposed to views and ways of thinking that challenge their previously held ideas. For example, Phelan and McLaughlin (1995) found that people with higher levels of education are more sympathetic to and less likely to blame homeless people for their condition than are people with lower levels of education.


Conflict theorists agree that education trains people in the dominant norms and values of society and the work skills and habits demanded by the economic system. However, they reject the functionalist notion that the system of education channels individuals into the positions for which they are best suited in terms of ambition, skills, and talents. Instead, they believe, it reproduces rather than reduces social stratification and, rather than ensuring that the best people train for and conscientiously perform the most socially important jobs (Davis & Moore, 1945), ensures that the discovery of talent will be limited (Tumin, 1953).


According to conflict theory, poor and working-class children have fewer opportunities to demonstrate their talents and abilities because they lack equal access to educational opportunities. Moreover, part of the “hidden curriculum” of the classroom is to socialize members of the working class to accept their class position (Bowles & Gintis, 1976). Children are taught at an early age to define their academic ambitions and abilities in keeping with the social class of their parents. These lowered educational ambitions are reinforced through inferior educational opportunities and labeling and discrimination in the classroom (Bowles & Gintis, 1976; Glazer, 1992; Kozol, 1991; Oakes, 1985; Willis, 1990).

Consider the experience of Malcolm X, a prominent champion of the rights of African Americans who was assassinated in 1965. In his autobiography, Malcolm X recounts how, despite being a top student, he was discouraged by his high school English teacher from becoming a lawyer:

Mr. Ostrowski looked surprised, I remember…. He kind of half-smiled and said, “Malcolm, one of life’s first needs is for us to be realistic. Don’t misunderstand me, now. We all like you, you know that…. A lawyer—that’s no realistic goal for a [Black man]. You need to think about something you can be. You’re good with your hands—making things…. Why don’t you plan on carpentry? People like you as a person—you’d get all kinds of work.” (Haley & Malcolm X, 1964, p. 41)

Poor and minority children still experience lowered expectations and educational opportunities. Author Jonathan Kozol (2000) writes,

Many people in Mott Haven [an impoverished neighborhood in the South Bronx] do a lot of work to make sure they are well-informed about the conditions in their children’s public schools. Some also know a great deal more about the schools that serve the children of the privileged than many of the privileged themselves may recognize. They know that “business math” is not the same as calculus and that “job-readiness instruction” is not European history or English literature. They know that children of rich people do not often spend semesters of their teenage years in classes where they learn to type an application for an entry-level clerical position; they know that these wealthy children are too busy learning composition skills and polishing their French pronunciation and receiving preparation for the SATs. They come to understand the process by which a texture of enlightenment is stitched together for some children while it is denied to others. They also understand that, as the years go by, some of these children will appear to have deserved one kind of role in life, and some another. (pp. 100–101)

Among the most prominent conflict theorists in the sociology of education are Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis, whose 1976 book Schooling in Capitalist America posited three key arguments. First, the authors argued that schools not only impart cognitive skills but also “prepare people to function well and without complaint in the hierarchical structure of the modern corporation” (p. ix). Second, Bowles and Gintis used statistical data to support the argument that parental economic status is passed on to children, at least in part, through unequal educational opportunity, though the advantages conferred on children of higher-social-status families are not limited to their educational preparation. Finally, the authors suggested that the modern school system was not the product of the evolutionary perfection of democratic pedagogy, but rather primarily a reflection of the interests of expanding capitalist enterprises such as factories.

FIGURE 12.1 Relationship Between U.S. Family Income and Years of Schooling for White Males Ages 35–44, 1962

SOURCE: Bowles, Samuel, and Herbert Gintis. Schooling in Capitalist America: Educational Reform and the Contradictions of Economic Life. Copyright © 1976 Bowles, Samuel; Gintis, Herbert M. Reprinted by permission of Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group.

Frequently cited results of Bowles and Gintis’s early work include a graph showing the powerful correlation between socioeconomic status (as measured by income) and educational attainment. The data, from a sample of men with similar childhood IQ scores, demonstrate an unmistakable relationship between the socioeconomic backgrounds of the subjects and the average number of years of education they completed (Figure 12.1). While a precise update of Bowles and Gintis’s data is not available, other data on the correlations among family income category, demonstrated academic potential, and educational attainment show that the same relationship identified by the theorists is still relevant decades later. For example, Figure 12.2 shows bachelor’s degree completion rates by both family income quartile (fourth) and SAT-equivalent score. Note that among the highest scoring students, fully 82% of high-income students graduated, whereas just 44% of low-income students graduated. The graduation gap appears to be consistent across score categories: In every category, students in the top two income groups were far more likely to graduate than are their lower-income counterparts.


FIGURE 12.2   Bachelor’s Degree Completion Rates by Family Income Quartile and SAT-Equivalent Score

SOURCE: Fox, M. A., Connolly, B. A., & Snyder, T. D. (2005). Youth indicators 2005: Trends in the well-being of American youth (NCES 2005-050). U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office

Critics of conflict theories of education point out that education, even in highly stratified societies, offers an important way for poor and working-class people to improve their circumstances, and it remains the primary means of upward mobility. Education has been a crucial path by which generations of U.S. immigrants have escaped poverty. Thus, although it may contribute to the reproduction of an unequal socioeconomic structure, the educational system also provides meaningful opportunities for mobility and change.


The functionalist and conflict perspectives highlight the role of education in society. Symbolic interactionists, in contrast, study what occurs in the classroom, alerting us to subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which schools affect students’ self-images. By looking at how students are labeled, for instance, symbolic interactionists shed light on the way schools help to reinforce and perpetuate differences among students.

In a classic study, Rosenthal and Jacobson (1968) conducted an intriguing experiment in which elementary school teachers were intentionally misinformed about the intelligence test scores of selected students. The teachers were told, in confidence, that certain students had scored unusually high on standardized tests the previous year. In fact, these students had been randomly selected and were no different in known intelligence from their peers. Rosenthal and Jacobson then observed the interactions between these students and their teachers and monitored the students’ academic performance. The students labeled “exceptional” soon outperformed their peers, a difference that persisted for several years.

The teachers described the labeled students as “more curious” or “more interested” and communicated their heightened expectations of these learners through their voices, facial expressions, and use of praise. Enacting a self-fulfilling prophecy, the students came to see themselves through their teachers’ eyes and began performing as if they were, in fact, more intelligent than their peers, earning still more positive attention from teachers. Younger students, whose self-images were more flexible, exhibited the greatest improvements in performance. Rosenthal and Jacobson concluded that the teachers behaved differently toward some students because the students had been labeled “exceptional.”

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Rosenthal and Jacobson’s experiment raises interesting questions: Is intentionally deceptive labeling ethical, as it both misinforms the teacher and may confer advantage on some students to the detriment of others? Can it be justified as a social scientific endeavor?  

The findings of other studies suggest similar conclusions. A study of student–teacher interaction in a largely African American kindergarten found that such labels as “fast” and “slow,” which the teacher assigned by the eighth day of class, tended to stay with the labeled students throughout the year (Rist, 1970). More recent research has confirmed the harmful effects of teachers’ stereotyped beliefs about minority students’ competence on those students’ performance (Garcia & Guerra, 2004). Another study found that female and Asian American students frequently received classroom grades higher than their actual test scores, while Latino, Black, and White males received lower grades (Farkas, Grobe, Sheehan, & Shuan, 1990; Farkas, Sheehan, & Grobe, 1990). The differences had to do with the teachers’ perceptions of their students’ “attitudes.” Those who appeared to be attentive and cooperative were judged to be hard workers and good students, and were graded up; those who appeared to be indifferent or hostile were graded down. Again, more recent research has reached similar findings regarding teacher bias (Rosenbloom & Way, 2004).


Classroom labeling has been studied in other countries as well. In one influential study, Paul Willis (1990) found that British boys from working-class families were systematically labeled as low academic achievers and socialized to think of themselves as capable of doing only working-class jobs. The boys understood quite well that this labeling process worked against them, and they resisted it by the use of humor and other challenges to authority. These behaviors reinforced their teachers’ perception that the boys would never make it and would eventually drop out of school and assume their “rightful position” in the working class. The boys thus accepted their teachers’ labeling, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy in which they wound up in working-class jobs.

Symbolic interactionism is well suited to studying the ways in which teachers consciously or unintentionally affect their students, but a critic might note that because it focuses on social interaction, it cannot give us a picture of the role of the educational system in society as a whole or help us recognize and analyze structural problems such as unequal funding of schools across poor, middle-class, and wealthy areas.


Functionalists argue that education provides a means for mobility and for filling the positions necessary for society to survive and thrive. Conflict theorists posit that the educational system reinforces existing inequalities by unequally according opportunities based on class, race, or gender. In fact, the U.S. educational system may operate to open avenues to mobility and create obstacles to achievement among the less privileged—that is, it may both reduce and reproduce inequality. In the following sections we look at issues of education and inequality, focusing in particular on questions about early childhood literacy and later educational achievement, income and poverty, school segregation by race and income, and public school funding.

© Sebastien Desarmaux/Corbis

Early literacy has been linked by researchers to later academic achievement. Children who do not learn to read by early elementary school often struggle to catch up later and are at higher risk than their peers of dropping out of high school.  


Researcher Louisa Cook Moats uses the term word poverty to characterize the impoverished language environments in which some children grow up. Word poverty is a particular problem in economically disadvantaged homes: Research on a community in California found that by age 5, children in impoverished language environments had heard 32 million fewer words spoken to them than the average middle-class child. Perhaps not surprisingly, the fewer words that were spoken to children, the fewer they could actively use themselves: In a study of how many words children could produce at age 3, “children from impoverished environments used less than half the number of words already spoken by their more advantaged peers” (Wolf, 2008, pp. 102–103).

Word poverty is also linked to a deficit of books in the homes of many children. Research conducted in three Los Angeles communities found that in the most economically impoverished community in the study, it was common to find no children’s books in the home. In low- to middle-income homes, an average of 3 books could be found. By contrast, in the most affluent families, there was an average of 200 books in each home (Wolf, 2008). According to a global study, the deficit or wealth of books in a home is of significance in children’s later schooling: Being raised in a home without books is as likely to affect children’s educational attainment as having parents with very low educational attainment. The researchers conclude that “growing up in a home with 500 books would propel a child 3.2 years further in education, on average” (Evans, Kelley, Sikora, & Treiman, 2010, p. 179). In the United States, the advantage to having an expansive library is an average of more than 2 years of education. Commenting on the study, an article on the website ScienceDaily noted, “the researchers were struck by the strong effect having books in the home had on children’s educational attainment even above and beyond such factors as education level of the parents, the country’s GDP [gross domestic product], the father’s occupation or the political system of the country” (University of Nevada, Reno, 2010).

Pattern of Inequality CLICK TO SHOW


FIGURE 12.3   Literacy Rates of U.S. Adults, 2003

SOURCE: National Center for Education Statistics. 2011. “Literacy skills of adults, by type of literacy, proficiency levels, and selected characteristics: 1992 and 2003.” Digest of Education Statistics, 2010.

Why is word poverty significant? The answer is that it is linked to low literacy. A fundamental necessity for any country in the modern world is a population that is functionally literate. No less important, literacy is necessary for individual success in education and the job market. The National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL, 2011) defines basic literacy as “using printed and written information to function in society, to achieve one’s goals, and to develop one’s knowledge and potential.” NAAL identifies four categories of literacy: below basic, basic, intermediate, and proficient (Figure 12.3). A large-scale NAAL study using a population of 19,000 representative respondents found the following:

•    About 14% of U.S. adults (or 30 million people) fell below basic on the literacy test. That is, they could successfully complete “no more than the most simple and concrete literacy skills,” such as locating the intersection of two streets on a clearly labeled map and circling the date of a medical appointment on a hospital appointment slip.

•    About 29% of the population (63 million) scored in the basic category, meaning they could “perform simple and everyday literacy activities,” including finding a table on a specified topic in an almanac and summarizing what articles in a given section of a magazine were about by using information from the table of contents.

•    Another 44% (95 million) fell into the intermediate category. They could “perform moderately challenging literacy activities” such as following directions on a clearly labeled map and finding the age range during which children should receive a given vaccine using a chart on recommended childhood immunizations.

•    Finally, about 13% of the population (28 million) were categorized as proficient, which indicated they could “perform complex and challenging literacy activities.” They could interpret survey data presented in a nested table and contrast financial information presented in a table about the differences between different types of credit cards.

Wolf (2008) suggests that a strong foundation in literacy is a key to later educational success. That is, students who enter high school with shaky foundations in literacy as a result of early childhood experiences such as word poverty or a deficit of books in the home have a higher probability of school failure than do their peers who grew up in homes with books and parents who read to them at an early age. At the same time, failure to complete high school is likely to affect someone’s ability to complete literacy activities successfully (45% of adults in the lowest literacy category had completed high school). If you were to research the correlation between prose literacy and high school completion, how might you proceed? What variables would you choose to study and why? What kind of relationship would you hypothesize?


School segregation, the education of racial minorities in schools that are geographically, economically, and/or socially separated from those attended by the racial majority (Whites), is a long-standing pattern that is worsening today, despite more than four decades of civil rights legislation intended to alleviate it and reduce its devastating effects. School segregation has long been linked to educational inequality in the United States.

Before slavery was abolished in the United States, it was a crime to teach slaves to read and write; formal education was reserved solely for Whites. Immediately following the abolition of slavery and the end of the Civil War, schools were integrated, but Jim Crow laws soon initiated a century of discrimination against Black Americans in the South. These laws determined, among other things, where Black Americans could live, where they could eat and shop, and where they would be educated. In the North, there were no laws segregating schools by race, but segregated schooling occurred nonetheless as a consequence of racial residential segregation.

Both law and custom created schools segregated by race in the United States until the 1950s (Jordan, 1992). Black activists challenged the constitutionality of segregation, but U.S. courts repeatedly found it did not violate the U.S. Constitution. For example, in its 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the states’ rights to segregate public accommodations as long as they followed the principle of “separate but equal.” In 1954, however, the Supreme Court reversed itself. Relying in part on social science research showing that segregated schools were not in fact equal, the Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka that laws segregating public schools were unconstitutional (Miller, 1995).

Desegregation in School CLICK TO SHOW


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Gender-segregated classrooms are uncommon in public schools today. Racially segregated classrooms, however, continue to be common.  

This decision met with considerable resistance, especially in the South, where schools were segregated by law. Governor George Wallace of Alabama personally blocked the entrance to the University of Alabama in an effort to stop Black students from enrolling, and a Black college student named James Meredith went to prison for trying to enroll and attend classes at the University of Mississippi. Black and White students who tried to integrate schools were beaten by police and fellow citizens (Branch, 1988; Chong, 1991; McCartney, 1992).

Court challenges, civil protests, and mass civil disobedience ultimately broke down barriers, and some racial integration of schools took place across the country. Although the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education had prohibited purposeful discrimination on the basis of race, it did not provide for specific methods to achieve school integration. The fact that racial and ethnic groups were residentially segregated meant that, in fact, most Blacks would continue to attend schools that were predominantly Black, while Whites would continue to attend mostly White schools.

Subsequent court decisions provided one method of achieving integration: school busing, a court-ordered program of transporting public school students to schools outside their neighborhoods. Mandated busing proved highly controversial, provoking criticism among some academics and hostility among many parents and policy makers. Controversy erupted in 1974 when Black students were bused into poor Irish neighborhoods in South Boston, whose schools were among the worst in the state. Instead of providing equal educational opportunity, busing worsened racial conflict in some of Boston’s most economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. Violence resulted, and over the next 10 years public school enrollment in the city plummeted (Frum, 2000).

Today, despite decades of civil rights activism and laws aimed at promoting integration, racial segregation persists in U.S. schools, and in some places it has even worsened. How is this possible?

First, the movement of middle- and upper-class Whites into all-White school districts in suburban or outlying areas has left mostly poor minorities in the inner cities, where some schools have become almost fully racially segregated as a result (Coleman, Hoffer, & Kilgore, 1982; Kozol, 2005; Orfield & Eaton, 1996). Because they are located in low-income neighborhoods, highly segregated schools also tend to be the most poorly funded. While there are variations in state formulas for funding schools, the source on which most U.S. school districts still depend most heavily is local property tax revenue. While this system ensures that those who live in areas with high property values will generally accrue adequate—or even excellent—funds for the physical plant and academic programs of their schools, it also puts those who live in poor rural and urban areas at a distinct disadvantage, since even high property tax rates cannot bring in the level of resources that schools in middle- to upper-class areas enjoy. Further, White families that remain in urban areas often choose to send their children to private schools. As a consequence, most students still attend schools with a high degree of racial segregation (Ball, Bowe, & Gewirtz, 1995; Kozol, 2005).

Second, U.S. Supreme Court decisions such as Board of Education of Oklahoma City v. Dowell, Freeman v. Pitts, and Missouri v. Jenkins have limited the scope of previous laws aimed at promoting racial integration of schools. The Court has ruled that segregated schools resulting from “residential preferences” are a result of people making choices about where to reside and are therefore beyond the scope of the law. The Court declared in these cases that school districts that previously had made an effort to integrate schools could send students back to neighborhood schools even if those schools were segregated and inferior (Orfield & Eaton, 1996).

Latino and Black students are more likely to be in segregated schools today than in earlier decades (Figure 12.4). In Chicago in 2011, for instance, 43% of students enrolled in public school were either Black or Hispanic; 9% were White. In Washington, D.C., public school enrollment is 91% African American and Latino—in Detroit the figure is 92% (Federal Education Budget Project, 2012). Schools that operate under de facto segregation face many daunting problems, including low levels of competition and expectation, less qualified teachers who leave as soon as they get seniority, more limited curricula, peer pressure against academic achievement and supportive of crime and substance abuse, high levels of teen pregnancy, few connections with colleges and employers who can assist students, less serious academic counseling and preparation for college, and powerless parents who themselves failed in school and do not know how to evaluate or change schools. (Orfield & Eaton, 1996, p. 54)

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Which classroom would you rather be in? Across the country, unequal funding of public schools and the resulting inequalities in resources are problems that perpetuate disparities in education and upward mobility.  

FIGURE 12.4   Racial Composition of U.S. Public Schools in Selected Cities, 2011

SOURCE: Federal Education Budget Project. 2012. “Comparative analysis of funding, student demographics and achievement data.” New America Foundation.

By contrast, middle-class Asian American students are almost entirely integrated into schools with Whites. Asian American communities such as “Chinatowns” and “Little Saigons” are exceptions to this rule, however, especially among recent immigrants from China, Vietnam, Korea, and other Asian countries (Chen, 1992; Loo, 1991; Zhou, 2009).

American Indians on reservations are the most segregated of all minorities. The various tribes are recognized by treaty as separate nations whose rights are governed by agreements between them and the U.S. government. Their schools are run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which employs teachers and sets the curriculum. Treaties between the U.S. government and Indian nations have sought to ensure education that recognizes the value of American Indian culture and tradition. Yet the teachers employed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs are ordinarily expected to cover the standard subjects of U.S. school curricula, and in English. Problems within the tribal communities have resulted, since Indians often see such instruction as failing to respect their linguistic and cultural differences.


Some people believe that students in the United States are falling behind their international peers because they spend less time in the classroom (Table 12.1). Two popular proposals to expand classroom time are lengthening the school day and lengthening the school year. Below we explore these two ideas, look at the roots of the current calendar, and consider some of its consequences.


TABLE 12.1   Mandated School Days in Selected Countries, 2009

SOURCE: International Review of Curriculum and Assessment Frameworks Internet Archive. 2009. “Table 15.1: Organisation of School Year.”

As economist Peter Orszag (2012) notes, “School hours in the United States were developed during the 19th century, in part to allow students to help their families with farm work in the afternoon.” Thus, around the time mass schooling began, the school day was designed to accommodate the needs of families sustained by agriculture, needs that are no longer so widespread. Should the school day now be lengthened?

On one hand, consider that many students participate in after-school sports, clubs, and other activities. No small number of full-time high school students also work; about 16% worked in 2010, although that is about a 50% decline from the 34% employed in 2000 (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2011c). Homework loads, particularly at the high school level, may be substantial; a longer school day, unless it included more study time, might impede students’ completion of homework. Also, a longer school day would cost taxpayers more: “In 2008, the Center for American Progress estimated that expanding learning time by 30 percent—or adding between 90 minutes and two hours to the school day—would add 6 to 20 percent to school budgets” (Orszag, 2012).

On the other hand, a longer school day has been shown to correlate with academic gains (Dobbie & Fryer, 2011), suggesting one avenue for raising achievement levels as the United States works to build a competitive workforce for the future. As well, about 15 million children, including some as young as 5 years old, are currently unsupervised by an adult after school (Orszag, 2012). The opportunity to stay longer in a safe learning environment may benefit children who might otherwise have little to do. It might even reduce crime. According to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (2010), most violent juvenile crimes occur in the hours after the school day ends. As sociologists we are always aware that correlation is not causation, but this relationship bears close examination. While some of the young people getting into trouble in these hours are dropouts who would not be affected by a longer school day, some offenders and victims are also full-time students.

What about lengthening the school year? In the early part of the 19th century, schoolchildren attended school mostly in the winter and summer, so they could participate in spring and fall planting and harvest seasons (Gold, 2002). By the mid- to late 19th century, the average school calendar stretched across those seasons, but summer classes had largely been eliminated—not to accommodate agriculture as is commonly believed but rather to respond to the desires of a socioeconomic elite for holidays and a break from mental work. In the early 20th century, a time of high immigration from Europe, some “vacation schools” arose in cities to “decongest and decriminalize crowded neighborhoods, assimilate immigrant children, and provide practical skills” (Gold, 2002, p. 5). Later these were replaced by summer schools, the purpose of which was largely to serve those who had fallen behind during the regular school year.

Is it time to return to summertime education? Some contend that doing so would be costly in a time of shrinking budgets. And, as in the mid- to late 19th century, the now much larger middle and upper classes might object to a school year that impinges on their holiday calendar.

On the other hand, some research suggests that children may lose up to 2 months of acquired grade-level skills in math computation skills over the course of the summer. The same study found that low-income children, who are about 2.5 years behind their better-off peers by grade 5, also lose the equivalent of 2 months of reading achievement (Cooper, Nye, Charlton, Lindsay, & Greathouse, 1996). A study conducted in Baltimore suggests that about two-thirds of the reading achievement gap between ninth graders in lower- and higher-income groups is traceable to differences in summer experiences. Compounding this effect, differences in summer learning activities during elementary school may have an impact on whether a child graduates from high school and matriculates in college (Alexander, Entwisle, & Olson, 2007). While many middle- and upper-income students have the opportunity for enriching camp, holiday, and educational experiences in the summer—and middle-class children make small gains in reading achievement during these months—low-income children whose parents may not have the time or resources to offer these advantages are particularly susceptible to what educators term summer slide, the loss of knowledge and skills gained during the school year.

Should the school day or year be lengthened to serve the new economy, young people, poor families, or other groups? Or should the United States continue to use the model that has been in place for more than a century?




According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES; 2013a), in 2009, 8% of U.S. students dropped out of high school. This statistic includes White students with a dropout rate of 5%, Black students with a dropout rate of 9%, Hispanic students with a dropout rate of over 17%, and Asian or Pacific Islander students with a dropout rate of more than 3%. These figures represent the status dropout rate, the percentage of 16- through 24-year-olds in the civilian, noninstitutionalized population who are not enrolled in school and have not earned a high school credential, whether a high school diploma or a general equivalency degree (GED).

Here is another view of the picture. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau (2012d) show that 3.1% of U.S. students dropped out of high school in 2009. Within this category, 3% of Whites dropped out, as well as more than 4% of Black and 5% of Hispanic students. These data represent event dropout rates, or the percentage of 10th to 12th graders who dropped out in a single year without completing high school.

High school dropout can also be measured with the cohort dropout rate, which focuses on the outcomes for a single group (cohort) of students over a period of time—for example, the percentage of ninth graders in New York City who are reported as dropouts 4 years later (having left high school without completing a degree). This measure yields, predictably, the largest dropout rate of the three, because it is stretched across a longer time span. The cohort dropout rate, unlike the status dropout rate, generally does not count GED credentials as high school completion.

When we read press articles or hear public discussions of the dropout phenomenon in the United States, we are rarely given information on the sources of the statistics or instruments used to measure them. For example, a New York Times article on the cost of dropouts to the U.S. economy notes that “only 7 of 10 ninth graders today will get high school diplomas… about 80 percent of white and Asian students graduate from high school, compared with only 55 percent of blacks and Hispanics” (Levin & Rouse, 2012). It is unclear from these figures which of the dropout measures is being used or how “dropouts” are defined.

Further, as with poverty and unemployment figures, the institutionalized (imprisoned) population is excluded from most calculations of dropouts. In 1980, the status dropout rate for African Americans in the NCES measure was 19.1%. In 2009, it was 9.3%, a significant decline. On one hand, this represents more robust efforts on the part of schools to reduce rates of early school leaving and greater educational gains for African Americans overall. On the other hand, it also represents a measurement issue. Because the proportion of African American men who are in prison and are high school dropouts is high (see Figure 12.5), the failure to include them gives us a potentially incomplete picture.

FIGURE 12.5   Percentages of Incarcerated U.S. Males Ages 16–24 by Educational Attainment, 2006–2007

SOURCE: Sum, Andrew; Khatiwada, Ishwar; and McLaughlin, Joseph, “The consequences of dropping out of high school: joblessness and jailing for high school dropouts and the high cost for taxpayers” (2009). Center for Labor Market Studies Publications. Paper 23.

It is important for us to be critical consumers of information and to pay attention not only to what is being measured but also to how it is measured, what a statistic illuminates and obscures, and how figures are used in the press and public discourse.


 Use the search engine of a major national newspaper or other news source to search for the term high school dropout rates. You may want to include the name of a state or city in your search as well. Examine what you find. Do the sources of data you find include information on how the data were collected? Why is it important to know this?



What is the relationship between education and income? There is a powerful correlation, with greater education generally leading to a higher level of income. For example, in 2012, the mean earnings of a high school graduate were just over $33,000, while for a bachelor’s degree holder they were over $55,000. For those who did not complete high school, mean earnings were just $24,492 (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2013a).

The relationship between education and income opportunities and prospects has grown in significance as the labor market in the United States has shifted from industrial to postindustrial. In the former, positions with solid incomes and security were available in manufacturing for those with a high school education (or less). In particular, men with less education had opportunities to earn a living wage and advance their economic position over time. In contrast, the postindustrial economy has increased the number of jobs for those with high levels of skill and training, and the number of jobs in the service sector for those with less education. However, service jobs—including retail sales, child and elder care, and restaurant jobs—fail to provide the standard of living that many manufacturing jobs, particularly those in unionized sectors, once offered. As a result, the income advantage of those with higher education and the relative and absolute disadvantages of those with less education have grown markedly.

The correlation between education and income, and that between education and wealth, can be further linked to labor force participation. That is, those with higher incomes are more likely to participate in the paid labor force. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2014d) data show that in 2013, the labor force participation rate for those without a high school diploma was 40%, while for high school graduates it was over 54% and for college graduates over 72%.

Clearly, low income and poverty are powerfully linked to the lack of human capital among those who have not completed a high school or college education. Are they thus the products of an individual’s failure to invest in him- or herself by ambitiously pursuing an education? The sociological imagination suggests a more complex relationship: To paraphrase C. Wright Mills, if, in a country of 300 million, only a handful of men or women are poor or undereducated, we properly look to the character of the individual, his or her skills, and his or her immediate opportunities. But when, in a nation of 300 million inhabitants, more than 15%—over 46 million people—are poor and millions have not achieved a high school education (see the Behind the Numbers box on page 307), we may not hope to find the explanation or solution in the choices, character, or behavior of any given individual. “Both the correct statement of the problem and the range of possible solutions require us to consider the economic and political institutions of the society, and not merely the personal situation and character of a scatter of individuals” (Mills, 1959/2000b, p. 9).

To appreciate the sociological linkages between education and low income or poverty, we need to look not only at the well-established relationship between education and income but also at factors that affect educational attainment. We should understand educational attainment as the product of both agency and structure. Individuals have agency. That is, they make choices about pursuing schooling, sacrificing immediate income for deferred income, and investing time and money in an education. On the other hand, the choices they make are based on the opportunities available to them, and those from more privileged backgrounds typically have more opportunities for good-quality schooling, from preschool through college. A higher family income raises the likelihood of a person’s finishing high school and, as we will see later in the chapter, college.

The sociological imagination would lead us to conclude that in order to understand the linkage between income and education, we need to look beyond the simple relationship between educational attainment and income level and examine the way socioeconomic status itself influences the level of education an individual achieves, which then further influences income in a cycle that can be challenging to break.


In the United States today, nearly three quarters of high school graduates continue on to higher education. The value and even the necessity of higher education in the modern world and economy are common themes in both educational and political discourse. The good jobs of the future, we have been told, will require higher education. Below we look at the general issue of college and income, examining the relationship of education to income today. We continue with an examination of the college internship, a growing phenomenon that has invited both praise and critique. We end with a closer discussion of the topic raised in the opening vignette—that is, the college dropout phenomenon, its dimensions, and its probable causes and possible cures.


In Figure 12.6, we see a clear and unequivocal correlation between educational attainment and income, and between educational attainment and vulnerability to unemployment. We have seen in other chapters that educational attainment has grown in importance in the postindustrial era, as the living wage jobs of the industrial era in sectors such as automobile manufacturing, steel, and textiles have fallen victim to outsourcing and automation. What remains as the foundation of the U.S. economy are advanced professional occupations, which require higher education and often even graduate degrees, and service jobs, which are often part-time, low-pay, and low-benefit positions in sectors such as child and elder care, retail, and hospitality. While some manufacturing has continued to be sited in the United States, new manufacturing jobs are far less likely to be unionized, more likely to involve short-term contracts, and characterized by a lower pay scale than similar jobs in the past (see Chapter 15). A substantial number of new manufacturing jobs demand proficiency with high-technology equipment, which may require either college education or other advanced training beyond high school. In this economic environment, education does, indeed, appear to pay—handsomely so.


FIGURE 12.6   Earnings and Employment by Educational Attainment in the United States, 2013

SOURCE: Bureau of Labor Statistics. 2012. “Employment Projections: Education Pays.” United States Department of Labor.

Yet while college graduates today are still, as a group, outearning their peers with less education, their own income prospects have diminished somewhat in comparison to those of earlier graduates. As Figure 12.7 shows, entry-level wages of graduates have dropped from the peak reached at the turn of the millennium, reflecting a larger labor market trend in stagnating or slow wage growth. In spite of their higher graduation rates, women continue to lag behind their male counterparts. As we will see in the next section, some entry-level jobs have evolved into unpaid internships, rendering the first step on the career ladder more tenuous for new graduates.

Though graduates’ entry-level wages increased slightly in 2011, only 24% of new graduates had an employment offer at the time of graduation (Goudreau, 2011). Low levels of employment, particularly in positions requiring a college degree, continue to plague new graduates, though entry-level wages appear to be climbing very slowly: From 2012 to 2013, the average entry-level wage rose from $44,482 per year to $45,633 (National Association of Colleges and Employers, 2014).

FIGURE 12.7   U.S. Entry-Level Real Hourly Wages for New Graduates Ages 23–29, 1973–2009

SOURCE: Shierholz, Heidi. (2011). “New College Grads Losing Ground on Wages.” Economic Snapshot—Education. Washington, DC: Economic Policy Institute. Reprinted with permission.

While wages have stagnated and many new graduates are struggling with unemployment or underemployment, the student debt burden has grown. Student loan debt is particularly likely to be carried by minority students, more of whom come from homes with lower incomes. For instance, data from the 2007–2008 academic year (prior to the economic recession, when debts continued to balloon) show that a substantial proportion of minority students carry heavy educational debt, defined here as $30,500 or more at graduation. Among bachelor’s degree graduates, 27% of Black students, 16% of White students, 14% of Hispanic students, and 9% of Asian students had heavy educational debt (Austin, 2010). Debt presents a substantial challenge to students as they begin their careers.

At the same time, the assertion that “education pays,” which headlined the Bureau of Labor Statistics data noted in Figure 12.6, remains essentially correct, particularly in light of the U.S. Department of Labor’s projections about the direction of the U.S. economy. A report published in 2005 on growth sectors in the labor market notes that “professional and related occupations and service occupations… which are on opposite ends of the educational attainment and earnings spectrum, are expected to provide about 60 percent of the total job growth from 2004 to 2014” (Hecker, 2005, p. 71). While both income and debt are critical concerns for students, their families, and the economy as a whole, educational attainment will continue to grow in importance as a pathway to professional careers and higher earning potential.


Thousands of U.S. college students build their résumés and job experience with unpaid internships, which have become a staple of summer or a part of the regular academic year for students living in cities such as Washington, D.C., and New York, where opportunities are abundant to work in politics, the fashion industry, public relations, and other fields. Many universities require each student to complete an internship to earn credit toward a major or graduation. More students than ever are also working in unpaid internships after graduation, having been unable to secure paid entry-level positions even with their degrees. Critics, however, are raising questions about the legality and morality of employing young people, sometimes full-time, without paying them wages or salaries. While some internships offer stipends or pay, most do not.

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As an undergraduate student, you may have the opportunity to do an unpaid internship. Interns provide public and private organizations with important yet unpaid labor, while students benefit from getting work experience.  

What are some of the benefits to students of participating in unpaid internships? Both students and their universities often believe internships are a vital component of building human capital in preparation for the world of paid and professional work. Universities have an interest in helping students work outside campus on activities that can build their knowledge base, and students have an interest in developing skills and social networks that will help them find good jobs after graduation. Many look forward with excitement to the possibility of working with a representative in Congress, a lawyer, a public relations specialist, a fashion designer, or an executive with a favorite nonprofit. For many students, the internship experience is a positive one.

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division (2010) recognizes legal internships as a means for preparing interns for work and has established a set of six criteria that most public and private institutions must meet:

•    The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training that would be given in an educational environment.

•    The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern.

•    The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff.

•    The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern, and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded.

•    The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship.

•    The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.

There is room for interpretation of these criteria on multiple points. For instance, can we clearly determine whether an employer “derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern”? Or that no “regular employees” have been “displaced”?

Another way of looking at internships is to ask how an arrangement intended by law to benefit students and other prospective workers may benefit other entities—perhaps even to the detriment of the intern, as writer Ross Perlin (2011) points out. Among the points Perlin raises are the following: Universities benefit from mandating student internships for credit, because students are thereby required to pay tuition dollars for an experience that—unlike the classroom experience—costs the university comparably little. And employers are effectively provided with the services of often well-educated and enthusiastic workers—for no pay. Perlin argues that a range of institutions and employers thus exploit the services of young workers for their own economic advantage in the fashion and finance industries, in politics, and in the nonprofit world.

Who loses in this equation? Perlin (2012) and Eisenbrey (2012) suggest that lower-income students are losers in the internship game. That is, while students from better-off families can afford (at least for a while) to work for nothing in order to secure human and social capital, poor and working-class students need to work for pay, even if it’s in a field unrelated to their area of career interest. Perlin (2012) argues that “lucrative and influential professions—politics, media and entertainment, to name a few—now virtually require a period of unpaid work, effectively barring young people from less privileged backgrounds.” All students, however, are potentially disadvantaged where jobs that once were or might otherwise have been entry-level jobs are reinvented as unpaid internships, a shift that removes an economically and professionally important stepping-stone for students leaving school with degrees.

Perlin (2011, 2012) asserts that the internship boom also has other, even broader, effects: It constricts social and professional mobility, contributes to growing inequality, and supports an economy in which those in the top tier are becoming less and less diverse. Even more seriously, a fundamental ethic in American life is under threat: the idea that a hard day’s work demands a fair wage.

What, then, are we to conclude about internships, a growing and pervasive phenomenon that will be part of the experience of thousands of students this year and in years to come? It is clear that students benefit from spending time in a professional market that values both formal educational credentials and hands-on work experience. Universities benefit from giving their students opportunities to link classroom learning to experiential learning. And employers benefit from the creativity, skills, and enthusiasm of young workers. On the other hand, it remains important that benefits should not accrue disproportionately to the parties with the most power—universities and employers—to the detriment of students. How can students, their schools, and the law ensure opportunity and contribute to making internships meaningful work experiences that provide foundations for careers? What do you think?


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Many students seeking to go to college face conflicting emotions: joy when they are admitted, but anxiety over how to pay for their education.  


We began this chapter by looking at the phenomenon of college dropouts, noting that the United States has been tremendously successful in ensuring that a high proportion of high school completers—fully 70%—enroll in higher education. Statistics suggest, however, that many who enroll in college never finish with degrees, though many end their college careers with substantial debt.

College attainment levels have remained flat for generations (Lewin, 2011a). A little more than half of those enrolled in 4-year institutions go on to graduate, while less than half of those enrolled in 2-year institutions graduate (Figure 12.8). Recent data show that the average graduation rate for 1,575 4-year colleges nationwide was just over 57% (for completion in 6 years), with public colleges at 56% and private colleges at 65%. Figures for 2-year institutions are even lower (CollegeMeasures, 2013). Dropouts can be costly, both to the nation as a whole, which loses potentially educated and productive workers, and to individuals, whose earning potential is diminished by their failure to obtain degrees.

FIGURE 12.8   U.S. Graduation Rates by Race and Ethnicity, Selected Cohort Entry Years, 1996–2007

SOURCE: National Center for Education Statistics. 2011. “Table 345: graduation rates of first-time postsecondary students who started as full-time degree/certificate-seeking students, by sex, race/ethnicity, time to completion, and level and control of institution where student started: Selected cohort entry years, 1996 through 2007.” Digest of Education Statistics.

So what is behind the college dropout phenomenon? Several factors contribute. First, high college costs drive many students out of higher education. The cost of a 4-year private college education tripled from 1980 to 2010—student loan debt for new bachelor’s degree graduates now averages about $23,000 (Carlozo, 2012). Costs are a particularly acute issue for low-income students, who are more likely to drop out than their better-off peers. The financial burden of a college education falls more heavily on those with fewer resources, often even when some grant money is available. As well, low-income students are more likely to attend colleges that “excel in producing dropouts” (Leonhardt, 2009).

Second, the rigors of college work lead some students to drop out. This factor is complex. Some students who enroll in college may indeed be unready for the workload or the level of work. Half of students in associate degree programs and about a fifth of those in bachelor’s programs are required by their institutions to enroll in remedial classes to address academic shortcomings. Some of these courses do not confer college credit, lengthening the time needed to earn a degree and increasing the likelihood that a student will leave without completing college. Advocates for students suggest that colleges can do more to help students stay and succeed with coaching, scheduling that meets the needs of working students, and accelerated programs that speed the time to degree with rigorous work offered in concentrated time periods (Lewin, 2011a). At the same time, budget cuts, particularly at state institutions, have reduced rather than expanded opportunities to provide targeted services to struggling students.

Many students find it challenging to balance the rigors of school and work. According to Complete College America, the majority of community college students work more than 20 hours per week, and a substantial proportion also take care of families. While attending college part-time seems like a viable solution, in fact it substantially lowers the chance that a student will ever earn a degree. Only about a quarter of students today fit the stereotypical model of full-time, on-campus students supported largely by their parents.

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Sociologist George Ritzer (2010) writes that the life experiences of U.S. adults (and a growing number of others across the globe) are influenced from cradle to grave by McDonaldized institutions. These institutions have absorbed and put into practice the key characteristics of the fast-food restaurant: efficiency, calculability (a focus on the quantifiable aspects of what is sold), predictability, and the control of humans by nonhuman technologies. Ritzer follows classical sociologist Max Weber’s argument on formal rationality in suggesting that society, including education, is becoming more “formally rationalized” but that while this rationalization serves the profit motive of capitalism well, it does not necessarily serve the individuals who are dehumanized by processes that quantify, control, and “cage” them in a web of rationalized structures.

From preschool to the university level, say Ritzer and others (Hayes & Wynyard, 2002), the experience of education is permeated by the principles of the fast-food restaurant. At the preschool level, Ritzer argues, early education is dominated by child-care chains such as KinderCare, which tends to hire short-term employees whose work in the classroom is governed by an “instruction book” that lays out detailed activities for each day, creating an environment that, for better or worse, is predictable from center to center. Individual interpretation and innovation are not encouraged.

Can we also say that higher education is McDonaldized? Ritzer (2010) writes that “most courses run for a standard number of weeks and hours per week… little attention is devoted to determining whether a given subject is best taught in a given number of weeks or hours per week. The focus seems to be on how many students (‘products’) can be herded through the system and what grades they earn rather than the quality of what they have learned and of the educational experience” (p. 84). Both before and after college, students take standardized examinations with quantifiable results, such as the PSAT, the SAT, and the GRE. An entire high school or college experience can be summed up in a single number, the grade point average (GPA). Think about your experience at college or university. What aspects of it would you say are McDonaldized?

The growth of online education is another avenue of interest for those who are concerned about the McDonaldization of higher education. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (2011a), in 2007–2008 about a fifth of U.S. students took some kind of distance learning course. The proportion taking a full program online was smaller—just 3.7%—but rising. As of 2011, the rate of enrollment growth of online programs (10%) was far exceeding the growth rate of enrollment in all higher education (2%; Allen & Seaman, 2011).

A key benefit of online programs is that students who work or are not able to attend classroom lectures can now be part of an active learning community and earn credits toward the completion of a degree. On the other hand, online learning may reduce the “inefficient” human contact that many students and instructors value in education, including debates and discussions, in-class activities such as role-playing, and personal mentoring and encouragement. The collective aspects and pleasures of learning in a course are replaced in some cases by dozens or hundreds of students alone with their computers. Technology has clearly brought both new opportunities and new costs to those seeking higher education.


 Ritzer argues that we are seeing a “dehumanization of education” today. Do you agree with this assertion? How is technology changing education in both positive and negative ways?

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (2011), the United States ranks 16th among OECD countries in the percentage of young adults with a college degree (Table 12.2). At one time, it topped the list. While everyone may not desire or even need a college degree, the competitive global economic environment has put a premium value on higher education, which offers greater security from unemployment and greater earning potential than a high school credential alone. Understanding why students drop out is the first step to addressing this problem effectively.


TABLE 12.2   Percentage of Young Adults Ages 25–34 With a College Degree for Selected Countries, 2009

SOURCE: OECD. 2011. “Percentage of population that has attained tertiary education, by age group (2009).” The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Are there other factors you see as important in explaining the high number of U.S. students who leave college without degrees? What should students do to address the problem? What should schools do?


Education brings gains to individuals, communities, and countries. Today, more people than ever are literate, attending institutions of higher education and completing degrees, and sharing knowledge globally across new communication platforms. It is not unusual for a U.S. classroom to have a partner in another country so students can “meet” other students through the Internet to share interests and ideas. Nor is it unusual to meet U.S. students abroad who are studying for credit and seeing places they might only have read about in books. Education has the potential to bring people and cultures together to foster greater understanding, innovation, and prosperity. Next, we take a look at how the United States lines up with its global peers in areas related to education, and at what some American students are doing in their studies across the planet.


When the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development was formed in 1960, its members were 18 European nations, the United States, and Canada. Today, the OECD has 34 member states across the globe, including countries as geographically, culturally, and economically diverse as Mexico and Turkey. Its goal is to both foster and track economic and policy development and changes in member states. Among the important data the OECD collects on a regular basis are those on the relationship between higher education and employment. From these data we can get a basic picture of where the United States falls in relation to other member states in the achievement of educational credentials and the fortunes of college graduates.

In the 34 OECD states, though they include both highly developed states such as the United States and Germany and developing countries such as Mexico and Chile, the correlations we have observed among educational attainment, income, and labor market prospects hold true. The global economic crisis that began in 2008 hit many member countries hard, and unemployment grew in every one. The most heavily affected workers were adults without post–high school education, whose unemployment rates rose overall from nearly 9% to more than 11%. For those with higher education, however, unemployment rates grew only one percentage point between 2008 and 2009 and stayed below 5% in most countries through 2009 (Spain and Turkey were the most notable exceptions). No less important, those with higher education continued to enjoy substantially higher wages than their peers with less education. Clearly, then, education matters across the globe (OECD, 2011).


For many U.S. students, the world beckons. Seized by curiosity to see and experience the world outside home, campus, and work, they are taking advantage of a small but growing number of college study-abroad programs (Table 12.3). In the academic year 2009–2010, more than 260,000 U.S. students studied abroad for credit, a small increase from the previous year and part of a rising trend. The top destinations, which have remained largely steady over time, include the United Kingdom, France, Spain, and Italy. In the 2009–2010 academic year, however, almost 14,000 students went to China, compared to just 3,000 a decade earlier. Other destinations that are growing in popularity are India, Israel, Brazil, and New Zealand (Institute of International Education, 2010).

Any study-abroad experience holds the potential for culture shock, especially when it involves venturing to a new destination with a culture quite divergent from that of the mainstream United States. Clearly, however, many students are excited to embrace this possibility. More U.S. students are spending their junior years abroad in places about which they knew little before they entered college, such as the American University in Cairo and Ibadan University in Nigeria: “These students visit places most Americans know only through news reports—the West Bank, Ethiopia and even northern Iraq” (Conlin, 2010).

Global Achievement Gap CLICK TO SHOW




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The loss of educators to HIV/AIDS in large numbers results in overcrowded classrooms and a lack of personnel and talent that could be used to educate the next generation of workers and leaders.  

What is the connection between HIV/AIDS and education in sub-Saharan Africa? The state of education in many countries, including Zimbabwe, Zambia, Kenya, Malawi, and Uganda, has been significantly affected by the dramatic pandemic of HIV/AIDS in the region. According to data from the United Nations, the proportion of teachers infected with HIV/AIDS surpasses 20% in parts of Malawi and South Africa and 13% in Zambia (UNAIDS, 2010b). In 2006, there was a shortage of more than 45,000 teachers in Tanzania because so many had either died or left the profession because of HIV/AIDS. A study in South Africa found that 21% of teachers ages 24–34 were living with HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS, 2006).

In the country of Botswana, more than one quarter of the population is infected. According to AVERT (2010), one of the world’s leading HIV/AIDS prevention organizations, an estimated 22.5 million people there have HIV/AIDS. In South Africa alone, more than 5.6 million people are living with the disease. A substantial share of those infected are adults in their working and child-rearing years, and, significantly for communities, families, and schools, the majority are women. Their incapacitating illnesses and deaths leave behind motherless children and, because most teachers are female, schoolchildren without instruction.

Clearly, the loss of educators has a powerful impact on developing economies with a need for more educated workforces, and the loss of teachers is only part of the larger tragedy of HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa. Not only is the blow to schooling part of the general devastation wrought by the widespread deaths of individuals in their productive years, but each death also diminishes the opportunities for members of the next generation to achieve the education they will need to replace the depleted workforce and push forward toward greater prosperity. While the link between the HIV/AIDS pandemic and educational opportunities and institutions in developing countries may not be immediately visible, the discipline of sociology trains us to look beneath the surface to see the myriad ways in which changes or problems in one part of the social system lead to sometimes unexpected changes and problems in other parts.


 What kinds of creative solutions might both the international and local communities design to address the shortage of educators in sub-Saharan Africa? Can technology be part of a solution that both addresses HIV/AIDS prevention needs and the need to educate a new generation?


Yamil Lage / Stringer/Getty Images

More U.S. students than ever are studying abroad. While many still choose traditional destinations like London and Paris, others are seeking education and cultural experiences in places like Latin America, Africa, and Asia.  

Part of the growth of academic interest in the Middle East in particular is driven by the availability of new Critical Language Scholarships, created in 2006 by the U.S. Department of State to facilitate the study of languages such as Arabic, Pashto, Dari, Azerbaijani, and Punjabi—languages not typically offered for study in U.S. high schools or colleges. Some students desire to be part of the political discourse, study public diplomacy, and witness the potential for change in a tumultuous region of the world. Others want to work in nongovernmental organizations or with the American Foreign Service (Conlin, 2010).

Whether the study-abroad experience takes them to London, Beijing, Beirut, Rio de Janeiro, or Cairo, many students say their worldviews are forever transformed by the opportunity to live in places they might otherwise know only from books or television. As one student said, “I will never again look at a story about the Middle East with such a one-sided perspective.” Another added, “I genuinely enjoyed watching the bottom fall out of every one of my preconceived ideas about the Muslim world” (quoted in Conlin, 2010).

TABLE 12.3   Top Destinations for U.S. Students Studying Abroad

SOURCE: Data from Institute of International Education. 2012. “Study Abroad by U.S. Students Slowed in 2008/09 with More Students Going to Less Traditional Destinations.” Press Release.


Education opens up the world to us. Through education, we have the opportunity to gain new perspectives, to develop a critical approach to problems and the skills to imagine solutions, and to understand other people, cultures, and communities more fully. In an increasingly interdependent and interconnected world, this is a powerful advantage. Opportunities for education are not equally distributed, however, and, as we have seen in this chapter, factors such as socioeconomic status and race are among those that can fundamentally affect access to a good education. This matters because talent that remains unnurtured cannot better individual lives or the life of the community and country.

Sociology helps us look critically at an issue such as educational inequality and understand the roots of the problem. It is common in the United States to say that “education is the great equalizer,” and, while that goal is certainly an achievable one, it cannot be realized when ZIP codes determine the quality of schooling, or when low expectations and inadequate resources in poor communities lead to poor educational outcomes. Education may then reproduce rather than reduce inequalities.

Sociology also entreats us to use our sociological imaginations to ask questions about the intersection between personal troubles and public issues. If, for instance, a student is experiencing difficulties balancing work and school, or having trouble financing his or her education, we can easily see this as a personal trouble. Recognizing it as part of the larger problem of a substantial proportion of U.S. college enrollees not graduating, however, we begin to see the outlines of a public issue, one that cannot be explained by the circumstances of a single case or a dozen cases. In both its causes and its consequences, failure to graduate is an authentic public issue, and addressing it requires a critical ability to root out its sociological antecedents. A sociological education in particular helps us gain perspective on the factors that make education increasingly vital today, as well as those that create obstacles to or opportunities for educational attainment.

The Rise and Fall of Education Inequality CLICK TO SHOW




The American Sociological Association has reported that 18 months after graduation, about 35% of students who participated in a postgraduation survey were enrolled in graduate or professional schools. The decision to pursue a graduate or professional degree is a significant commitment of time, resources, and energy and will affect your career options and opportunities. In this chapter, we looked broadly at education through a sociological lens. One of the terms with which you became familiar is credential society. We do, in fact, live in a credential society, and in the contemporary world of work, your credentials—specifically, the higher education degree or degrees you earn—will have a big impact on your path to a career. For some students, that path may lead through graduate or professional school.

As you consider whether to pursue graduate or professional education, you should examine your motivations, assess your career choices, research graduate schools and degree options, and reflect on practical challenges and how you will meet them. In this chapter feature, we focus on the examination of motivations and assessment of career choices. In the next chapter feature, we turn our attention to researching graduate and professional schools and reflecting on opportunities and challenges.

Examine Your Motivations

Some students know from an early age that academic study at the advanced level is their goal—aspiring physicians, lawyers, and college professors, for instance, need to plan to continue their studies after they earn an undergraduate degree. Other students develop a new interest in an academic or professional area as undergraduates and then decide to stay in school for a second or third degree. Still others know that graduate or professional school may be in their future but prefer to explore occupational opportunities rather than attending immediately. All options have advantages and disadvantages, but the best is the one that is best for you. Take time to reflect on your motivations for pursuing graduate or professional study.

Students have various reasons for continuing their education immediately following completion of a bachelor’s degree:

•    The effective study skills they have mastered as undergraduates will apply to the rigors of graduate or professional school.

•    They are motivated now and think they may not return to school later.

•    They have few or no family and financial commitments that might prevent them from attending.

•    The economy and labor market are currently challenging but may improve in a few years.

•    They enjoy and succeed in academic settings.

•    They lack clarity about pursuing professional opportunities immediately or are anxious about career interests and goals.

•    Their desired occupational field or job requires a graduate degree or professional degree for entry-level positions.

Students also consider reasons to postpone graduate school upon completing a bachelor’s degree:

•    They want to gain work experience to better determine their career options.

•    Their desired study program requires some employment experience in a professional setting.


•    They plan to explore nonacademic options and gain work experience.

•    They hope to find positions with employers who will contribute to paying graduate or professional school expenses.

•    They need to reduce their undergraduate debt before embarking on new commitments.

•    They would like to enhance their application for an advanced degree program with additional accomplishments.

Assess Your Career Choices

In considering graduate or professional school, examine your skills, interests, and values to identify likely career options and explore opportunities to determine a career path. Develop your career goals before you consider or commit to graduate or professional school so that further education enhances your future and career plans. One way to do this is to research careers and occupations to determine educational requirements, labor market trends, possible employers, regional employment information, and expected compensation. Another step is to participate in internships as an undergraduate or, following graduation, to gather firsthand knowledge about an organization or profession. You might also test career information by visiting potential employers, speaking to professionals, and networking with alumni to determine which career best fits your aspirations and life goals.

The core knowledge and diverse skills that you acquire as a sociology major prepare you for the rigors of graduate or professional school by helping you develop competencies in research, writing, communication, and critical thinking, among others. If you think that graduate or professional school might be in your future, look at the next chapter’s feature to learn about types of degree programs that may fit your aspirations and to explore opportunities and challenges in advanced study.


 Have you considered graduate or professional studies?

 Are you interested in testing out professional opportunities before going on to graduate or professional school, or does your desired career choice require further credentials for an entry-level position?

 What would be the advantages and disadvantages for you of choosing to further your studies after earning a bachelor’s degree?



•    Education is the transmission of society’s norms, values, and knowledge base by means of direct instruction.

•    Mass education spread with industrialization and the need for widespread literacy. Today the need is not just for literacy but for specialized training as well. All industrial societies today, including the United States, have systems of public education that continue through the high school level, and frequently the university level as well. Such societies are sometimes termed credential societies, in that access to desirable jobs and social status depends on the possession of a certificate or diploma.

•    Functionalist theories of education emphasize the role of the school in serving the needs of society by socializing students and filling positions in the social order, while conflict theories emphasize education’s role in reproducing rather than reducing social inequality.

•    Symbolic interactionist theory, by focusing on the classroom itself, reveals how teachers’ perceptions of students—as well as students’ self-perceptions—are important in shaping students’ performance.

•    Early literacy and later educational attainment are powerfully correlated. Access to books and early reading experiences are among the strongest predictors of basic literacy at an early age. Researchers measure multiple levels of literacy.

•    U.S. public schools are highly segregated by race and ethnicity. Before the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, segregation was legal. Since that time, schools have continued to show de facto segregation, because segregated residential patterns still exist, because many White parents decide to send their children to private schools, and because the courts have recently limited the scope of previous laws aimed at promoting full integration.

•    The issues of extending the school day and extending the school year have long been subjects of debate in the United States. The roots of today’s school calendar help us to understand its evolution and to consider its differential effects on children from different socioeconomic classes.

•    Differences in school funding by race, ethnicity, and class reinforce existing patterns of social inequality. In general, the higher someone’s social class, the more likely he or she is to complete high school and college. Low-income people, in contrast, are often trapped in a cycle of low educational attainment and poverty.

•    There are strong demonstrable relationships between educational attainment and employment prospects and between educational attainment and income. There is also a correlation between the socioeconomic status of a family and the probability of its members’ further educational attainment.

•    Both the utility and the legality of college internships have become hotly debated. Internships may offer students substantial value in terms of experience, but critics say they also exploit students’ labor and skills.

•    U.S. college dropout rates are high, exceeding those of many other industrialized countries. Key reasons for dropping out include financial strain, lack of academic preparation, and difficulty balancing competing demands of school, work, and family.

•    The correlation between educational attainment and income and employment opportunities holds around the globe.

•    U.S. students are studying abroad more often and in more places than in the past. Interest in new destinations, including the Middle East, is opening the world to more young people.


education, 297

formal education, 297

mass education, 297

literacy, 297

public education, 298

credential society, 298

school segregation, 303

de facto segregation, 304



1.   What are some of the key reasons students drop out of college? How can identifying the sociological roots of the problem help us to develop effective policies to address it?

2.   What do contemporary data show us about the relationship between family income and academic achievement, as measured by variables like educational attainment or SAT scores? How do sociologists explain the relationship? What are strengths and weaknesses of their arguments?

3.   What is the current state of racial segregation in U.S. public schools? How has it changed since the civil rights era of the 1960s? What sociological factors help explain high levels of racial segregation in schools?

4.   What historical factors help explain the organization of the modern school day in the United States? Should the school day be reorganized to meet new societal needs? What might a new school day look like?

5.   What is the role of internships in higher education today? Who benefits from the growth in students’ participation in internships? How can internships be structured to maximize student knowledge and employability?

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Media Library

CHAPTER 13 Media Library


Nuns vs. Catholic Church

War and Religion


New Religious Movements Playlist

Religious Cults

The 5 Great World Religions

The Power of Animism


Religion in Politics



Science v. Religion

Is Religion Secularizing?



Women and Religious Self-Identity

Contextualizing Civil Religion



How Do Sociologists Study Religion?

Theoretical Perspectives on Religion and Society

Types of Religious Organizations

The Great World Religions

Women and Religion

Religion in the United States

Religion and Global Societies

Why Study the Sociology of Religion?


1.   What is the societal function of religion in a multicultural country such as the United States?

2.   Do most people in the United States choose their religion? How do people “get” religion?

3.   Is religion a source of stability or a source of conflict on a global scale? Might it be both?



AP Photo/Paul Sakuma

Ipledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

In 2004, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed an appeals court ruling that requiring students in classrooms to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, with the words “under God,” was unconstitutional because it violated the separation of church and state enshrined in the Constitution. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution contains what is known as the Establishment Clause: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The basis of the Supreme Court’s ruling, however, was specifically related to the case at hand: The court argued that the petitioner, a California atheist, did not have standing to sue on behalf of his school-age daughter. The implication was that his daughter could have sued, but he could not sue for her (Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 2004).

In 2013, an anonymous family in the state of Massachusetts brought the issue back to the courts, claiming that the phrase “under God” is in violation of that state’s equal rights laws. Rather than challenging the constitutionality of the words, the petitioners argued that the phrase discriminates against atheists. Attorney David Niose, representing the plaintiffs, argued in his opening statement that the repeated use of the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools is “indoctrinating and alienating” to atheists (Rosenbaum, 2013). As of this writing, a decision in the case has not been issued.

The Pledge of Allegiance has been used in American public life for more than a century, but the phrase “under God” was added by Congress only in 1954. At that time the solicitor general of the United States argued before the Supreme Court that “under God” is “descriptive” and “ceremonial” rather than a prayer or “religious invocation” (Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 2004), suggesting that it embodies a civic rather than an overtly religious value.


Reuters/Reinhard Krause

The practice of sacred rites is a characteristic of religions. Among the sacred rites of Catholicism (also called sacraments) is confession. The church entreats members to cleanse themselves of sin by being contrite, confessing their sins to a member of the clergy, and not repeating their transgression. 

How should we interpret the inclusion of the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance? What is the function of this brief but provocative phrase? Should we interpret it as civic or religious? Is it inclusive or exclusive? And more generally, what is the role of religion in a multicultural United States? 

In this chapter we examine the relationship between religion and society, beginning with a consideration of what religion is and what roles it plays in societies. We explore classical and contemporary theoretical perspectives on religion and society and examine the place of religion in people’s private and public lives. We look at different types of religious organizations, as well as the great world religions. We then explore issues of religion in the United States, including the rise of evangelicalism and the decline of religious affiliation among the young. We conclude by looking at global concerns of the sociology of religion.


From a sociological perspective, we define a religion as a system of common beliefs and rituals centered on “sacred things” that unites believers and provides a sense of meaning and purpose (Durkheim, 1912/2008). We often think of theism, a belief in one or more supernatural deities, as basic to religion (the term originates from the Greek word for god, theos), but there is no clear conceptual distinction between worship of a spiritual being and worship of an entity such as a nation. Indeed, we could see nationalism as a form of civic religion.

Sociologists look at religion in the context of society, asking about its role and function and identifying its basic social elements. First, religion is a form of culture. Recall from Chapter 3 that culture consists of the shared beliefs, values, norms, ideas, institutions, and organizations that create a common identity among a group of people. Religion embodies these characteristics, as it is constituted by a common worldview that draws together those who identify with it.

Second, religion includes the ritualization and routinization of beliefs. All religions have a behavioral aspect: Adherents engage in practices that identify them as members of the group and create or affirm group bonds. Sociologist Émile Durkheim (1912/2008) argued that religious rituals create and reinforce social cohesion. Robert Merton (1968) added to this idea, suggesting that while rituals have a manifest, or obvious, function, they also have the latent—secondary or unintentional—function of reinforcing group solidarity. The manifest function of the Hopi rain dance was to bring rain; its latent function was to strengthen community ties.

Third, religion provides a sense of purpose and meaning. Religions commonly tell coherent and compelling stories about the forces that transcend everyday life, in ways that other aspects of culture such as a belief in democracy typically cannot (Geertz, 1973; Wuthnow, 1988). Where we may not find empirical answers to fundamental questions about life, death, and fate, faith may stand in.


© Andrew Holbrooke/Corbis

A cow occupies a corner of a fabric shop in India. A statue of the god Krishna riding a cow can be seen in the background. In Hinduism, cows symbolize wealth, strength, abundance, and a full earthly life. They roam freely in many Indian villages and cities.

When sociologists study religion, they do so as sociologists, not as believers or atheists. From the sociological perspective, religion is an important social institution. How, then, do sociologists approach the study of religion in society?

First, they do not study whether religious beliefs are true or false. They regard religious beliefs not as truths decreed by deities but as the social constructions of human beings. Throughout history humans have told stories about the world in which they live. Before the coming of Christianity to Northern Europe, for instance, people told stories about gods of nature or divinities who brought good fortune or ill fate to explain the tension between good and evil in human existence. Communities have always sought to construct logical frameworks to explain the world around them, and organized religion is only one way they engage in the quest for understanding and control.

Second, sociologists are interested in the social organization of religion. Within Christianity and Judaism, for example, religious practice often occurs in formal organizations, such as churches or synagogues. Yet this is not necessarily true of Hinduism and Buddhism, whose rituals may be practiced in the home or in natural settings. In Islamic societies such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, religious beliefs and practices are incorporated into daily life and guide political, cultural, and even economic practices.

Third, sociologists examine the function of religion as a source of solidarity within a group or society. Émile Durkheim (1912/2008) described religion as a “unified system of beliefs and practices related to sacred things” that are held in awe and elevated above the “profane” elements of daily existence, and that unite believers in a moral community (p. 47). According to Durkheim, the “god of the clan,” the object of worship, is “nothing else than the clan itself, personified and represented to the imagination” (p. 206). This view highlights the importance of the group in constructing and worshipping, through the objects of devotion, an image of itself.

If a single religion dominates a society, it may function as a key source of social stability. If one religion is not dominant, differences between religions or sects may lead to sectarian conflicts. Recent examples of destabilizing religious conflicts include struggles among Sikhs, Hindus, and Muslims in India; between Muslims and Christians in Bosnia and Kosovo; and between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in Iraq and Pakistan.

Today we experience constant contact between countries that embrace different religious practices, making it relevant to ask whether religion is a stabilizing or destabilizing force on a global level. For instance, some observers have asserted that an evolving “clash of civilizations” between the Muslim and Christian worlds will shape the future of international relations (Huntington, 1993, 1997; Lewis, 2010).

Finally, sociologists study the ways in which social forces, rather than individual spiritual experiences, affect people’s commitment to religion. Religious beliefs are deeply personal for many, creating a profound sense of connection with forces that transcend everyday reality. Sociologists do not question the depth of such feelings, but they do not limit themselves to spiritual explanations of religious devotion. They examine ways that “getting religion” coincides with community or individual experiences of loss, grief, poverty, or disaster. This perspective has deep historical roots: As far back as the first century b.c., the Latin poet Lucretius saw religion as originating in human fears and needs. He believed “men had dreamed of gods, to whom they attributed omnipotence and immortality. Unable to account for natural phenomena, especially in its more terrifying aspects, men had gone on to ascribe all such things to the gods, whom they consequently feared and sought to propitiate” (Brandon, 1973, p. 93).


In this section, we examine classical sociological perspectives on the role of religion in society, but we begin by considering the birth of religion and early human society through the lens of a sister discipline, anthropology. Anthropology is the study of human cultures and societies and their development. Like sociology, it offers different perspectives on questions, including the relationships among religion, human civilization, and agriculture, or different theoretical “glasses” we can use to see the development of our common human past.


© Vincent J. Musi/National Geographic Society/Corbis

Göbekli Tepe is an ancient sanctuary erected at the top of a mountain ridge in the Southeastern Anatolia region of Turkey. It is the oldest known human-made religious structure. Archeologists estimate that the temple was built by hunter-gatherers in the 10th millennium b.c.e. 

Our story begins in what is now southern Turkey, near the border with Syria. As long as 11,600 years ago, pillars measuring 18 feet and weighing up to 16 tons were raised at Göbekli Tepe, the home of what archaeologists believe to be the world’s oldest temple (Mann, 2011). Carved into the temple are animal totems, figures that may represent guardian spirits. Still under excavation by archaeologists, Göbekli Tepe has challenged a long-held anthropological belief that organized religion arose as a way for humans to establish social bonds when hunter-gatherers evolved from living in nomadic bands into forming village communities. Instead, says archaeologist Klaus Schmidt, the massive temple shows that organized religion may predate the rise of agriculture and other key aspects of civilization. Lacking evidence of human settlement, Göbekli Tepe may have been a gathering place for foragers living within a hundred-mile radius. Settled agricultural activity may have arisen from a need to ensure adequate food for those drawn to the temple. We may then understand religion—in this instance, “the human impulse to gather for sacred rituals [that] arose as humans shifted from seeing themselves as part of the natural world to seeking mastery over it” (Mann, 2011)—as a critical precursor to agriculture and village settlements.

Aaron Huey/National Geographic Creative

The U.S. Flag Code, adopted by Congress in 1942, says the flag “represents a living country and is itself considered a living thing.” National flags, in this respect, can be understood as totems of civil religion by which a country elevates a symbol of worship that embodies its own self. 

Did organized religion arise in response to a need for cohesion in early human societies, or did religion come first, fostering a shift from nomadic hunting and gathering to settled agricultural communities? These questions shed light on the concerns of both anthropologists and sociologists of religion.


Classical sociological theorizing on religion focuses on the relationship between religion and society and includes the work of Karl Marx, Max Weber, and Émile Durkheim. Next we discuss each of these key perspectives.

DURKHEIM: THE FUNCTIONS OF RELIGION  Émile Durkheim’s The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912/2008) sets forth one of the most influential and enduring theories in the sociology of religion. Durkheim based his theories on studies of Australian Aborigines, small hunting and gathering tribes who had lived in much the same way for thousands of years. Aborigines divided their world into two parts: the profane, a sphere of routine, everyday life, and the sacred, that which is set apart from the ordinary, the sphere endowed with spiritual meaning. The sacred sphere included many ordinary objects, which Durkheim called totems, items believed to have acquired transcendent or magical qualities connecting humans with the divine. Durkheim posited that “totemism” was the most primitive form of religion. Like the ancient worshippers at Göbekli Tepe, early Native Americans elevated elements of the natural world to sacred status, giving particular pride of place to the bison. Contemporary examples of totems include the wafer and wine used in a Catholic Mass, which the devout believe are ritually transformed into the body and blood of Christ.

Sacred activities for the Australian Aborigines included rituals and ceremonies that provided a heightened emotional awareness and a spiritual connection with divine forces and other members of the community. During such rituals, Durkheim suggested, people lost their sense of individuality and merged with the larger group. His key theoretical conclusion was that the realm of the sacred serves an important social function—it brings the community together, reaffirms its norms and values, and strengthens its social bonds. According to Durkheim, the realm of the sacred is society’s projection of itself onto divine objects or beings, a view with roots in early history. Xenophanes, a philosopher who lived around 570 b.c., wrote that humans have created gods in their own image. The sacred is the group, endowed with divine powers and purpose. By worshipping the sacred, society worships itself, becoming stronger and more cohesive as a result.




Reuters/Pool News

Sociologist Émile Durkheim identified Catholicism as a religion with strong social bonds. Durkheim’s research on suicide suggests that strong bonds make suicide less likely. In this photo, Pope Francis, the spiritual head of the Catholic Church, greets well-wishers. 

As a sociologist interested in what makes society cohesive and leads to social order, Émile Durkheim wanted to understand why suicide rates varied among different groups in society. He argued that because there are many different personal causes of suicide—mental illness, depression, pride, and even imitation—a general theory of why individuals commit suicide is impossible. A more scientific approach, he argued, is to search for social structural characteristics of different groups and societies that could explain suicide rates, rather than the motivation of individuals to commit suicide.

Durkheim’s theory suggests that it is the degree of social solidarity in a society or group that explains the suicide rate: The greater the solidarity, the lower the suicide rate. Durkheim identified a number of different groups within European society to test his theory: He posited that single men compared to married men, widowed men, and women, as well as Catholics compared to Protestants, experienced higher levels of social cohesion and therefore should have lower suicide rates. The data he relied on, although primitive by contemporary standards of statistical sophistication, confirmed his theory.

Durkheim’s empirical work led him to label four different types of suicide: egoistic, altruistic, anomic, and fatalistic. Here we focus on the first—egoistic suicide, which he understood as stemming from “excessive individuation,” or a lack of integration into a community and weakness of community ties. Lack of integration, Durkheim argued, contributes to a sense of purposelessness, whereas integration offers the protection of a “collective conscience” that endows life with a purpose greater than the individual. Of the role of religion in promoting such a collective conscience, Durkheim (1897/1951) suggested:

Religion protects man against the desire for self-destruction…. What constitutes religion is the existence of a certain number of beliefs and practices common to all the faithful, traditional and thus obligatory. The more numerous and strong these collective states of mind are, the stronger the integration of the religious community, also the greater its preservative value. (p. 170)

From Durkheim’s perspective, the collective conscience that emerged from being integrated into a religious community was protective. It shielded the individual from the egoism of living only for the fulfillment of his or her own needs, which could not all be met. His sociological perspective places suicide at the intersection of the personal and the social, helping us to examine and empirically test the societal context in which suicide becomes more or less likely. Were we to test Durkheim’s theory today we would first identify different groups across which the degree of social solidarity varies; we would then compare the suicide rates of the different groups. If, for example, Durkheim was correct in saying that Catholics experience a higher level of social solidarity than Protestants (we would have to develop some method of measuring social solidarity in the two groups), then by comparing the suicide rates of Catholics and Protestants we would be able to test Durkheim’s theory.


 Does membership in a religious organization provide a protective social barrier to suicide? What about membership in a civic organization? How would you design a research study to test and compare the protective effects of religious and civic group membership?


© TKG Private Collection/Lebrecht Music & Arts/Corbis

The Soviet Union was an atheistic communist state in which religious life was discouraged and sometimes actively persecuted. This Soviet poster from the 1930s makes a link between imperialism, capitalism, and the “poison drug of religion.” 

Durkheim believed the sacred was disappearing from modern industrial society, with the realm of the profane extending over wider areas of life. However, while societies were likely to eventually reject the religiosity of earlier communities, Durkheim believed they could create secular forms of religion with the same function but a different form. In the United States, for instance, we can identify rituals, both religious and civic, that function to create or reinforce a “collective conscience” or group solidarity, such as rooting for American athletes in the Olympic Games, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, and singing the national anthem. The U.S. flag carries a symbolic meaning because it stands for the collective nation; in “worshipping” the flag by, for instance, affording it pride of place in venues from classrooms to ballparks, the community venerates itself and its values, beliefs, and practices.

Durkheim’s work suggests that one of religion’s key functions in society is to create and reinforce the collective bond. Sociologist Herbert Blumer (1969) notes that the meaning of a thing for a person grows out of the ways in which others respond to the object and the person’s actions toward it. A flag, as a physical object, is just a piece of colored fabric, but citizens of a country endow it with a meaning that elevates it to a sacred symbol. A wafer is just a wafer unless it is blessed in a Christian religious ceremony, when it becomes a representation of the body of Christ and its consumption an act of worship.

MARX: RELIGION AND INEQUALITY  Karl Marx’s writings about religion examine its role in society and the capitalist class hierarchy. In Marx’s view, religion serves the interests of the ruling class by providing an outlet for human misery that obscures the true source of suffering among the subordinate classes—their exploitation by the ruling class.

Marx (1844/2000) wrote that “religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the feeling of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless circumstances. It is the opium of the people” (p. 72). In other words, by promising spiritual solutions—such as a better afterlife—as the answer to human suffering, religion discourages oppressed people from understanding the nature of their oppression in the present life and serves the interests of the powerful, who then have an easier time maintaining passivity among the economically deprived masses. After all, if there are rewards in the afterlife, then striving for betterment in the present life is not only unnecessary but also possibly counterproductive.

Marx also believed that once capitalism was overthrown, religion would no longer be necessary, since the stratification and dire economic disadvantage he saw as inevitable in the capitalist system would no longer exist. Like Durkheim, Marx believed secularization was inevitable. Secularization is the rise in worldly thinking, particularly as seen in the rise of science, technology, and rational thought, and a simultaneous decline in the influence of religion. While Durkheim was concerned about the fraying of social bonds that he believed would accompany secularization, Marx viewed secularization as a progressive trend, since the social solidarity and harmony promoted by religion were contrary to the interests of the masses and prevented their recognition of their own exploitation.

WEBER: RELIGIOUS VALUES AS SOURCES OF SOCIAL CHANGE  Religion was a key subject for sociologist Max Weber, who wanted to explain, in particular, why the culture of modern capitalism had emerged first in England, France, and Germany rather than in India or China—which had once been more advanced than Northern and Western Europe in science, culture, and commerce. Weber concluded that capitalism first appeared where the Protestant Reformation had taken hold, and that the driving force behind its development was Protestantism’s religious tenets and the economic behaviors they fostered.

Weber (1904–1905/2002) found that the beliefs of early Protestantism provided fertile ground for capitalism’s development. First was the idea that God places each person on earth to fulfill a particular “calling.” Whether someone would be saved was predestined by God, but people could find evidence of God’s plan in a life dedicated to hard work because economic success was an indicator of salvation. Second, since Protestantism held that consumption-centered lifestyles were sinful, believers were expected to live simple lives, work hard, and save and reinvest their earnings rather than enjoy the immediate gratifications of idleness or acquisition. A hardworking, frugal, sober population reinvesting its earnings in new economic activities was, suggested Weber, a fundamental foundation for economic growth and, significantly, for early capitalism.

Science v. Religion CLICK TO SHOW
Is Religion Secularizing? CLICK TO SHOW


Yet Weber also wrote that once capitalism took hold, it became institutionalized and shed the religious ethic that fueled its development. Capitalism, scientific ways of thinking, and bureaucratic forms of organization, he said, would marginalize religion in the drive for productivity and profit. Weber was concerned about the disenchantment he believed would result from secularization and bureaucratization. Modern society, in his well-known metaphor, would become an “iron cage,” imprisoning people in “rationalized” but irrational bureaucratic structures, rote work, and lives bereft of spirituality or creativity.

SYNTHESIZING THE CLASSICAL THEORIES  Durkheim’s observations that sacred rituals and objects function to strengthen community solidarity and embody the community itself were among his most important contributions to the sociology of religion. However, his perspective seems most applicable to highly homogeneous and cohesive societies such as the small Australian tribes that provided inspiration for his ideas. In modern, complex societies, which are racially, socially, and ethnically diverse, religion no longer serves such a clear purpose. Durkheim recognized a relationship between modernization and secularization and wrote of the potential for alienation in secular societies, but he also saw that “religion,” perhaps in another form, might foster social solidarity.

Marx’s insight that religion may divert people from the immediate problems of daily life is illuminating, particularly where the same elite circles hold both religious and political power. Yet his central idea that religion is purely a mystification enabling the ruling class to deceive the masses is problematic for at least two reasons. First, while religions have supported ruling groups in many historical instances, they have also challenged such groups. Catholicism, along with the labor movement, was a powerful driving force in the social movements that overthrew the Polish communist state through nonviolent mass mobilization, replacing it with a democratic government in 1989.

Second, for many people religious beliefs fill a need that has little to do with political or economic power—a function Marx ignored. When communist countries such as Cuba and the former Soviet Union sought to follow Marx’s ideas and marginalize religion, they were remarkably unsuccessful. Religious beliefs flourished underground, and in countries such as Poland, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan they experienced a resurgence after the fall of communism.

Finally, while Weber’s idea that a religious ethic of hard work and thrift contributes to economic growth has been used to explain examples of economic success around the world (Berger, 1986; Berger & Hsiao, 1988; Morishima, 1982), it has also been criticized on a number of grounds. First, his conclusions were based on the writings of Protestant theologians rather than on the actual practices of Protestants. During the colonial period he cited as the birthplace of the U.S. capitalist ethic, “Boston’s taverns were probably fuller on Saturday night than were its churches on Sunday morning” (Finke & Stark, 1992, p. 23). Second, some scholars argue that capitalism developed among Jews and Catholics—and, for that matter, among Hindus, Muslims, and Confucians—as well as among Protestants (Collins, 1980; Hunter, 1987).

No single theoretical perspective can capture the full sociological picture of religion. Together, however, these perspectives may help us understand why religion exists and persists and how it functions in human societies. Next we look at contemporary theorizing on religion, which draws from modern perspectives on economic exchange.


One recent and influential approach to the sociology of religion is tailored to modern societies, including the United States, which are home to a wide variety of religious faiths. Taking their cue from economic theory, sociologists developed the religious economy approach, which suggests that religions can be fruitfully understood as organizations in competition with one another for followers(Finke & Stark, 1988, 1992, 2005; Hammond, 1992; Moore, 1994; Stark & Bainbridge, 1987/1996; Warner, 1993). In this view competition is preferable to monopoly for ensuring religious vitality. Compare this view to that of the classical theorists Durkheim, Marx, and Weber, who assumed religion weakens when challenged by competing religious or secular viewpoints.

The religious economy perspective suggests that competition leads to increased engagement in religious organizations for two reasons. First, competition compels each religious group to exert more effort to win followers, reaching out to the masses in a variety of ways in order to capture their attention. Second, the presence of a multitude of religions means there is likely to be something for just about everyone. In a culturally diverse society such as the United States, a single religion will probably appeal to only a limited range of followers, but the presence of Indian gurus, fundamentalist preachers, and mainline churches may encourage broad religious participation.


The religious economy analysis is adapted from the business world, in which competition (in theory) encourages the emergence of specialized products that appeal to specific markets. Sociologists who embrace this perspective even borrow the language of business. According to Finke and Stark (1992), a successful religious group must be well organized for competition, have eloquent preachers who are engaging “sales reps” in spreading the word, offer beliefs and rituals packaged as an appealing product, and develop effective marketing techniques. Religion, in this view, is a business much like any other. Television evangelists, for example, have been effective purveyors of religious “products.”

While people’s motivations are not easy to pinpoint, a study conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life (2010) found that about 28% of U.S. adults change their religious affiliations over the course of their lives. If we count those who change their affiliations within religious traditions (for instance, from Baptist to Lutheran, both Protestant religions), the figure rises to 44% (Figure 13.1).

The religious economy approach is, of course, also subject to critique. It likely overestimates the extent to which people rationally pick and choose among different religions, as if they were shopping for a new car or a pair of shoes. Among deeply committed believers, particularly in societies or communities that lack religious pluralism, it is not obvious that religion is a matter of rational choice. Even when people are allowed to choose among different religions, most are likely to practice their childhood religions without ever considering alternatives (Roof, 1993). Further, if we consider that the most common shift in affiliation is from a religious group to the “nonaffiliated” group—7.3% of adults were “unaffiliated” as children, but today more than 16% indicate they are not affiliated with a religious group—then it is not clear that U.S. believers are trading one set of beliefs for another set that is better marketed or more enticing. They would, in fact, seem to be leaving organized religion behind. Can the religious economy perspective account for this large and growing shift? What about the classical perspectives? What do you think?

FIGURE 13.1 Changing Religious Affiliations of U.S. Adults, 2007

SOURCE: Data from 2007 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey. Reprinted in Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life 2010. Religion among the millennials. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center. Retrieved from


Sociologist Thomas O’Dea (1966) captures an important distinction when he writes that in traditional societies “the same social groups provide satisfaction for both expressive and adaptive needs; in modern societies, organizations which meet adaptive needs tend to be separated out from those which provide an outlet for expressive needs” (p. 36). That is, in modern societies, religion may soothe people’s fears about death or the future, inject meaning into the routine of daily life, and comfort the sick or grieving, but rarely is it an exclusive channel for education and medical services (though certainly students may attend religious schools from prekindergarten to college, and many private hospitals are affiliated with religious groups).

In modern societies, religion is typically “institutionalized.” Max Weber (1921/1963) wrote that after the loss of the charismatic figure from whose life a religion was born, there is a crisis among followers, but there can also be a subsequent “routinization of charisma,” which institutionalizes the religion and beliefs into an organizational structure. Early theorists such as Weber, Ernst Troeltsch (1931), and Richard Niebuhr (1929) described religious organizations as falling along a continuum based on the degree to which they are well established and conventional: Churches, for instance, lie at one end (they are conventional and well established), cults lie at the other (they are neither), and sects fall somewhere between. These distinctions were based on the study of European and U.S. religions, and there is some debate over how well they apply to the non-Christian world. Also, because the terms sect and cult have negative connotations today, sociologists sometimes use the phrase new religious movements to characterize novel religious organizations that lack mainstream credibility (Hadden, 1993; Hexham & Poewe, 1997). Next we look at the different forms religious organizations take.


A church is a well-established religious organization that exists in a fairly harmonious relationship with the larger society (Finke & Stark, 1992). In everyday terms, churches are respectable, mainstream organizations that reflect their religious communities’ prevailing values and beliefs. They are likely to be formally and bureaucratically organized, with fairly conventional practices. In the United States, examples include the Presbyterian, United Methodist, Greek Orthodox, and Roman Catholic churches.

New Religious Movements Playlist CLICK TO SHOW


A church can take one of two forms. An ecclesia is formally allied with the state and is the official religion of the society. As such, it is likely to enjoy special rights and privileges that other churches lack. In Greece, for instance, while the practice of other religions is not prohibited or punished, the constitution holds that the Greek Orthodox Church is the “prevailing” religion of the country. A denomination, in contrast, is a church that is not formally allied with the state. Since there is no established church (or ecclesia) in the United States, all U.S. churches are by definition denominations. The existence of denominations allows for freedom of religious choice, so different denominations may compete with one another for membership, and none enjoys the special favor of the state.


Unlike a church, which exists in relative harmony with the larger society, a sect is a religious organization that has splintered off from an established church in an effort to restore perceived “true” beliefs and practices believed to have been lost by the established religious organization. Protestant fundamentalist and evangelical religious groups are typically sects.

Sects often tend to hold religious beliefs consistent with the dominant ones in society. Yet, because they are splinter groups, they also may exist in tension with more established religious organizations. While churches tend to intellectualize religious practice, sects may emotionalize it, emphasizing heightened personal experience and religious conversion (Finke & Stark, 1992; Stark & Bainbridge, 1987/1996). Sects often appeal more to marginalized individuals than to people in the mainstream, drawing followers from among lower-income households, racial and ethnic minorities, and the rural poor.

Yet sects provide new sources of religious ideas and vitality outside mainstream faiths. When they are successful they may grow in size and evolve into churches, becoming bureaucratized and losing their emotional appeal (Niebuhr, 1929). A new sect may then break off, seeking to return to its religious roots. This occurred within both U.S. Protestantism and Japanese Buddhism in the late 20th century. Disturbed by the increasingly intellectualized and liberal direction taken by mainstream Protestant churches, numerous sects broke off, seeking to return to what they viewed as the biblical roots of the Protestant faith (Finke & Stark, 1992). Similarly, Buddhist sects in Japan sought a return to original Buddhist beliefs in response to what they regarded as the social isolation and irrelevance of mainstream Buddhist groups (Davis, 1991).


A cult is a religious organization that is thoroughly unconventional with regard to the larger society(Finke & Stark, 1992; Richardson, 2009). While sects often originate as offshoots of well-established religious organizations, cults tend to be new, with unique beliefs and practices that typically originate outside the religious mainstream. They may be led by charismatic figures who draw on a wide range of teachings to develop their novel ideas (Stark & Bainbridge, 1987/1996). The presence of a powerful personality can thus define a cult, and the loss of the leader can spell its end.

Cults may have relationships with the larger society that are characterized by strife and distrust. In recent years, “doomsday cults” that prophesy the end of the world have proliferated. The Church Universal and Triumphant (CUT), led by the charismatic leader Elizabeth Clare Prophet, is an example. The CUT’s doctrine amalgamated bits of major religions such as Christianity and Buddhism along with mysticism, astrology, Western philosophy (Melton, 1996), and a belief in reincarnation (rebirth). Prophet herself, who led the cult after the death of her husband, Mark Prophet, claimed to have lived past lives as Marie Antoinette, Queen Guinevere of King Arthur’s court, and the biblical figure Martha.

In 1990, Prophet predicted that the world would end, and hundreds of her followers fled to bomb shelters near Yellowstone National Park where the CUT had created a self-reliant community. Apparently, the group was also stockpiling weapons in its underground bunkers, and several members were later prosecuted on weapons charges. While the CUT lost members after the failed doomsday prediction, it continued to operate and grew in later years, though Elizabeth Clare Prophet passed away in 2009.

Like sects, cults flourish when there is a breakdown in well-established societal belief systems or when segments of the population feel alienated from the mainstream and seek meaning elsewhere. Cults may originate within or outside a society. Interestingly, what is perceived as a cult in one country may be accepted as established religious practice in another. Christianity began as an indigenous cult in ancient Jerusalem, and in many Asian countries today, evangelical Protestantism is regarded as a cult imported from the United States.

Religious Cults CLICK TO SHOW




© Mark Peterson/Corbis

People have long been fascinated by stories about the end of the world. What makes these stories so powerful and compelling? 

Eschatology is the study of practices and beliefs related to the “end times”—that is, the end of the world as we know it. Religious scholars from many traditions have been drawn to this subject throughout history, and today interest appears to have blossomed among evangelical Christians, who make up a growing proportion of the churchgoing population in the United States.

The best-selling Left Behind book series chronicles the fictional adventures of a group of evangelical Christians living through the trials of the end times, including the rise of the Antichrist, plagues of illness and locusts, the battle of Armageddon, and Jesus’s Second Coming. The Internet plays a dual role in relation to this series: First, it is an important part of the story line, as the unfolding tale includes a prophet addressing millions of new converts on his website about the biblical meaning of contemporary events. Second, the Left Behind site itself ( purports to serve a similar role, offering to explain “how current events may actually relate to End Times prophecy” and providing a forum for both author and reader testimonials, as well as audio and video resources (including a recently added Russian-language site for its growing audience).

In light of this burgeoning interest in eschatology, dialogue and debate about the end of the world have become a widespread Internet phenomenon. Websites such as Rapture Ready ( cover a wide range of related topics, including the top 10 signs of the imminence of the end of the world as we know it, message boards, and long lists of frequently asked questions such as “What is hell like?” “How will the Antichrist take over the world?” and “When is the world going to end?”

While religious communities have long been home to self-styled prophets who claim to know when the world will end, the Internet has proved a powerful tool for the marketing of the ideas and products of evangelical Christianity and the dissemination of beliefs about how the end will occur (Clarke, 2011).


 Do social media capture and reflect public interest in end-times stories, or do they actively create and expand that interest?


The youth culture of the 1960s and 1970s was fertile ground for the flowering of religious cults, leading sociologists of religion to adopt a more neutral term to describe them: new religious movements (NRMs), or new spiritual groups or communities that occupy a peripheral place in a country’s dominant religious landscape. Such movements may be small and based on the charisma of a single leader, evolving out of existence with the leader’s death or departure. The growth of NRMs presented an ideal situation for sociological research into the development of new religions, helping to shed light on how the world’s great religions came into being. There are many NRMs—by one estimate, between 1,500 and 2,000 in North America and in Africa perhaps 10,000—but few are enduring and most exist outside their countries’ religious mainstreams (Hadden, 2006). NRMs may, however, evolve into sustained religious movements.

One such well-known religious movement is Scientology. The Church of Scientology began in the 1950s largely as a self-help movement. Today, it is a religious movement with members across the globe, and it benefits from the endorsement of a number of Hollywood figures such as Tom Cruise and John Travolta. As it has grown, Scientology has also courted its fair share of controversy. Its founder, L. Ron Hubbard, was a charismatic leader revered by adherents and reviled by detractors. Scientologists believe that Hubbard’s ideology provides a path to greater self-awareness and spiritual enlightenment, while critics counter that the secretive religion is a cult that brainwashes its members and convinces them to pay exorbitant sums of money to access the esoteric knowledge central to their faith. While the controversy shows no signs of abating, Scientology’s high-profile followers and considerable financial resources make it likely that this religious movement is here to stay (Urban, 2011).

FIGURE 13.2 The World’s Dominant Religions by Percentage of Believers

SOURCE: Central Intelligence Agency. (2013). The world factbook: World. Retrieved from


From humankind’s beginnings, the spiritual search for meaning and the need for religion as an organizing principle in communities have brought us to a point where thousands of different religions are followed throughout the world. However, just three—Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism—are practiced by nearly three-quarters of the people on earth. We look at these below, as well as at Judaism, Buddhism, and Confucianism, all of which have had powerful influence on global religious and social practices.


With more than 2.1 billion followers—nearly a third of the world’s population—Christianity encompasses a broad spectrum of denominations, sects, and even new religious movements (Barrett, 2001). Common to all these is the belief that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah or savior foretold in the Hebrew Bible. While doctrinal differences separate the Christian faiths, almost all teach that, at the beginning of time, humans fell from God’s grace through their sinful acts, and that acceptance of Christ and his teachings provides the key to salvation. Most Christians also believe in the New Testament account of the Resurrection, according to which Jesus rose from the dead on the third day after his crucifixion and then ascended to heaven. Christianity is a form of monotheism—belief in a single all-knowing, all-powerful God—although in most Christian faiths God is also regarded as a trinity made up of a Heavenly Father, His Son the Savior, and His sustaining Holy Spirit.

When Christianity emerged in Palestine some 2,000 years ago, it was a persecuted sect outside the mainstream of Jewish and Roman religious practices. Within four centuries it had become an ecclesia, or official religion, of the Roman Empire. In the 11th century, it divided into the Eastern Orthodox Church (based in Turkey) and the Catholic Church (based in Rome). A second great split occurred within the Catholic branch when the 16th-century Protestant Reformation gave rise to numerous Protestant denominations, sects, and cults. Protestants tend to emphasize a direct relationship between the individual and God. Catholics, by contrast, emphasize the importance of the church hierarchy as intermediary between the individual and God, with the pope in Rome being the final earthly authority.

Fundamentalism CLICK TO SHOW
Nuns vs. Catholic Church CLICK TO SHOW
The 5 Great World Religions CLICK TO SHOW


FIGURE 13.3 Muslims as Percentage of Country Population


With 1.6 billion believers, Islam is the second-largest and the fastest-growing religion in the world today. Muslim is the term for those who practice al-Islam, an Arabic word meaning submission without reservation to God’s will. About 60% of Muslims live in the Asia Pacific region, and about 20% in the Middle East and North Africa. Sub-Saharan Africa, Europe, and the Americas have growing Muslim populations as well (Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 2011a).

Although modern Islam dates to the seventh-century Arab prophet Muhammad, Muslims trace their religion to the ancient Hebrew prophet Abraham, also the founder of Judaism. The precepts of Islam as revealed to Muhammad are contained in a sacred book dictated to his followers and called the Koran (or Qur’an), which means “recitation.” Muhammad’s ideas were not initially accepted in his birthplace of Mecca, so in 622 he and his followers moved to Medina (both cities are in today’s Saudi Arabia). This migration, called the hijra, marks the beginning of Islam, which later spread throughout Arabia. Muhammad is not worshipped by Muslims, who believe in positive devotion to Allah (God). Nor is Mohammad a messiah; he is rather a teacher and prophet, the last in a line that includes Abraham, Noah, Moses, and Jesus.

Islam’s sacred sharia (or way) includes prescriptions for worship, daily life, ethics, and even government. Muslim life is governed by the Five Pillars of Islam, which are (1) accepting Allah as God and Muhammad as Allah’s messenger; (2) worshipping according to rituals, including facing toward Mecca and bowing in prayer at five set times each day; (3) observing Ramadan, a month of prayer and fasting during the daylight hours; (4) giving alms, or donations, to those who are poor or in need; and (5) making a holy pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in a lifetime (Weeks, 1988). While all Muslims share these basic tenets, they are broadly divided into Sunnis and Shiites, between whom there may be tension, as in Iraq, which is Shiite dominated but has a strong Sunni minority. Globally, there are more Sunnis than Shiites.

The Koran also invokes jihad as a spiritual, personal struggle for enlightenment. Most Islamic terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda, however, translate jihad as armed struggle against the West and Western values. While some scholars argue that the shift from the struggle for personal enlightenment to armed struggle against Western values reflects “the growing confidence of the community as it developed from being a persecuted sect in Mecca to the triumphant ‘super-tribe’ of Muhammad’s final years” (Ruthven, 2011, p. 83), others argue that it represents diverging attitudes of believers who are divided on the notion of struggle and the legitimate use of violence (Donner, 2012).


© Kazuyoshi Nomachi/Corbis

In the last month of the Muslim year, thousands of Muslims make an annual pilgrimage (a hajj) to a holy shrine called the Ka’aba in Mecca. This site is believed to be the original location of a place of worship that God commanded Abraham and Ishmael to build over 4,000 years ago. 


With about 13 million followers worldwide, Judaism is the smallest of the world’s major religions. Most Jews live in just two countries, Israel (home to about 42% of the global Jewish population) and the United States (39%), with small populations in many other countries (DellaPergola, 2010). Judaism has exerted a strong influence on the world, first as a key foundation of Islam and Christianity. Second, in European and U.S. culture, Jews have played a role disproportionate to their numbers in such diverse fields as music, literature, science, education, and business. Third, the existence of Israel as a Jewish state since 1948 has given the Jewish people and faith international prominence.

Judaism was one of the first religions to teach monotheism. Like many other religions, it teaches that its followers are God’s chosen people, but unlike other religions, it does not teach that followers have a duty to convert others to their faith. The primary religious writing for the Jews is the Torah (or “law”), a scroll on which are inscribed the first five books of the Bible. Biblical tradition holds that Jewish law was given by God to Moses when he led the Jews out of slavery in Egypt about 3,500 years ago, and since then it has been elaborated upon by rabbis, or teachers. Today it is codified in books called the Mishnah and the Talmud.

Three principal divisions in Judaism reflect differing perspectives on the nature of biblical law. Orthodox Judaism believes that the Bible derives from God and that its teachings are absolutely binding, while Reform Judaism views the Bible as a historical document containing important ethical precepts, but not literally the word of God. Conservative Judaism occupies a middle ground, maintaining many traditional practices while adapting others to modern society.


© Kevin Frayer/AP/Corbis

The Bar Mitzvah (for boys) and Bat Mitzvah (for girls) rituals are an important rite of passage for Jewish youth. 

Jews have often suffered persecution, and anti-Semitism has a long global history. From the 12th century on, European and Russian Jews were often forced to live in special districts termed ghettos, where they lacked full rights as citizens and were sometimes targets of harassment and violence. Partly in reaction to these conditions, and partly because the Torah identifies Jerusalem as the center of the Jewish homeland, some Jews embraced Zionism, a movement calling for the return of Jews to Palestine and the creation of a Jewish state.(Zion is a biblical name for the ancient city of Jerusalem.)

Zionists established settlements in Palestine early in the 20th century, living for the most part peacefully with their Arab and Palestinian neighbors. Following World War II and the Nazi extermination of 6 million Jews, the state of Israel was created as a homeland for the survivors, an action that both gave refuge to Jews and ignited territorial tensions in the region that continue to this day.


Hinduism, about 2,000 years older than Christianity, is one of the oldest religions in the world and the source of Buddhism and Sikhism. It is not based on the teachings of any single individual, and its followers do not trace their origins to a single deity. It is a broadly defined religion that calls for an ideal way of life. According to a report on international religious freedom by the U.S. Department of State (2010), there are between 950 million and 1 billion Hindus throughout the world, primarily in India, where they make up the large majority of the population.

Indian social structure is characterized by a caste system, officially abolished in 1949 but still powerful, in which people are believed to be born to a certain status that they must occupy for life. This system has its origins in the Hindu belief that one achieves an ideal life in part by performing the duties appropriate to one’s caste. Hindus, like Buddhists, believe in samsara, the reincarnation of the soul according to a person’s karma, or actions on earth. Whether someone is reborn into a higher or lower caste depends on the degree to which the person is committed to dharma, or the ideal way of life. Although orthodox Hinduism requires observance of caste duties, for the past 500 years religious societies have organized around gurus who break with caste conventions, emphasizing devotional love as the central spiritual act. This tradition influenced Mahatma Gandhi, the leader of India’s independence movement, and others who have viewed Hinduism as a vehicle for social reform (Juergensmeyer, 1995).

Perhaps because Hinduism does not have a central organization or leader, its philosophy and practice are particularly diverse. Religious teachings touch all aspects of life, from the enjoyment of sensual pleasures to stark renunciation of earthly pursuits. Hindus believe in the God-like unity of all things, yet their religion also has aspects of polytheism, the belief that different gods represent various categories of natural forces. For example, Hindus worship different gods representing aspects of the whole, such as the divine dimension of a spiritual teacher (Basham, 1989).


Buddhism was founded in India by Siddhartha Gautama five centuries before Christ. According to legend, the young Siddhartha renounced an upper-caste life of material splendor in search of a more meaningful existence. A lifetime of wandering, occasional poverty, and different spiritual practices eventually taught him the way to achieve enlightenment, and he became the Buddha, the awakened or enlightened one. Buddhism is an example of a nontheistic religion, in that it involves belief in the existence of divine spiritual forces rather than a god or gods. It is more a set of rules for righteous living than a doctrine of belief in a particular god.

Gautama Buddha’s philosophy is contained in the Four Noble Truths. First, all beings—gods, humans, and animals—are caught up in an endless round of suffering and rebirth, the result of their karma or actions. Second, suffering results from desire or attachment. To the extent that we depend on wealth or friends or family or even religious beliefs for satisfaction, we are condemned to suffer unending frustration and loss. Third, suffering can be overcome if we break the endless cycle of karma and rebirth and achieve nirvana—a blissful state of emptiness. Fourth, the means of achieving nirvana are contained in the Eightfold Path, which advocates ethical behavior, a simple lifestyle, renunciation of material pleasures, meditation, and eventually enlightenment.


FIGURE 13.4 The World’s Dominant Religions by Region

Many people practice certain precepts of Buddhism without calling themselves Buddhists, so it is difficult to estimate accurately the number of Buddhists in the world today. Estimates put the figure at about 350 million (Central Intelligence Agency, 2013). Theravada Buddhism, the “Way of the Elders” or the “Lesser Vehicle,” predominates in Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Sri Lanka. It is strongly identified with local cultures, and traditional rulers in Thailand and Sri Lanka are religious figures as well. Mahayana Buddhism, the “Greater Vehicle,” is practiced in China, Korea, and Japan, where it is not the official religion but mixes with other cultural strands. In China, Buddhism is intertwined with Taoist folk religion and Confucian codes of ethical practice. In Japan, Shinto Buddhism combines emperor worship with elements of animism, the belief, common to many religions, that naturally occurring phenomena, such as mountains and animals, are possessed of indwelling spirits with supernatural powers.

Buddhism’s meditative lifestyle may strike some people as incompatible with life in a modern industrial society, which emphasizes work, consumption, achievement, and all forms of karma that Buddhists regard as barriers to enlightenment and happiness. On the other hand, it is primarily Buddhist monks rather than ordinary practicing Buddhists who devote extended periods to meditation. Perhaps because of its emphasis on contemplation and meditation, Buddhism continues to attract followers in Western countries, including celebrities such as actor Orlando Bloom, singer Tina Turner, and the late Steve Jobs of Apple (Lampman, 2006; MacLeod, 2011).


Confucianism, the name of which comes from the English pronunciation of the name of its founder, K’ung-Fu-tzu (551–479 b.c.), is more of a philosophical system for ethical living on earth than a religion honoring a transcendental god (Fingarette, 1972). K’ung-Fu-tzu never wrote down his teachings, but his followers compiled many in a book called The Analects that became the foundation of official ethics and politics for some 2,000 years in China, until Confucianism was banned after the communist revolution in 1949. Though there are only about 6 million practitioners of Confucianism—almost all in Asia—this religion has had enormous influence in China, neighboring countries such as Korea and Vietnam, and Japan (Barrett, 2001).

The Power of Animism CLICK TO SHOW


Confucianism emphasizes harmony in social relations; respect for authority, hierarchy, and tradition; and the honoring of elders. Rulers are expected to be morally virtuous, setting an example for others to imitate. The group is more important than the individual. The key element in Confucian ethics is jen, meaning “love” or “goodness” and calling for faithfulness and altruism; we should never do anything to another person we would not want done to ourselves. Contemporary Confucianism, sometimes called “neo-Confucianism,” has mystical elements as well as moral ones, including belief in the Tao (pronounced dow), or “way of being,” determined by the natural harmony of the universe.

Confucianism teaches that opposites are not necessarily antagonistic; together they make up a harmonious whole that is constantly in a creative state of tension or change. The two major principles in the universe, yin (the female principle) and yang (the male principle), are found in all things, and their dynamic interaction accounts for both harmony and change. The I Ching (Book of Changes) contains philosophical teachings based on this view and a technique for determining a wise course of action.

Today many scholars argue that Confucian values such as respect for authority and a highly disciplined work ethic partly explain the current rapid economic growth in Singapore, Taiwan, China, and other Asian countries (Berger, 1986; Berger & Hsiao, 1988; MacFarquhar, 1980). On one hand, this perspective supports Weber’s argument that actions rooted in religious beliefs are linked to economic development. On the other hand, it challenges Weber’s exclusive emphasis on Western religion, and Protestantism in particular, as the source of this development.


Although both men and women embrace the major religions of the world, the principal deities, prophets, and leaders of religions are often male. God is depicted as male, beliefs typically emphasize male religious and political superiority, and women are often excluded from positions of theological power. The sociological explanation is straightforward: These religions were initially developed by men within patriarchal societies and therefore reflect patriarchal norms and values. As we noted earlier, sociologists see religions as social creations reflecting the norms, roles, and values embraced by communities and societies.

According to the Jewish and Christian Bible, Eve, the first woman, violated God’s command and tempted Adam to eat fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, leading to the pair’s loss of innocence and expulsion from the Garden of Eden, or Paradise. Consequently, all human suffering can be traced to Eve’s deception (Genesis 3). The book of Proverbs instructs the good wife to oversee the servants, to care for her family, and to be kind, fertile, obedient, and submissive to her husband. Even today, Orthodox Jewish males recite a daily prayer thanking God “that thou hast not created me a Gentile [non-Jew], a Slave, or a Woman.” For Christians, Saint Paul’s teachings instructed wives “to submit yourselves to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church…. So also wives should submit to their husbands in everything” (Ephesians 5:23–24).

Women have long played an important but unheralded role in religion. For example, Ann Lee (1736–1784), the leader of the “Shaking Quakers” in England, led a group to the United States and founded the first Shaker settlement in 1776. Alma White (1862–1946) was not only the first female evangelist ordained a bishop in the United States but also a pioneer in the use of an electronic medium, the radio, to spread beliefs (Stanley, 1993). Aimee Semple McPherson (1890–1944) founded the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, which today claims some 26,000 churches in 74 countries (Epstein, 1993). Mary Baker Eddy (1821–1910) founded Christian Science, along with the newspaper the Christian Science Monitor. Her influence was felt not only in religion but also in the early women’s movement. Eddy was a strong feminist who argued passionately for women’s equality: “In natural law and in religion, the right of women to fill the highest measure of enlightened understanding and the highest places in government is inalienable…. This is women’s hour, with all its sweet amenities and its moral and religious reforms” (Eddy, 1887/1999, p. 45).

In recent years there has been an upsurge of feminist spirituality, especially within the United States. Some women have turned to religious traditions that predate Judaism and Christianity, including the celebration of Goddess-based religions. The Goddess acts not only as a literal divine entity but also as a symbol of the historical significance and celebration of the feminine ideal.

Some feminist activists have sought reform within mainstream religions, fighting for the reimagination of God as ungendered, calling for nonsexist language in Scripture and services, and redesigning traditions and rituals along nonsexist lines (Eller, 2000; Wallace, 1992; Weidman, 1984). Almost all Protestant denominations now have female clergy, and even some Catholic churches offer women the opportunity to act as lay clergy, although the mainstream Catholic Church continues to oppose the practice (Wallace, 1992).




Fasting is a cultural staple of some religions. Catherine of Siena, a Roman Catholic, practiced extended fasts, even putting her life in jeopardy for her faith. 

Women have historically lacked a prominent role in the theologies and hierarchies of mainstream religions. We find an interesting historical counterexample, however, in the fasting women of medieval Europe. In Fasting Girls (2000), Joan Jacobs Brumberg writes that among 13th- to 16th-century Catholics, particularly women, food was a symbolic language: “Control of appetite was linked to piety and belief; through fasting, the medieval ascetic strove for perfection in the eyes of her God” (p. 48). According to Brumberg, fasting women of the medieval period spoke of their “hunger” for God and their “inebriation” with the holy wine. Their fasts, lasting from weeks to years, elevated them within their communities as objects of spiritual awe; through this act they claimed religious power, or at least widespread reverence from the religious community. Though their behavior had a label, “anorexia mirabilis,” it was not seen as a psychological, biological, or cultural affliction (as anorexia nervosa is today). Rather, it was a demonstration of piety and celebrated as such.

Though the link between fasting behavior and spiritual elevation was somewhat weaker by the end of the 16th century, Brumberg suggests there were still ample instances of female holiness being associated with the ascetic denial of food and drink, continuing into the Victorian era in both Western Europe and the United States. In this period, there was both skepticism and celebration of “fasting girls,” women who seemed to have transcended the worldly body and its physical needs. According to Brumberg, “Many who were pietists or pious Catholics embraced the cause of a particular fasting girl, either because her story reinvigorated the tradition of anorexia mirabilis and Christian miracles or because her existence demonstrated the independence of the spirit from the flesh, a central tenet of Victorian Spiritualism” (p. 64). Spiritualists were those who embraced the idea of transcendence over the material body, and fasting girls offered a focal point for challenging the belief that the body needed food to live.

By the 19th century, food refusal was labeled a disease. No longer did women whose fasts lasted for weeks or months attract celebration and elevation. Rather, they became objects of medical attention, parental concern, and societal curiosity. Anorexia mirabilis, however, whether piety or affliction, remains an interesting premodern manifestation of women’s use of food as a symbolic language, and of food refusal as a means to garner attention and, arguably, empowerment. In their emaciation and asceticism, some women found an avenue to affirmation and adoration in early religious communities, though achieved in part through their physical enervation and even death from starvation.


 From a contemporary perspective, was the historical phenomenon of anorexia mirabilis a manifestation of women’s religious marginalization or of their empowerment?

Women and Religious Self-Identity CLICK TO SHOW



Compared to citizens of other modern industrial nations, Americans are unusually religious. While secularization has weakened the power of religious institutions, religious adherence and beliefs remain strong in the United States, where most adults profess an affiliation with a religious group (Figure 13.5): About 78% self-identify as Christian, with smaller numbers identifying as Jewish (1.8%), Muslim (0.9%), and Buddhist (1.2%). About 16% of U.S. adults are unaffiliated with a religion; 6% say they are religious but unaffiliated, while the rest are secular unaffiliated, agnostic, or atheist. About 39% attend religious services at least weekly, 35% read Scripture weekly, and 58% pray on a daily basis (Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 2010).


The United States is more religious than other economically developed countries. One reason for the continuing high levels of religious group membership among Americans is that churches, synagogues, and mosques are important sources of social ties and friendship networks, connecting people with others who share the same beliefs and values. Another reason is simply that there are an enormous number of such organizations to belong to—supporting the religious economy perspective we examined earlier. The United States is the most religiously diverse country in the world, with more than 1,500 distinct religions (Melton, 1996; T. W. Smith, 2002). In the remainder of this section we look at two seemingly contrasting trends in U.S. religious life: the rise of conservative Protestantism, specifically evangelicalism, and the declining level of religious affiliation among young U.S. adults.

FIGURE 13.5 Religious Affiliation in the United States, 2010

SOURCE: Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. (2012a). The global religious landscape: A report on the size and distribution of the world’s major religious groups as of 2010. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center. Retrieved from

The conservative strand of U.S. Protestantism has been growing in both membership and influence in recent years. Conservative Protestants emphasize a literal interpretation of the Bible, Christian morality in daily life as well as public politics, and conversion of others through evangelizing. Liberal Protestants generally adopt a more flexible, humanistic approach to their religious practices, and moderate Protestants are somewhere in between. While all groups grew from the 1920s through the 1960s, both liberal and moderate churches have since experienced a decline in membership, while the number of conservative Protestants has expanded considerably (Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 2008).

A key aspect of this growth is the rise of evangelicalism, a belief in spiritual rebirth (being “born again”). This often includes the admission of personal sin and salvation through acceptance of Christ, a literal interpretation of the Bible, an emphasis on highly emotional and personal spiritual piety, and a commitment to spreading “the Word” to others (Balmer, 1989). (The word evangel comes from the Greek for “bringing good news.”) We can interpret the rise of evangelicalism as a response to growing secularism, religious diversity, and, in general, the decline of once-core Protestant values in U.S. life (Wuthnow, 1988).

Conservative Protestants have been an active force in U.S. politics, and their growing numbers may be linked to a recent rise in their political influence, particularly within the Republican Party. They have, in fact, become a key constituency for Republicans. Data from the past decade confirm the emergence of a “worship attendance gap” in presidential politics; specifically, “the more observant members of religious communities tend to vote Republican while their less observant co-religionists tend to vote Democratic. This attendance gap has been largest among the white Christian traditions, but has appeared in a more modest form within nearly all religious affiliations” (Dionne & Green, 2008, p. 5). Not only are strongly religious voters more likely to vote Republican, but they also seem increasingly more likely to vote at all. That is, they are active in politics to a degree that many other groups are not.

Consider, for instance, the political influence of the Tea Party movement, whose members affiliate with the Republican Party and draw a substantial degree of support from White evangelical Protestants. Those who identify as Tea Party members are far more likely than registered voters as a whole to say that “religion is the most important factor in determining their opinion on… social issues [in politics, such as abortion and same-sex marriage]” (Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 2011b). Surveys conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life also show that White evangelical Protestants are about five times as likely to agree with the ideas of the Tea Party as to disagree (44% versus 8%), though substantial numbers also have no opinion or have not heard of the movement (48%). When we consider that members of the Tea Party, still a nascent political movement in 2010, made up fully 41% of the voters in the November elections that year, we can see the strong potential for religious communities and beliefs to shape political life in the United States (Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 2011b).

Religion in Politics CLICK TO SHOW
Megachurches CLICK TO SHOW


© Geoffrey Clements/Corbis

Some evangelical Christian groups have access to extensive resources for recruitment and worship. The facility here used to be home to the Houston Rockets, and was converted to an evangelical church that took about $75 million to renovate.

Many U.S. voters’ political beliefs and actions are shaped by religious faith. Not surprisingly, then, many also expect their political leaders to share their faith: A 2011 survey showed that fully 61% of respondents would be less likely to support a presidential candidate who “does not believe in God” (Pew Research Center, 2011), a figure that has held steady across recent years.

Paradoxically, recent decades have also seen the decline of religious affiliation in the United States. That is, while U.S. adults are still highly religious compared to their counterparts in other modern states (European states in particular), recent research suggests that a generational shift is taking place with the potential to transform the U.S. religious landscape. While just 16% of U.S. adults report being “unaffiliated” with a religion, fully a quarter of those between 18 and 29 are not affiliated. This is in stark contrast to older generations: Just 14% of Americans ages 50 to 59, 10% of those 60 to 69, and 8% of those 70 and older do not profess an affiliation. (The shift may also help explain why more women than men claim religious affiliation—just 13% of women are unaffiliated compared to nearly 20% of men: Due to differences in life expectancy, there are more women than men in the oldest age groups.) Further, today’s young adults are more likely than young adults of earlier generations to indicate no religious affiliation; in studies done in the 1970s and 1980s, about half as many young adults identified themselves as unaffiliated with a religion. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life (2010) suggests that this change is “a result, in part, of the decision by many young people to leave the religion of their upbringing without becoming involved with a new faith” (p. 4).


FIGURE 13.6 Composition of Religiously Unaffiliated Americans, 2012

SOURCE: Pew Research Center. (2012). Nones on the rise: One-in-five adults have no religious affiliation. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center. Retrieved from Reprinted with permission.

Recall the religious economy perspective discussed earlier. Can it help us understand the growing numbers of young people who do not affiliate with a religion? Does it suggest that religious organizations are failing to “market” themselves effectively? Or does it mean that other sources of spiritual or personal fulfillment are available to young adults and act as what Robert Merton called “functional equivalents,” fulfilling the functions of religion but assuming a different form?


According to Phillip Hammond (1992), religion in the United States has three times undergone disestablishment, a period during which the political influence of established religions is successfully challenged. One occurred with the 1791 ratification of the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution (the Bill of Rights), the first of which calls for a firm separation of church and state. Some sociologists see this separation as part of a larger trend in industrial societies, in which different institutions specialize in different functions—from economics to medicine, from education to politics. Religion is no exception (Alexander & Thompson, 2008; Chaves, 1993, 1994; Parsons, 1951, 1960, 1966). Recall Thomas O’Dea’s (1966) suggestion, noted earlier, that in traditional societies “the same social groups provide satisfaction for both expressive and adaptive needs,” whereas modern societies separate these two functions (p. 36).

The second period of disestablishment occurred between the 1890s and the 1920s, fed by an influx of about 17 million immigrants, mainly European and many Catholic. For the first time, the notion of a predominantly Protestant United States was challenged, and the mainstream Protestant churches never regained their influence in politics or in defining national values. The third period occurred during the 1960s and the 1970s, when core religious beliefs and values were further eroded by the anti–Vietnam War movement, the fight for racial equality, and experimentation with alternative lifestyles. Fundamental challenges came in the form of increased openness about sexuality and lifestyle preferences, the women’s movement, and changes in attitudes and laws about birth control (Glock & Bellah, 1976; Hammond, 1992; Roof & McKinney, 1990; Wuthnow, 1976, 1978).

Disestablishment of religion reduces its political influence but does not make it less important to individuals. In fact, if religious groups compete with one another for followers, religious practices are more likely to be tailored to public tastes (Moore, 1994); this result fits the perspective of religious economy we discussed earlier. We have also seen, however, that conservative Protestant religious organizations have increasingly made their voices heard in U.S. politics. President George W. Bush’s period in office was marked by close ties between Bush and conservative religious organizations, and some political analysts suggest that his aspirations to democratize the Middle East, for instance, reflected not only pragmatic political considerations but also a spiritual sense that the United States is called to be a “beacon of freedom and democracy.” More recently, as we noted earlier, the Tea Party movement has raised the profile and power of U.S. conservative religious groups.


Some sociologists have argued that the United States has a civil religion, a set of sacred beliefs and practices that become part of how a society sees itself (Alexander & Thompson, 2008; Bellah, 1968, 1975; Mathisen, 1989). Civil religion usually involves the use of “god language” in reference to the nation, including historical myths about the society’s divine origins, beliefs about its sacred historical purpose, and, occasionally, religious restrictions on societal membership (Wuthnow, 1988).

The infusion of divine meaning into historical events is visible in President Abraham Lincoln’s (1809–1865) oratory on the Civil War. In the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln, who was not highly religious himself, drew on religious imagery to attach meaning to the brutal destruction and enormous human cost of the war. He labeled his fellow citizens the “almost chosen people” and called the United States “the last, best hope on earth.” You might have noticed that even today, the president and other politicians often end their speeches with the words “God bless America.”

Contextualizing Civil Religion CLICK TO SHOW


As we noted in this chapter’s opening vignette, the phrase “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance by Congress in 1954, amid fears of the Cold War and “godless communism.” The words are consistent with the construction of a civil religion and a nation worshipping itself and envisioning itself as fulfilling a divine destiny. Even though the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution clearly calls for a separation of church and state, this profession of allegiance to “one nation, under God” came to be seen as central to U.S. citizenship. What do you think about the content of the Pledge of Allegiance? Does it endorse religion, or is it a civil rather than a religious declaration? Why do you think different people read this legal question differently?


Thanks in part to the Internet, globalization has transformed religion into a more fluid form that easily crosses boundaries and mixes traditions from different areas. While religions have always evolved, today’s sustained and regular contact among people of varying religious traditions is unprecedented. The embrace of new ideas may create harmony, tension, or even violence.

The global emergence of a scientific-technological culture that colors people’s views and behaviors presents a powerful challenge to the world’s traditional religions. It means that fewer people may employ religious explanations for natural or social phenomena as increasing numbers probe beyond explanations that refer to a divine plan. Religion may still enrich personal lives, but its role in public life, at least in the most economically advanced countries, has declined.

A second challenge of globalization is the growing contact between large religions with mass followings that claim to possess exclusive accounts of history and the nature of reality. This contact is both a potential and an actual source of tension and conflict, which can fuel “culture wars” as well as real wars that leaders cast as battles between religions and values or even between “good and evil.” In fact, rather than leading to a merging of religions (in the manner of a global “culture” of consumption or popular music), globalization may be fostering a backlash against blending that reveals itself as fundamentalism. Fundamentalism is also associated with the rise of religious nationalism.

Religious nationalism is the linkage of religious convictions with beliefs about a nation’s or ethnic group’s social and political destiny. It is on the rise in countries around the world where religious nationalist movements have revived traditional religious beliefs and rejected the separation of religion and the state (Beyer, 1994; Kinnvall, 2004). While the trend is more pronounced among Islamic fundamentalists in some Middle Eastern countries, the United States has also experienced the rising political influence of evangelical Protestantism.

The conservative Christian lobby in the United States has been particularly vocal—and often influential—on domestic issues such as abortion and gay marriage, both of which it opposes. It has also had some impact on global policy making. For example, Christian evangelicals have lobbied for U.S. intervention in Sudan, the site of a bloody civil war between Christians and Muslims in the north and a genocide perpetrated by Arab militias (supported by the Sudanese government) against Black Africans in Darfur.

Christian and Islamic religious nationalist movements accept modern technology, politics, and economics; many use the Internet and social media to disseminate information and ideas. At the same time, they interpret religious values strictly and reject secularization, drawing selectively on traditions and past events that serve their current beliefs and interests. Benedict Anderson (1991) writes about “imagined communities,” suggesting that nations are real but not “natural”—that is, they are unified by both real and invented traditions and heroes that legitimate their claims about territories, the past, and the present. Part of the Israeli and Palestinian conflict over land is rooted in different narratives of history that tell diverging stories about who has “true” dominion over the territory.

Religious affiliations can bring communities together or tear them apart. India is the world’s largest democracy, one of the world’s largest countries in terms of population (more than 1 billion), and home to Hindus, Muslims, Christians, and believers in dozens of other religions. Diversity and democracy sometimes appear to be on shaky ground there, however, particularly when the extreme nationalist ideology of Hindutva (or “Hinduness”) comes into contact with Muslim extremism. In the northern Indian town of Ayodhya, a mosque was built in the early 16th century on the site where Hindus believe Lord Ram, a sacred deity in Hinduism, was born. Since the 19th century, clashes between Hindus and Muslims have taken place on the site. In 1992, Hindu nationalists attacked the mosque, sparking riots across the country that killed more than 2,000 people. The site continues to be the object of contention, though the conflict appears to have shifted to the Indian courts: In 2010, a high court ruled that the site should be split among Muslims, Hindus, and a local sect (BBC, 2012).

War and Religion CLICK TO SHOW


Reuters/Nayef Hashlamoun

The Israeli–Palestinian conflict is a deeply entrenched battle between two political-religious groups and their supporters. This conflict has demanded the attention and resources of the United States and other countries as they try to find a diplomatic solution to the conflict. 

Most of the world’s religions actively embrace the values of peace, humanity, and charity. Many believe religion is the basis of morality. On the other hand, religion in various forms, including religious nationalism, has been and remains associated with intolerance, discrimination, and violence. How are we to reconcile these two sides of religion as a local, national, and global institution? Is religion as an institution a force for positive change or a rationale for conflict? Might it be both? What do you think?


Studying religion from a sociological perspective does not mean embracing or rejecting religious values; it means examining and analyzing an institution that is central to humans on an individual, societal, and global level. In the United States today, the sociology of religion may be especially relevant. First, the question of whether disestablishment is proceeding or receding is an important one. Though the country’s political foundations call for the separation of church and state, religious organizations seek to influence politics and public policy. Can religious devotion mix comfortably with domestic and foreign policy, or are the two a volatile brew to be avoided? These are questions of both intellectual and political significance.

Second, on a global level, the “war on terror” initiated by President George W. Bush in 2001 in the wake of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 brought questions about religion and politics to the forefront across the globe. For instance, the United States was faulted for failing to recognize why calling the “war on terror” a “crusade” would offend Muslim sensibilities. Tensions between the West and the Muslim world provoked questions about whether there is a “clash of civilizations” that makes conflict difficult to avoid. Some in the United States worry about the “Islamization” of the Middle East and other regions, while others question the power and political influence of religion in their own U.S. government. Debates about religion and its place in communities, societies, and the world will continue to challenge sociologists in the decades to come.




In the previous chapter’s feature essay, we looked at how you might go about assessing your motivations to pursue graduate or professional education and ways you can begin to explore potential career fields associated with graduate or professional study. Below you will learn about degree options available to those who have completed a bachelor’s degree and the challenges and opportunities associated with advanced study.

Research Degree Options and Graduate Schools

There are several types of graduate degrees. The most traditional are the master’s and doctoral degrees. Master’s degrees are academic or professional. The academic master’s degrees, master of arts (MA) and master of science (MS), focus on intellectual development and the mastery of a core of knowledge in a particular discipline. One may, for instance, earn a master’s degree in sociology, anthropology, biology, or English. Professional master’s degrees include the master of business administration (MBA) and the master of social work (MSW), which are designed to advance careers or professions in their respective fields.

The doctor of medicine (MD) and juris doctor (JD) degrees focus on the acquisition of advanced skills and knowledge in the areas of medical practice and law, respectively. The typical amount of time required to earn these professional degrees is generally lengthier than that for a master’s-level professional degree such as the MBA or MSW.

The doctor of philosophy degree (PhD), or doctorate, focuses on advancing intellectual knowledge through original research. The focus of doctoral studies is on the broad mastery of disciplinary knowledge, the development of areas of specialization in the discipline, and rigorous, original research that contributes to the discipline and, perhaps, to policy and general societal knowledge of important topics. Consider this chapter’s key focus, religion. As we saw, the sociological study of religion highlights the understanding of societal functions of religion. A student interested in the sociology of religion who is studying to earn a PhD might build a doctoral dissertation project around a question such as “How do religious beliefs affect political behavior?” or “Why are young Americans today less likely than those in previous generations to profess a religious affiliation?” Doctoral study opens many avenues for students to pursue original research on topics about which they are intellectually curious, though doctoral study is a lengthy commitment, often requiring a minimum of 4 years.

Once you have considered different degree options, learn about graduate schools by conducting research and speaking to professors in your field of interest. If you are interested in academic master’s or doctoral programs, you may also wish to do the following:

•    Get a fuller sense of your interest in and aptitude for research through a research position while an undergraduate student.

•    Meet with professors to seek recommendations regarding advanced study programs in particular fields.

•    Build relationships with professors and seek information about their research.

•    Volunteer to assist with research projects in the community, local hospitals, or think tanks.

•    Identify requirements of graduate programs, such as credit hours, comprehensive exams, and research and thesis requirements.


Reflect on the Practical Challenges Related to Graduate and Professional School

Advanced study presents both opportunities and challenges. It expands your knowledge horizon, builds your skills, and broadens your career options. Getting there and succeeding, however, also means recognizing in advance some of the challenges inherent in the process of applying and attending. Consider the following questions as you think about graduate or professional study:

•    Do you meet the admission requirements? Do you have the undergraduate GPA you need to be competitive? (It is never too soon to do the work needed to achieve a competitive GPA.)

•    Are there entrance exams to complete? Can you take a preparatory course? If so, how soon should you take it?

•    How will you finance your education? Will you have the option to attend graduate school full-time, or will you want or need to attend part-time?

•    How will your attending graduate school affect you and your family?

•    How have you managed your workload as an undergraduate? Will you be able to meet the challenges of a graduate or professional school workload?

•    What is the right time for graduate or professional school in your personal and career path?

Graduate or professional training beyond the bachelor’s degree is an option that many students will eventually choose. The American Sociological Association found in a survey that a little over a third of sociology majors were studying in graduate or professional school 18 months after graduation. Of these, just under a quarter were pursuing sociology at the graduate level, but others were studying social work (17%), law (11%), education (11%), psychology/counseling (9%), business/management (5%), or other fields. Choosing whether to pursue advanced study, as well as when to do so, is a very individual decision. Assess your situation—academic, personal, professional, and financial—before you decide. And seek the guidance of professors, career counselors at your school, and your family as you prepare your study and career plan.


 If you are interested in graduate or professional studies, with whom might you speak to get advice on selecting schools to apply to or programs that could be suitable for you? Make a list of people you know through your family, school, or work who could be of help to you in choosing a program or school.



•    Religion is a system of common beliefs and rituals centered on “sacred things” that unites believers and provides a sense of meaning and purpose. Religion may serve many functions in society, lending groups a common worldview, helping to ritualize or routinize behaviors or beliefs, and providing people with a sense of purpose.

•    Sociologists who study religion are interested in how religion helps to organize and structure societies and group behavior, along with the functions religion serves for producing and maintaining group solidarity (or, conversely, creates instability in certain circumstances), and how religion becomes a force in society and within the lives of individuals.

•    Classical theorists have differing interpretations of religion’s sociological function. Marx emphasized the role of religion in pacifying the oppressed masses; Weber highlighted the role of Protestantism in the development of capitalism; Durkheim looked at the role of religion in reinforcing social solidarity.

•    The modern religious economy perspective emphasizes the role of competition between groups as religions seek followers and potential adherents seek affiliations.

•    Religions manifest themselves in more than just shared beliefs. They take the form of institutions. Types of religious organizations can be conceptually placed on a spectrum of conventionality in larger society. A church would be on the far end of conventionality, and a cult would fit on the opposite end of the spectrum.

•    New religious movements (NRMs) represent a break from existing religious organizations and a push toward new religious practices.

•    Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism are the three largest and most practiced religions on earth, but Judaism, Buddhism, and Confucianism are also influential.

•    Women have been historically marginalized in major world religions. Today some activists seek to introduce nonsexist language into Scripture and services and to expand women’s roles and representation in religious beliefs and practices.

•    Youth and young adults in the United States today are less likely than older adults to claim a religious affiliation. At the same time, religious faith continues to exercise influence in U.S. life, including in politics.

•    Disestablishment refers to periods in which the political influence of religion is significantly challenged.

•    Civil religion involves the elevation of a nation as an object of worship.

•    Globalization has provided both challenges and opportunities to religions of the world. Religions may function to bring both peace and conflict at the global level.


Establishment Clause, 323

religion, 323

theism, 323

anthropology, 324

profane, 325

sacred, 325

totems, 325

secularization, 327

religious economy, 328

church, 329

ecclesia, 330

denomination, 330

sect, 330

cult, 330

new religious movements (NRMs), 332

monotheism, 332

Zionism, 335

polytheism, 335

nontheistic religion, 335

animism, 336

evangelicalism, 339

disestablishment, 341

civil religion, 341

religious nationalism, 342



1.   How do classical sociologists theorize the role of religion in society? Compare and contrast the views of Durkheim and Marx.

2.   If religion serves as a source of stability, as functionalists claim, does that mean that a nation of atheists would be less stable than a nation of religious believers? Make a sociological case to support your position.

3.   Consider the issues related to women and religion raised in this chapter. Where societal norms are increasingly progressive but dominant religious doctrines are traditional, which one might be reasonably expected to change? Explain your reasoning.

4.   What are the key characteristics of the current generational shift in religious affiliation in the United States? How might sociologists explain this shift? Do you believe it will continue? Explain your reasoning.

5.   Describe the role of religion in U.S. politics today. Has the role of religion in politics changed in recent years or decades? Considering trends in religious affiliation, might we expect it to change in the near future?

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