Scholars increasingly concerned about family breakdown, study finds

Thursday, March 6th, 2008

Social scientists who specialise in the family have become more concerned about the decline of marriage since the late 1970s research into the issue has developed, according to a new study.

The report, written by Dr Norval Glenn, along with Thomas Sylvester and Alex Roberts for the Centre for Marriage and Families, surveyed articles on marriage, divorce and related issues published in the leading academic journal on the topic, the Journal of Marriage and Family.

It examined all articles on related subjects between 1977 and 2002 and found “strong evidence that scholars have become more concerned about the effects of family change on children”.

Those conducting the study gave each article a rating based on a scale, one through five, with one indicating a belief on the part of the article's author that family structure was unimportant to child well being, and five indicating a high level of concern about increases in the level of divorce and unwed child bearing. A rating of three represented a median position regarding the effects of changing family structure.

Scholars were fairly optimistic about changes in family structure between 1977 and 1982, the survey found, with articles published in that period carrying an average rating of 2.81. However, by the mid 1980s, the average rating had gone up to 3.4, and it remained there. The most common rating for the entire period was four, with 150 or 56.4 per cent of the articles given this rating.

The findings demonstrate that scholars “have clearly become more attuned to the possible negative effects of divorce and unwed childbearing on children”, according to the authors. The fact that articles focused purely on hard data also showed the same trend, showed “that there was some empirical basis for the collective shift in opinion”, they continued.

The study also showed that “access to more and better data” correlated with more concern about family breakdown. The more optimistic view about the effects of family diversity on child welfare receded and became less popular as the number of studies on children and family structure increased, the authors point out.

Articles which had a pronounced optimistic outlook were “much more likely to be theoretical or opinion” pieces, the report says. The authors add that articles based on longitudinal and national surveys were more likely to express concern about the decline of marriage, as compared to cross sectional studies based on non-representative samples.

The report points to the findings of two authors who in 1979 said that there were “no consistent findings” on the effects of divorce on children. However, by 1991, Paul Amato and Bruce Keith published a survey of research of the effects of divorce on children. It showed a series of negative outcomes for children whose parents divorce.

Amato and Keith stated: “The results lead to a pessimistic conclusion: the argument that parental divorce presents few problems for children's long term development is simply inconsistent with the literature on this topic.”

Also the authors point out that only one of the studies which used hard data failed to find any evidence of the impact of changing family structure on outcomes for children. “Among quantitative family researchers, disagreements about family structure effects on children now seem to be almost entirely about their magnitude and importance rather than about whether or not such effects exist,” they write.

© 2002-2008


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