Family Matters

To the Editor:

With regard to the interview by Carol Iannone of Professor David Popenoe of Rutgers University in your Winter 2008–09 issue [“Family Matters: A Conversation with David Popenoe,” vol. 22, no. 1], I wonder if Professor Popenoe is familiar with Family and Civilization, a seminal work in family sociology by Carle Zimmerman, which was first published in the late forties and which predicted the steep and accelerating decline of the family, already well underway even as he wrote and having been for sometime already. A distinguished scholar in his field, I assume Popenoe is, although some of his answers to Iannone’s questions—particularly those with regard to the decline as beginning in late sixties and the fifties as being a high point of domesticity—leave me wondering.

Zimmerman defined “marriage” as a social institution whose primary function is the propagation and rearing of children so that the society may survive and prosper, although, of course, it serve other practical purposes as well. However, in late stages of a society’s and civilization’s development the family type (for which Zimmerman uses the term “atomistic”—he might better have employed the term “individualistic”), the purpose of propagation and education of children fades in favor of one gratifying the happiness and satisfaction of those who choose to enter into this kind of relationship. Then marriage becomes merely a legally sanctioned and advantaged relationship between two or more individuals based almost entirely on the emotion of love and compatibility. In other words the term family is emptied of virtually all other content except that of an emotion (love). Thus, any kind of human relationship sanctified by the emotion of love would seem eligible for the protection of law and the label of “marriage.” I see no reason for discriminating against polygamy, homosexual unions, incestuous partnerships, and even loving relationships between humans and their animal pets. All it would take for such a perversity to evolve would be a sufficiently large and politically connected group to demand it “as within their legal rights.”

(By the way, I was a student of Carle Zimmerman at Harvard and wrote my senior thesis in family sociology under his direction.)

Burton L. Ingraham

Santa Fe, New Mexico

Prof. Popenoe Replies

I much appreciate Burton Ingraham’s reminding us of Carle Zimmerman’s important contribution to family sociology. I was strongly influenced by Zimmerman’s work early in my career, and even more by the work of Pitirim Sorokin, who was Zimmerman’s mentor and colleague. They, of course, were looking at family change over the long course of human history; I was focusing on the time period of the last century or so. Sorokin and Zimmerman were absolutely on target, in my opinion, in their understanding of the fundamentals of family change, and it is a great pity that they are all but forgotten today.

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