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Understanding Families

Understanding Families
A Global Introduction

December 2011 | 264 pages | SAGE Publications Ltd

"I don't know how often I've wished for an introductory text on family life which encompassed critical contemporary sociological thinking alongside the basic information students need, and have only found fossilised thinking on a stodgy subject. But now all that has changed. McKie and Callan have achieved what I thought was almost impossible in Understanding Families - a textbook which provides unrivalled foundations for a critical understanding of contemporary families and relationships."
- Carol Smart
, The Morgan Centre, University of Manchester

"This excellent, innovative, comprehensive and easy to read text should be essential reading for everyone keen to understand families across the globe... It will make an outstanding contribution to family studies and is highly recommended."
- Janet Walker, Newcastle University

"Easy to read text, which debates current thinking surrounding modern families. Case studies and questions for the reader throughout the text help traslate theory into practice."
- Justine Gallagher, Northumbria University

Families are the core building blocks of society. Our experience of them affects many aspects of our everyday lives shaping our expectations and future plans.

Written by experts in family studies and family policy, this clear, engaging book adopts a global perspective to usefully examine how modern families can be explored and understood in research, policy and practice.

Packed with critical pedagogy, including case-studies, think points, key words and a glossary, it guides students through topics such as relationships, sexualities and paid and unpaid work, continually returning to its central themes of process and structure. The book also:

  • Applies key social theories to contemporary analysis
  • Examines key studies on researching families and family life
  • Explores the role of government policies and practices

This comprehensive introduction to the study of families and relationships is a timely resource for students and lecturers working across the social sciences, particularly students of family studies, the sociology of the family, family policy, and social work and the family

Linda McKie is Professor of Sociology, Glasgow Caledonian University; Samantha Callan is based at the Centre for Social Justice. They are both affiliated to the Centre for Research on Families and Relationships at the University of Edinburgh.


Structures, Processes and Strategies

Family or Families?

Families in History

The Families We Live With, The Families We Live By

The Contents of the Book


Explore Further

Families and Relationships

Families: A Constant State of Flux

Continuities and Presumptions

Structures: Identifying and Talking About Families

Defining Families 1: Common Characteristics

Defining Families 2: Values, Memories and Spaces and Places

Statistical Trends and Family Structures

Processes: Families, Kinship and Activities

Global Families

Topic 1. The Impact of Welfare Regimes on Families: France, the Russian Federation, East and West Germany

Topic 2: Ideal and Actual Families in Asia


Explore Further

Explaining Families

Sociological Explanations: Premise and Origins

Ideology and Theory: What Is This Thing 'the Family'?

Sociological Theory

Ties that Bind: Making Sense of Structures

Families as a Framework: Parsons

Socialization: Merton

Actors and Actions: Theories of Interaction

Interactions: Goffman

Structures and Practices: Giddens and Wallace

Theories of Conflict

The 'Lifeworld' of Families: Habermas

Women, Men, Gender: Feminist Perspectives

Feminist and Gender: Perspectives on Families

Global Dimensions

Contemporary Voices on Intimacy


Explore Further

Researching Families

Research Methods

Survey Research

Writing About People and Families: Ethnographic Research Methods

Secondary Analysis of Research Studies

Historical Research on Families

Approaches to the History of the Family

Better Times for Families?

Documenting Change in Family Processes

Family and Sex 1900-2000

Private Troubles and Public Issues

Researching Change and Continuity

Solo Living

Talking About Sex

Single Parenting


Explore Further

Politics, Policies and Practices


Policies and Families' Forms and Functions

Family Policy - New Kid on the Block?

How do Policies Deliver Benefits to Families?

Policy Approaches to Different Family Forms

Evidence-Based Policy

Families in Action

Families and Social Cohesion

Families and Social Breakdown

Beyond Stereotypes

Families and the Welfare State

The Relationship Between Politics and Policies

Services and Practices

Types of Services


Explore Further

Relationships and Sexualities

Lets Get Together: Marriage, Cohabitation

Universality of Marriage and Partnering

Definition of Partnering - How do People Partner?

Diversity in Partnering Arrangements


Same-Sex Couples and Families

Children Raised by Same-Sex Couples

Moving Apart: Breakdown and Divorce

Why do Relationships Break Down?

What Changes After Divorce and What Stays the Same?

Being Together and Living Apart: Solo Living, Friendships and Social Networks

'Coupleness' Outside of Cohabitation

Why else do people Live Alone?

Beyond the Family - Friendships

Social Networks

Communities and Neighbourhoods

The Effects of Neighbourhoods and Communities on Families

Sexualized Societies

Enduring Relationships: Generating Histories

Enduring Intimacy


Explore Further

Families and Work

Defining and Explaining Work

Underemployment and Unemployment

Boundaries: Paid and Unpaid Work

The Global Context

Survival and Longevity: The Challenge to Work

Decent Work and Rural Employment

Relationships and Resources

Acquiring and Allocating Resources

Gender and Resources

Unpaid Work

Gender Roles and Unpaid Work

Quantifying and Valuing Unpaid Work

Vital but Subordinate

Family Practices and Work

Policy, Politics and Families

Explaining Preferences and Choices

Migrant Domestic Workers


Explore Further

Families into the Future

Trends and Futures

Working Patterns, Gender and Care

Demography: Fertility, Life Expectancy and Care

Relationship Formation

The Impact of Technologies on Families

Commonalities and Differences across the Globe

Beliefs and Behaviours

Sustainable Families?

The Importance of Childcare

Shaping Politics and Policy

Addressing Family Fragility

Same-Sex Relationships and Assisted Reproduction


Explore Further


This excellent, innovative, comprehensive and easy to read text should be essential reading for everyone keen to understand families across the globe. It addresses key questions, carefully blends policy concerns, research issues and theoretical debates, points to further reading and includes a very helpful glossary. It will make an outstanding contribution to family studies and is highly recommended
Janet Walker
Emeritus Professor, Newcastle University

This is a clearly written, well organized, and highly digestible overview of the sociology of the family. It covers major themes and issues, including important changes over time in behavior as well as the ideas used to understand patterns of behavior and structure. The authors manage to include a strong international perspective while highlighting many specific examples and trends in the UK and across Europe. What I appreciate so much about this book is that it is to the point and not overburdened by a tedious amount of detail or nuances of the type that can so easily mire and demoralize readers who are trying to capture the essential features in the study of the family. I highly recommend this book for serious students who want to efficiently capture the gist of this thing called family
Scott M. Stanley
Research Professor and Co Director of the Center for Marital and Family Studies, University of Denver, USA

I don't know how often I've wished for an introductory text on family life which encompassed critical contemporary sociological thinking alongside the basic information students need, and have only found fossilised thinking on a stodgy subject. But now all that has changed. McKie and Callan have achieved what I thought was almost impossible in Understanding Families; this is a textbook which provides unrivalled foundations for a critical understanding of contemporary families and relationships
Carol Smart
Professor of Sociology, The Morgan Centre, University of Manchester

This has some great chapters in especially around introducing global perspectives on families. The Glossary at the back is really helpful.

Mr Simon Hall
Department of Nursing and Midwifery, University of The West of England
April 11, 2019

An excellent text in every respect, exploring all aspects of family life. The book offers a contemporary information, covering all patterns including employment, family structure and changing government policy.
A key strength of this text is that it is focused on changing family patterns within the UK, which is overlooked with many major texts.
The course is ideal for students of all levels, particularly students at level 3 and undergraduate.
In summary, an essential text for any course exploring aspects of sociology of the family.

Mr Gavin Hatton
Sociology , Merthyr Tydfil College
November 10, 2016

This is a clear and comprehensive to contemporary families that fits perfectly with our module on 'The Family and the Law'.

Dr Kaz Stuart
Health, Med Sci & Soc Care (Lancaster), University of Cumbria
August 22, 2016

This book will be really useful for students who are studying on a module called 'understanding families and communities'.

Dr Michael Richards
Applied Health and Social Care , Edge Hill University
May 7, 2016

This book is highly recommended for all A Level or undergraduate course exploring the family.

It covers all the major areas of the family; offering a 'global' exploration, with regular focus on the patterns of UK families. The book provides a basic overview of the family, as well as providing analysis on work, social policy and the future of families. It offers the latest up-to-date information, discussing the latest emerging social and family issues in gay marriage and adoption.

The book offers easy reading, with detailed explanation. Which makes it ideal for A Level or first year undergraduate students.

I would highly recommend this book, as it provides all the required information, with commentary suitable for all students, not just the most able.

Mr Gavin Hatton
Sociology , St David's College
October 2, 2015

This book is excellent for students studying 'the family' I have recommended my students buy this book as it gives them a very strong foundation for subsequent study. I particularly like the lay out of this book, it provides the students with questions to check their understanding. It makes clear links to the other chapters where there may be further explanation / expansion. I particularly find it really useful to have a summary at the end of each chapter and recommendations for further reading.

Pat Hosgood
Faculty of Health Ormskirk, Edge Hill University
November 12, 2014

This is an excellent and highly accessible introduction to family studies, bringing together concepts, policies and trends in such a clear and comprehensive manner. Its presentation of relevant theory is unparalleled in its breadth while maintaining clarity and focus. Its international approach gives this book universal relevance, and its chapter on researching families is particularly valuable for social policy graduates planning their dissertation in this field. The glossary is also very useful.

Dr Sue Vella
Social Policy & Social Work , Univ. of Malta
July 10, 2014

We have adopted this book for our new module Connected Lives, as it provides students with a good gounding in the current theoretical, research, and policy issues and developments, which are needed to understand families in contemporary society.

Dr Gaynor Bagnall
English, Sociology, Politics & History, Salford University
March 21, 2014

A useful introduction to the area of Family Studies. Am recommending as supplemental as the module itself is a policy module and this is more sociologically orientated, but it does help to provide context to the policies we are examining.

Ms Hazel O brien
Department of Applied Arts, Waterford Institute of Technology
February 11, 2014

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