The Family in Technological Society: Stephen B. Clark's Analysis of Technological Society and its Effects on the Family
What follows is the second of a two part abridgement of the eighteenth chapter of Stephen B. Clark’s book, Man and Woman in Christ: An Examination of the Roles of Men and Women in the Light of Scripture and the Social Sciences. This book is one of the most important written in the twentieth century, and this chapter, “The New Social Environment: Technological Society” is one of the most important parts of the book. The historical and sociological data he presents are accurate and his analysis profound. Many of these facts have been presented by others before, but never have they been organized into the concise yet comprehensive and systematic form that Clark provides – and never have they been viewed from the perspective of a rigorous Christian orthodoxy.
This chapter, which occupies 40 pages in the original book, is jam-packed with information and insights. In attempting to distill the essence into two ordinary-sized magazine articles a great deal must necessarily be lost. It is this editor’s hope that the reader will be inspired by what he finds here to go on and read Clark for himself, in unabridged form. In any case, he will find much here that will help him to understand the predicament of the family in the modern world. —HK
Part One: Tradional vs Technological Society
The Family in Technological SocietyThe family constitutes the basic unit of both traditional society and, to a more limited extent, technological society. The family is also the unit of society which resists functionalization most stubbornly. In fact, one could even say that to the degree that the family is functionalized, to that degree it is weakened and dissolved. The dynamic of family life is contrary to the dynamic of technological society, and family life increasingly manifests the strains that come from inhabiting an inhospitable environment.
Changes in Family LifeTwo major changes befall the family in technological society. The first change involves the gradual weakening of kinship ties and supportive neighborhood-type groupings. In traditional society, the family consists of more than the nuclear unit of husband, wife, and offspring. The traditional family consists of a sizable group of people and includes many conjugal units linked through some structure based on common descent. This wide set of committed kinship relationships exists regardless of whether the group lives together in one building. The larger family, kinship group, or clan has several important functions. It provides financial aid to the individual conjugal unit in times of special need, and often functions as a unit of economic operation. For example, a family farm or business often belongs to the larger kinship group instead of to the head of a conjugal family. The kinship grouping therefore serves as the social security, welfare, and insurance system. The members of the larger family also share one another's good fortune. If one member arrives at a position of power or wealth, the entire kinship grouping can expect to benefit. Side by side with this strong kinship system is a committed village, neighborhood, occupational, or class grouping. These groupings sometimes perform functions and fulfill roles similar to those of the kinship grouping. The conjugal unit thus finds its place in the wider set of relationships and commitments provided by the kinship system and the neighborhood type grouping.
Technological society changes the relationship between the conjugal unit and both the wider kinship and village-neighborhood networks. The bonds within a kinship grouping begin to weaken, and the family group as a whole becomes smaller. Village-neighborhood relationships lose much of their familiarity, stability, and interdependence. This process whereby the conjugal family is isolated from larger relational groupings should be familiar from the previous discussion. It includes an increase in geographic and socioeconomic mobility, the general weakening of all groupings which do not operate according to strictly functional principles, the trend toward making the individual the basic unit of society, and the gradual transfer of the functions of the kinship network to larger social institutions with more resources at their command. Thus, the conjugal grouping of husband, wife, and children assumes a new independent existence, and becomes the only major familial unit of society.
Many internal features of the conjugal unit also change. Descent loses much of its importance, and the descent system therefore shifts from a matrilineal or patrilineal structure to a bilineal structure. This means that the individual traces his descent through both the father and the mother, and kinship groupings thus become less unified and distinct. This change predated technological society in the Western European family but affects many other family systems in the process of technological development. Choice of spouse becomes primarily the prerogative of the individual, in part because the newly created conjugal unit will find no integral place in a larger network of committed relationships. As larger relational groupings diminish in significance, the conjugal family increases in emotional intensity and in the psychological burden which it must carry. In technological society, the nuclear family unit of husband, wife, and children therefore becomes "the family."
The second major change affecting family life is the loss of family functions. In traditional society, the family provided for most of the needs of its individual members.
First, the traditional family was a major economic unit. Whether the family consisted primarily of farmers, craftsmen, merchants, rulers, or warriors, the individual normally found employment through the family relationship, and most often worked in the context of his own home.
Secondly, the family was a social welfare unit. The sick would be cared for at home by other family members. The aged would live with their younger relatives and would receive material and emotional support from them. Anyone who encountered financial trouble or other types of difficulties would normally seek help from family members. Only after reaching the end of family resources would they seek help from outside the family, from neighbors, a wealthy person in the region, or someone else in the associated village-neighborhood network.
Thirdly, the family was the primary educational unit. Most young people received their basic and technical education from their parents, older brothers and sisters, uncles, aunts, and older cousins. In Western traditional society, a young person's technical education would often be supplemented by apprenticeship to an unrelated adult, but even in the new setting the young person would become part of the master's household. Tutors only served in noble and wealthy families, and special schools, as developed later, would be only for those receiving professional training. In Western society, schooling did not become common for wealthier bourgeois children until the seventeenth century, and mass education was a product of the nineteenth century.
Fourthly, the family was often a unit of defense and protection. Families were frequently armed. Families often served as units in citizen armies, and they sometimes had the responsibility and legal right to punish certain offenses committed against family members (i.e., the right of blood vengeance).
Family functions vary from society to society and from time to time within the history of a society. Nonetheless, it is generally true that an individual in traditional society spent much of his life within his family and under the care of his family. The basic unit of society was the family, not the individual.
In technological society, most of the functions once associated with family life are transferred to the realm of mass institutions. Economic life occurs within distinct economic institutions (businesses, factories, offices) separated from people's homes. Hospitals, clinics, doctors, and nurses care for the sick, and most people are born and die in a medical institution apart from the family. Infirm aged are cared for in hospitals, convalescent homes, and retirement centers. Financial support is provided by insurance agencies, loan agencies, social security systems, and welfare departments. Most education (except for the earliest stages) occurs at a school or on the job. Religious education is provided by Sunday school or catechism class. Police and standing armies assume all defense functions. Even leisure becomes less the province of the family, and more the province of peer groups and "friends."
The family only retains the functions of reproduction and early childhood training, and emotional and personal support. In fact, the burden of emotional support falls more heavily on the nuclear family as kinship ties and neighborhood-type groupings weaken. The family becomes the only place in society where the individual receives stable, unconditional, overall concern. Home is the place where "they have to take you in." As society assigns more and more things to specialized groupings designed for specific purposes, and as an individual's life gets portioned out to different groups and institutions, the technological family loses many of the functions which the family performed in traditional society.
Consequences for Modern Family LifeThe gradual weakening of kinship and neighborhood ties and the loss of family functions which occur in technological society have several significant consequences in family life.
Isolation. First, the conjugal family becomes isolated from other relational groupings which can support the pattern of family life. It is popularly supposed that this isolation strengthens the conjugal family. This view assumes that as the conjugal family becomes more independent of the wider kinship grouping and makes more decisions on its own, it should increase in strength and vitality. In fact, isolation appears to weaken the family. The traditional kinship network has a great interest in the stability of the individual nuclear family. The kinship network strengthens the individual family by placing it in a larger communal setting that reinforces family ties and compensates for individual family weaknesses. The institutions of technological society provide some support for family life, but they cannot replace strong kinship relations.
Emotional Support. Secondly, the nuclear family life tends to be unable to carry the heavy burden for personal and emotional support that technological society lays upon it. In studying the family in technological society, Norman Ryder makes this point:
The competitive and impersonal environment of an occupational structure (for the adult) or of an educational structure (for the child) is psychologically burdensome because it asks much of the individual in discipline and returns little in psychological security. The conjugal family serves as an oasis for the replenishment of the person, providing the individual with stable, diffuse and largely unquestioning support, assuaging the bruises of defeat and otherwise repairing whatever damage may have been done in the achievement-oriented struggles of the outside world. The network of relationships through which one could seek such acceptance without the test of satisfactory performance was once much larger; it encompassed the extended kinship structure and the community of residence…. With the erosion of these alternatives the importance of the immediate family as a source of dependable emotional support becomes enhanced.Technological society is dominated by functional situations which demand much from the individual and give little in return. Since the kinship network is no longer strong enough to assist and other stable relational groupings have weakened or vanished, the conjugal family must shoulder the full burden of this support. In addition, the absence of other family functions tends to make this one function the focal point of family life. This emotional intensity produces a strain on the conjugal family which it is not always able to cope with.
Parents and Children. A third and related consequence of the changes in the family within technological society is a weakened relationship between parents and children. As family functions are attenuated and emotional support becomes the basis of the family relationship, the bond between parents and children grows fragile. Ryder states this point as well:
The links between parent and child, unlike those between husband and wife, are forged during the long and intimate process of interaction required for child socialization. In spite of this solid foundation it is uncertain that those links will survive the child's transition to adulthood, because their structural supports, which are characteristic of a traditional society have now largely vanished. The parents once controlled access to the land and provided most of the training necessary for the child's later work, but now land is not the prime base of production and technical education is acquired outside the family. The shift of the control of rewards and punishments from the family to the society has attenuated the traditional authority of the parent over the child. Deference, respect and gratitude alike have been diluted by the intrusion into the family structure of the alien ideology of individual rights and liberties.Therefore, parents in technological society become less important to their children in every area other than emotional attachment. They provide for less of their children's needs — less of their education and rearing, less of the key to their future life. As they grow older, children rely upon their parents only for financial assistance, and even this need soon disappears. Nor do parents rely upon their children for anything other than some form of emotional support. As technological society develops, children perform less work within the family, and become noncontributing dependents. Parents increasingly provide even for their own old age. The breakdown of structural supports puts considerable pressure on the emotional bond, and in many cases the bond is too unstable to bear the pressure. The father's authority in the family becomes questioned, and the relationships between parents and children as a whole become brittle and unsteady.
The Man's Role. Fourthly, the gradual weakening of kinship ties and the loss of family functions which occur in technological society also affect the role of the husband and father. The adult male familial role narrows in scope, and many of the traditional incentives for assuming this role are eliminated. This can be seen first of all in the separation of work site and home that results from the loss of the family's economic function. Since he must spend a large proportion of his time away from his home and in activities which exclude the participation of other family members (such as young sons), it is more difficult for him to exercise consistent authority over the household and to raise his sons.
In addition, the psychological demands of the functionalized work environment cause many men to use their time away from work as a period of emotional escape, rather than as an opportunity to fulfill the demanding responsibilities of a husband and father. The traditional male role in the family can appear as a difficult extra chore, since it is no longer integrated into the daily fabric of the man's life.
The loss of family functions also diminishes male incentive for fulfilling a paternal role by virtually severing the connection between a man's family and his career, livelihood, and status. In most traditional societies, a man desires offspring as a way of recruiting laborers for the family's economic enterprise, providing for his old age, gaining added physical strength for defense, carrying on his name and lineage, and generally advancing his position and status in society. These incentives no longer exist in technological society. Also, as "deference, respect and gratitude" for the paternal role are "diluted" among the children, the role of father and husband ceases to bring status and honor even within the family. The male familial role thus narrows in scope, and the man has few structural incentives to fulfill even this narrow role.
The Woman's Role. Finally, the changes in family life which occur in technological society seriously undermine the traditional role of women in the family. The woman today who assumes the traditional role of wife, mother, and domestic manager becomes increasingly isolated and dependent. The weakening of kinship ties means that her household role no longer places her in the midst of a lively and attractive set of personal relationships. The loss of family functions means that she no longer participates productively in the economic activities of the family. She thus becomes isolated from economic, social, and political life, and grows more emotionally and financially dependent upon her husband.
At the same time that she becomes isolated, she also finds her traditional household role shrinking in significance. She has fewer children to care for than would a mother in traditional society, and the increasing longevity of people in technological society means that she will spend a much smaller proportion of her life caring for those children. The diminishing significance of family life in all but its emotional aspects means that little of her knowledge and skill is demanded of her while much is demanded of her emotionally.
In addition, the educational institutions of technological society treat men and women alike; thus many women grow up with functional work skills and desire for achievement. This causes a role conflict to develop. As Ryder puts it, "The education system, which typically exhibits less overt discrimination than either the home or the place of work, equips the young woman with capabilities for and interests in non-familial roles. If her aspirations are frustrated, she experiences discontent; if her aspirations are fulfilled, she experiences guilt."
The traditional role of women is also attenuated by trends which detach many women from family units. Women in traditional society were always attached to men and family life. Since their role was primarily internal to household life, they were even less independent of the family than the men were. However, the changes in the family in technological society have altered this condition. More and more women are unattached to men and to family, and not always by the woman's choice. In many sectors of modern Western society it is assumed that females, like males, will eventually become independent of the parental conjugal family. Often they can expect to spend much of their adult lives alone because of a husband's death, divorce, or because they never marry. In traditional society, unmarried and widowed women would automatically become part of a family group. In technological society, being unmarried or widowed usually means being on one's own. In such circumstances it is almost impossible for a woman to fulfill the traditional female role.
The role of women as traditionally defined is thus undermined by the changes in family life which occur in technological society. The female role within the family begins to lose much of its substance. Since the world of work appears to be the only option, many women enter this world. Children tend to be entrusted to various institutions and surrogates, such as the day-care center, school, or television set. The family — the one situation in technological society which has a place for men's and women's roles — diminishes as a significant relational grouping. Personal relationships among men and women occur chiefly in strictly functionalized settings, or in spontaneous, unstructured, and informal friendship groups. In such a social condition, the demands expressed in women's movements arise almost of necessity.
The forces of technological society militate against groupings structured according to a relational principle. The family therefore finds it difficult to inhabit such a society. Family functions are removed, wider support systems are broken down, and roles and relationships become less stable and secure. Yet the family continues to play a role of great significance in technological society, as it must in every society. The family rears the children and provides personal and emotional support. As Ryder points out, many conflicts result from the family's ambiguous position in technological society:
The conjugal family is a relatively efficient design for supplying the kind of labor force a productive society needs and for providing comfort to the individual exposed to the consequences of participation in that system. The family has been the foundation of all systems ascribing status on the basis of characteristics fixed at birth (such as race, sex, ethnic group and frequently social class). Its influence is antithetical to the exercise of productive rationality through equality of opportunity. Yet any attempt at further attenuation of family ties, in the interests of optimal allocation of human resources, would probably be self-defeating because of the high psychological cost to the individual. The family is an essentially authoritarian system persisting within an egalitarian environment. The growth of industrialism has been closely linked to the development of the ideology of individual liberty. Family political structure — the authority of male over female and of parent over child — has no immunity to the implications of this ideological change. Grave internal difficulties may therefore be expected.The position of the family within technological society is precarious. It performs essential functions for the wider society, but in so doing it must operate according to a principle of social structure diametrically opposed to this society. Consequently, the family undergoes serious tensions, and its future in technological society is in question.
Evaluating Technological SocietyTraditional society provides a more hospitable environment for what can be termed the natural structures of society — those structures based on age and sex differences that find primary expression in family life and supply an environment in which people can live and receive personal support, rather than merely work. Technological society fails to come to grips adequately with these natural structures, and thus develops a specific set of social problems.
These problems especially concern those groups of people who are unable to participate fully in the functional world of work.Two such groups are the aged and the dying. Neither group is able to participate functionally in the way demanded by the larger society. In addition, the changes in family life in technological society mean that the aged and the dying can no longer find their place in the family unit. The technological family is constructed in such a way that few adult roles remain after the children have been fully raised. Older people find themselves alone, isolated, separated from constructive life, and without a sense of being able to make a worthwhile contribution. Their age earns them little respect, for they are unable to fill the positions or perform the tasks that give status and honor. The family unit is no longer large enough or cohesive enough to care for the aged, the infirm, and the dying. These people are thus entrusted to mass social institutions or left to care for themselves. They often find their lives purposeless and meaningless, for they have no place or role in the society around them.
In traditional society, the aged, the infirm, and the dying found themselves in a very different position. Although there was a consciousness that age brought failing powers, older people were normally accorded greater respect, partly because their greater experience proved more useful to a younger generation living in a society that did not know rapid change, but also as a consequence of an ascribed status. Age was automatically accorded respect. In addition, the aged were not isolated. Rather, they lived as part of a family group in a home environment where most of the vital functions of society were performed. They could relate actively and constructively to people of all ages. The infirm and the dying also found their place in the family. The size and commitment of the family allowed them to be cared for within a familiar home environment, in the midst of bustling daily life, among a group of people who were personally loyal to them.
Thus, the aged, the infirm, and the dying all found themselves in relational groupings of people who had known them all of their lives and had built up an abiding respect, loyalty, and affection for them. Traditional society was therefore better able to incorporate these people into the whole life of the society. It could do this both because of the strength of the family, and also because functional considerations did not predominate in personal relationships.
In similar fashion, traditional society had a place for the young. Children became a part of normal daily life after their first few years. They quickly began to contribute to the well-being of others and to care for others. They were surrounded by models from whom they could learn. They were confident of their role in life and of the right way to live. They drew their personal identity from their family membership.
On the other hand, the young in technological society are confined to a world of their own populated by other human beings who lack the age and training to be able to function competently. For years they are unable to contribute substantially to the welfare of others, and remain apart from the "real life" of society. They also grow into a world of uncertain values, and they are segregated from an experience of how more mature members of society confront the most important situations in life. The young consequently experience an "identity crisis" and seem increasingly prone to dissatisfaction with themselves and with others.
Finally, as discussed earlier, women occupy a difficult and ambiguous position in technological society. Their traditional role within the household no longer places them in the mainstream of social and economic life. Women thus face a challenging dilemma. If they maintain their traditional role, they become isolated and dependent, and unable to assume a functionally productive role in the larger society. However, if they pursue an occupation and a career, they are less able to care for a family. Many women arrange some compromise between these two alternatives, but some ambiguity and tension normally remains.
The female role operated much differently in traditional society. Because the family was so important to society, women were able to both care for a family and participate in the wider society. There is little evidence that women in traditional society experienced widespread dissatisfaction with their role in society. They knew that they were valued as women, and they could achieve a great deal of respect through fulfilling their womanly role well. In contrast, technological society tends to put less and less value on their role as women, and more value on their functional success as individuals.
The transition from traditional society to technological society has radically altered human social structure. Since the world of the writers of the Scripture was a traditional world, while ours is a technological world, it is not surprising that many Christians find it difficult to understand the scriptural teaching on social structure. The material presented in this chapter should help us to perceive clearly the background of much of this teaching, and thus help us to understand the teaching itself. This material should also help us identify our own preconceptions and presuppositions, as people of the twentieth century, regarding various approaches to social structure. Many people respond negatively to the scriptural teaching because they bring a functional mentality to their reading of scripture.
In addition, the material presented in this chapter should also clarify the genesis and development of the feminist movement. This movement is in part a response to genuine needs and problems. Though the feminist solutions are often inadequate, any adequate Christian approach to the roles of men and women must squarely face these same needs and problems.
(This article originally appeared in "Patriarch Magazine" edited and copyrighted by Phil Lancaster. Used by permission. All rights reserved.)