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Sociology of the family

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Sociology of the family

The sociology of the family examines the family as an institution and a unit of socialization. This unit of socialization is identified through various sociological perspectives; particularly with regards to the relationship between the nuclear family and industrial capitalism, and the different gender roles and concepts of childhood which arose with it.


  • Focus 1
  • Methodology 2
  • Sociology of interracial intimacy 3
  • Pre-modern family life and religious discourse 4
  • Sociology of marriage 5
  • Divorce 6
  • Sociology of motherhood 7
  • Sociology of fatherhood 8
    • Science of parenting 8.1
  • Alternate family forms 9
  • Sociology of childhood 10
    • History 10.1
    • Recent trends 10.2
    • Current tasks 10.3
  • Journals 11
  • See also 12
  • References 13
  • Further reading 14
  • External links 15


Sociological studies of the family look at:

  • demographic characteristics of the family members: family size, age, ethnicity, and gender of the members
  • social class of the family, the economic level and mobility of the family, the professions of its members, the education levels of the family members
  • what spheres of life are important in and to the family unit
  • the effect of social change on the family
  • the interactions of the family with other social organizations.
  • diversity of family forms in contemporary societies in relation to ideology, gender differences, and state policies such as those concerned with marriage
  • interaction between family members within the family. How they rely on one another. How they work together/rely on the work of someone in the family.

Examples of specific issues looked at include:

  • Changing roles of family members. Each member is restricted by the sex roles of the traditional family. These roles such as the father as the worker and the mother as the homemaker are declining. The mother is becoming the supplementary provider and she retains the responsibilities of child rearing. Therefore the female role in the labor force is “compatible with the demands of the traditional family.”[1] Sociology studies the adaptation of the males role to caregiver as well as provider. The gender roles are increasingly interwoven.
  • Increase in sole occupancy dwellings and smaller family sizes
  • Average age of marriage being older
  • Average number of children decreasing and first birth at later age
  • The historical pattern of fertility, from baby boom to baby bust (instability)
  • The ageing population, and the trend towards greater life expectancy
  • Rising divorce rates and people who will never marry[1]
  • How the choices of the parents affect their children
  • Same sex couples and marriages
  • Children of same sex couples


Research methods in the sociology of the family can be broken down to three major approaches, each with its own strengths and weaknesses; which need be employed in a study, then, relies largely on the subject of, and questions posed by, the research.

One approach is survey research of contemporary families. This holds the benefit of leaving statistical data and large and hopefully random samples from which a researcher can interpolate the general traits of a society. However, survey respondents tend to answer as would feel regular or ideal rather than as things might actually be. It also gives a very one-sided explanation view of a larger group, which does not sufficiently allow for contention. The information is often outdated, not representing the true statistics of the world. The information can also be deceiving and not represent the true points that the surveys and graphs are representing.

Another method is ethnographic research of families. Where surveys allow for broad but shallow analyses, observation allows sociologists to obtain rich information on a source of a much more limited size. It allows the research an "insider" perspective, and through this closer look, a better idea of the actual social framework of families. Where surveys are strong, however, ethnographic research is weak. By reducing the size of a sample size, it may be no longer evident as to how representative the family being researched on is, to families at large within a society, and then also does not allow much room in linking the specific traits of the families being observed to a society more generally.

Finally, a researcher can use documented studies of families from the past as a source of information. These sources may include very personal items (such as diaries), legal records (census data, wills, court records), and matters of public record (such as sermons).

Sociology of interracial intimacy

The construction of race in Western society and, to a degree, globally, has led to a distinct view of interracial intimacy. Although interracial relationships and marriages have become far more popular and socially acceptable in the United States and Western Europe since the Civil Rights era, these unions continue to be viewed with less than total acceptance by significant portions of the population. More historically, American Families by Stephanie Coontz treats the difficulties these couples went through during the time before Loving v. Virginia, when interracial marriage bans were declared unconstitutional. These bans functioned to enforce the one-drop rule and reenforce identity and privilege. Internationally, the far right continues to promote ideas of racial purity by working against the normalization of interracial couples and families.

Pre-modern family life and religious discourse

Historically, religious discourses have played a significant role in constituting family members and constructing particular forms of behavior in families, and religion has been particularly important in discourses on female sexuality. An example of the role of religion in this respect was the'witchcraft craze' in Medieval Europe. According to Turner,[2] this was a device to regulate the behavior of women, and the attack on women as witches was principally 'a critique of their sexuality'. 'Women were closely associated with witchcraft, because it was argued that they were particularly susceptible to the sexual advances of the devil. ...Women were seen to be irrational, emotional and lacking in self-restraint; they were especially vulnerable to satanic temptation.'

Turner argues that attempts to regulate female sexuality through religious discourse have, in the case of Western Europe, to be understood in the context of concerns about managing private property and ensuring its continuity. Thus, for the land-owning aristocracy, the point of marriage was to produce a male heir to the property of the household. Since child mortality was common, women had to be more or less continuously pregnant during their marriage to guarantee a living male heir. Furthermore, this heir had to be legitimate, if disputes over inheritance were to be avoided. This legitimacy could only be ensured by the heads of households marrying virgins and ensuring the chastity of their wives for the duration of the marriage. Equally,daughters had to be sexually pure if they were to be eligible for marriage to other property-holding families. Such marriages were prompted solely by the need to produce children and had none of the elements of eroticism and sexual compatibility of contemporary marriages.

In pre-modern Europe, these interests were reflected in the character of marriages. They were private, arranged contracts that could be easily dissolved in the event of child production being compromised by the woman's infertility or infidelity. With the entry of the Church into marriage arrangements, different definitions of marriage emerged. Lifelong marriages were demanded,but with a concern to regulate sexuality, particularly the sexuality of women.

Sociology of marriage

In the Judeo-Christian belief system marriage is modeled after Adam and Eve's lifetime commitment between man and woman. The married couple produces children, constituting the nuclear family. Some sociologists now dispute the degree to which this idealized arrangement has and does reflect the true structure of families in American society. In her 1995 article The American Family and the Nostalgia Trap, sociologist Stephanie Coontz first posited that the American family has always been defined first and foremost by its economic needs. For instance, in colonial times families often relied on slaves or indentured servants to support themselves economically. The modern “breadwinner-homemaker model,” argues Coontz, then has little historical basis. Only in the 1950s did the myth of the happy, nuclear family as the correct family structuration arise.[3]

"The modern family is increasingly complex and has changed profoundly, with greater acceptance for unmarried cohabitation, divorce, single-parent families, same-sex partnerships and complex extended family relations. Grandparents are also doing their bit."[4]

To paraphrase the quote, family structure is changing drastically and there is a vast variety of different family structures.

Yet Coontz argues in Marriage, A History that during the 20th century, marriages have become increasingly unstable in the United States as individuals have begun to seek unions for the ideals of love and affection rather than social or economic expediency.[5] This transition has blurred the division of labor within the breadwinner-homemaker model, such that maintenance of the household and childcare, called the “second shift,” are now topics for debate between marital partners. Sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild argues in The Second Shift that despite changes in perceptions of the purpose of marriage and the economic foundations for marriage, women continue to do the bulk of care work to the detriment of the American family. Hochschild illustrates the ways in which an unequal division of the second shift undermines family welfare by reducing marital equality and spousal satisfaction.[6]


Divorce Rates in Canada and the United States fluctuated in a similar pattern, though the United States still has the highest divorce rate in the world (50% higher than Canada’s).[7] Many of today’s marriages end up in divorce, for many different reasons. The following are some of the most common causes:

  1. Individualism: In today’s society, families spend more time apart than they do together. Some individuals in a family focus more on personal happiness and earning income to support their family that it consumes the time actual spent with their family.
  2. Feelings are no longer mutual: Many people end marriages because they are no longer satisfied by sexual needs or merely because they have lost feelings for one another. This often happens when one partner finds a more exciting relationship and chooses to move forward with that new relationship. In some cases, a partner may even commit adultery which also may result in a divorce as a partner discovers their partner being unfaithful to them.
  3. Women have become more independent: Now that women have equal rights and have proven over time that they have the potential and ability to support themselves, women find it much easier to leave unhappy marriages. They are also more work focused, thus giving them less time to cope with their relationship.
  4. Stress: Stress is a big factor in marriages. Working to support a family, while trying to stabilize finances is a big factor of stress. Also, with both partners working (in most cases), leaves less “family time” which makes raising children difficult. This often happens in the stage where couples are raising young children.
  5. Socially acceptable: In today’s generation, divorce is now more socially acceptable. Now, instead of discouraging a divorce in an unsatisfying relationship, it is more widely accepted and sometimes even encouraged. Not only is it now more acceptable, but it is also easier to get a divorce legally than it was in previous years according to the Divorce Act of 1968.

Sociology of motherhood

In many cultures, especially in a traditional

  • American Sociological Association Family Section
  • Research network on families and intimate lives of the European Sociological Association
  • Kearl's Guide to the Sociology of the Family
  • Family Facts: Social Science Research on Family, Society & Religion (a Heritage Foundation site)
  • The Family Inequality Blog by Philip N. Cohen

External links

  • Alanen, L. and Mayall, B. (Eds.) (2001): Conceptualizing Child-adult Relations, London.
  • Christensen, P. and James, A. (Eds) (2008) Research with Children: Perspectives and Practices, London: FalmerRoutledge.
  • Bass, L. (Ed.) (2005): Sociological Studies of Children and Youth, Vol. 10, Amsterdam.
  • The Blackwell Companion to the Sociology of Families, Wiley-Blackwell, 2003. ISBN 0-631-22158-1
  • Buehler-Niederberger, D. (1998): The Separative View. Is there any Scientific Approach to Children. in D.K. Behera (Ed.), Children and Childhood in our Contemporary Societies. Delhi: Kamla-Raj Enterprises, pp. 51–66.
  • Randall Collins and Scott Coltrane (2000): Sociology of Marriage and the Family: Gender, Love, and Property, Wadsworth Pub Co, Chicago.
  • Corsaro, William (2005). The Sociology of Childhood. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.
  • Edgar, Don & Patricia (2008), The New Child: in search of smarter grown-ups, Wilkinson Publishing, Melbourne, Australia.
  • James, A. and Prout, A. (Eds) (1997) Constructing and Reconstructing Childhood London: FalmerRoutledge (2nd Revised Edition).
  • James, A., Jenks, C. and Prout, A. (1998) Theorizing Childhood, Cambridge: Polity Press.
  • Jenks, Chris (2005): Childhood (2nd edition), New York.
  • Nicholas Long and Rex Forehand (2002): Making Divorce Easier on Your Child: 50 Effective Ways to Help Children Adjust, Contemporary Books, Chicago.
  • David Newman (2008): Families: A Sociological Perspective, McGraw-Hill Higher Education, Boston Mass.
  • Parsons, Talcot. (1955). Family, Socialization and Interaction Process. Robert F. Bales and James Olds. Free press.
  • Prout, A. (2004): The Future of Childhood. Towards the Interdisciplinary Study of Children, London.
  • Prout, A. and Hallett, Ch. (Eds.) (2003): Hearing the Voices of Children: Social Policy for a New Century, London.
  • Qvortrup, J. et al. (Eds.) (1994): Childhood Matters. Social Theory, Practice and Politics. Wien, Avebury.
  • Brian Williams, Stacey Sawyer and Carl Wahlstrom (2008): Marriages, families, and intimate relationships: A practical Introductions (2nd Edition), Pearson, Boston.
  • Zelizer, Vivianne A. (1985): Pricing the Priceless Child. The Changing Social Value of Children. New York.

Further reading

  1. ^ a b Bittman, M. and Pixley, J. (1997) The Double Life of the Family, Myth, Hope and Experience. Allen and Unwin, Sydney.
  2. ^ Turner, B. (1987). Medical Power and Social Knowledge, London, Sage.
  3. ^ Coontz, Stephanie. "The American Family and the Nostalgia Trap." Phi Delta Kappan. 76:7 (1995): Print. Pp. K7.
  4. ^ Evans, Steve. "Is the nuclear family a happier one?". BBC iWonder. Retrieved 10 November 2014. 
  5. ^ Coontz, Stephanie. Marriage, A History. 1st. Viking Adult, 2005. Print.
  6. ^ Hochschild, A.R. & Machung, A. (2003). The Second Shift. New York: Penguin Books. Pp. 282.
  7. ^ Macionis, J. J., & Gerber, L. M. (2011). Sociology (7th ed.). Toronto, ON: Pearson.
  8. ^ a b Rosen, Ruth. "Soap to ploughshares: How to return Mother's Day to its original meaning." Slate.
  9. ^ West Virginia State Archives. "Ann Maria Reeves Jarvis." WVA&H West Virginia Archives & History. West Virginia Division of Culture and History, 2009. Web. 9-25-2009.
  10. ^ Liu, William M. "Exploring the Lives of Asian American Men: Racial Identity, Male Role Norms, Gender Role Conflicts, and Prejudicial Attitudes." Psychology of Men & Masculinity. 2002, Vol. 3, No. 2, 107-118. 2002. PDF.
  11. ^ Brogan, Benedict (8 September 2000). "Paternity leave plan to help bosses". The Telegraph. 
  12. ^ Livingston, Gretchen; D'vera, John. "The New Demography of American Motherhood."
  13. ^ a b Goudreau, Jenna. "When Should You Become a Mom."
  14. ^ Maurice Godelier, Métamorphoses de la parenté, 2004
  15. ^ Goody, Jack. "The Labyrinth of Kinship". New Left Review. Retrieved 2007-07-24. 
  16. ^  
  17. ^ Fisher, Tim. "Fatherhood and the British Fathercraft Movement, 1919-39." Interscience. John Wiley & Sons Inc, 1999-2009. Web. 9-25-09.
  18. ^ Golinkoff, Roberta. "Baby Talk: Communicating with your child—Roberta Golinkoff, PhD-10/2/2003." MedicineNet, 1969-2009. Web. 9-25-09.
  19. ^ a b c d e f g h Macionis, J. J., & Gerber, L. M. (2011). Sociology, seventh Canadian edition. Toronto, Ontario: Pearson
  20. ^ Australian Institute of Family Studies. "Family Matters". Retrieved 29 December 2008. 


See also

  • Family Matters by Australian Institute of Family Studies, ISSN: 1030-2646[20]
  • International Journal of Sociology of the Family
  • Journal of Family History
  • Journal of Marriage and Family
  • Journal of Family Issues


Questions about socialization practices and institutions remain central in childhood research. But, they are being dealt with in a new, more sociological way. To analyze socialization processes means, therefore, to reconstruct the historically and culturally varying conceptions, processes and institutions of disciplining and civilization of the offspring. In addition, the strategies of habitus formation and the practices of status (re-)production are considered. The sociology of social inequality and the sociology of the family and private life are, therefore, important fields for childhood sociologists. Children's own action, their resistance, cooperation, and collective action among peers has to be taken into account. Meanwhile widespread anthropological assumptions concerning a universal human nature, based on a view of individual and society as opposed to each other, should be omitted from the conceptual repertoire of sociological childhood research. They are the legacy of the older socialization approach and they legitimate some forms of childhood and education practices as indispensable and even as a “natural” requirement of society, while devaluing others. In this way they generally legitimate western middle class childhood and mask inequality and the interests of social order.

Current tasks

The Hybridity of Childhood: This discussion is more critical (though not dismissive) of the social constructionist approaches that have dominated the sociology of childhood since the 1990s. More open to materialist perspectives, it seeks an interdisciplinary path that recognizes the biological as well as the social and cultural shaping of childhood and holds open the possibility of an interdisciplinary Childhood Studies emergent from current multi-disciplinary efforts. Representatives of this trend include Alan Prout (The Future of Childhood: towards the interdisciplinary study of children, 2005, as well as younger scholars such as Peter Kraftl at the University of Leicester.

The generational order: The second approach centers on socio-structural and socio-theoretical questions concerning social equality and social order in a society, which categorizes their members by age and segregates them in many respects (rights, deeds, economical participation, ascribed needs etc.). These issues can be summarized under the overall concept of the generational order. Thus the categorization of societal members by age is far from being an innocent representation of natural distinctions, but rather a social construction of such a “natural truth”. It is, therefore, a relevant component of social order and deeply connected to other dimensions of social inequality. Social and economic changes and socio-political interventions thus become central topics in childhood sociology. The analysis of these issues has increased awareness of the generational inequality of societies.

The child as a social actor: This approach derives from youth sociology as well as ethnography. Focusing on everyday life and the ways children orient themselves in society, it engages with the cultural performances and the social worlds they construct and take part in. Theory and research methodology approach children as active participants and members of society right from the beginning. Thus they are neither analyzed as outsiders to society nor as merely ‘emergent’ members of society. Therefore, the sociology of childhood distinguishes itself from the established concepts of socialisation research and developmental psychology of the last decades.

The current Sociology of childhood is organized around three central discussions:

Recent trends

In the last two or three decades the sociology of childhood has gained increasing attention and triggered numerous empirical studies as well as intensive theoretical disputes, starting in the Scandinavian and the English-speaking countries. Up to this time, sociology had approached children and childhood mainly from a socialization perspective, and the emergence of the new childhood sociological paradigm ran parallel to the feminist critique of sociological traditions. Childhood sociologists attacked the “adultocentric” approach and the “separative view” of sociology towards children. Not surprisingly, then, the key works in the sociology of childhood are quite interdisciplinary, linking history, cultural studies, ethnomethodology, and pedagogy. Key texts include James and Prout's Constructing and Reconstructing Childhood (1990/1997), James, Jenks and Prout Theorizing Childhood (1998)and Prout's The Future of Childhood (2005). On methodological issues in research with children see Research with Children, edited by Christensen and James (2008).


The values learned during childhood are important in the development and socialization of children. The family is considered to be the agency of primary socialisation and the first focal socialisation agency.

Sociology of childhood

Singlehood This type of family contains a person who is not married or in a common law relationship. They share a relationship with a partner and they lead a single life style.

Gay and lesbian couples Gay and Lesbian couples are categorized as same sex relationships. In 1989 Denmark was the first nation allow same sex couples to get married to provide equal rights to all citizens.[19] After this many nations began to allow same sex marriages to occur such as Canada and Spain (2005).[19] Some states in the United States have changed their laws to allow same sex marriages but 30 states have yet to amend their laws and allow same sex marriage.[19]

Cohabitation A residence containing an unmarried couple is called cohabitation. This type of family style is becoming increasingly accepted in Canada and has increased from 8% in 1981 to 16.4% in 2001.[19] In Sweden and Nordic communities this family form is quite common, with or without the inclusion of children. However in various Catholic regions such as Italy this is uncommon due to the religious aspects (See Catholic marriage).

One-parent families In Canada, one parent families have become popular since 1961 when only 8.4 percent of children were being raised by a single parent.[19] In 2001, 15.6 percent of children were being raised by a single parent.[19] The number of single parent families continue to rise, while it is four times more likely that the mother is the parent raising the child.The high percentage of mothers becoming the sole parent is sometimes due to the result of a divorce, unplanned pregnancy or the inability to find a befitting partner. Children who are raised by a single parent are commonly at a disadvantage due to the characteristics of parenting. A mother and father both make significant contributions to the development of a child, therefore one parents ability to raise a child on their own may be hindered.

The number of married couples raising children has decreased over the years. In Canada, married and common law couples with children under the age of 25 represented 44% of all families in 2001.[19] This statistic has lowered since 1991, when married and common law couples raising children under the age of 25 represented 49 percent of all Canadian families.[19] There are various family forms which are becoming increasingly popular in society.

Alternate family forms

The words 'ma ma' and 'mom', usually regarded as terms of endearment directed towards a mother figure, are generally one of the first words a child speaks. While 'da da' or 'dad' often precede it, this does not reflect a stronger bond between the father and child than that of the mother and child, it is merely simpler to pronounce than 'mummy' or 'mum' which require greater control over the mouth muscles. Children tend to remember 'daddy' more because, according to research, they are more exciting to the child.[18]

Described as 'the science of male parenting', the study of 'father craft' emerged principally in Britain and the USA (but also throughout Europe) in the 1920s. "Male adjuncts to Maternity and Infant Welfare Centers – reacted to the maternal dominance in infant welfare and parenting in interwar Britain by arguing that fathers should play a crucial role in the upbringing of children."[17] Were such a study to be conducted into the science of female parenting, it would be called mother craft.

Science of parenting

However, this limited role has increasingly been called into question. Since the 1950s, social scientists as well as feminists have increasingly criticized gendered arrangements of work and care, and the male breadwinner role, and policies are increasingly targeting men as fathers, as a tool of changing gender relations.[16]

As with cultural concepts of family, the specifics of a father's role vary according to cultural folkways. In what some sociologists term the "bourgeois family", which arose out of typical 16th- and 17th-century European households and is considered by some the "traditional Western" structure, the father's role has been somewhat limited. In this family model the father acts as the economic support and sometimes disciplinarian of the family, while the mother or other female relative oversees most of the childrearing. This structure is enforced, for example, in societies which legislate "maternity leave" but do not have a corresponding "paternity leave."

In many cultures, especially traditional western, a father is usually the husband in a married couple. Many times fathers have a very important role in raising offspring and the title can be given to a non-biological father that fills this role. This is common in stepfathers (males married to biological mothers). In East Asian and Western traditional families, fathers are the heads of the families, which means that their duties include providing financial support and making critical decisions, some of which must be obeyed without question by the rest of the family members.

According to anthropologist Maurice Godelier, a critical novelty in human society, compared to humans' closest biological relatives (chimpanzees and bonobos), is the parental role assumed by the males, which were unaware of their "father" connection.[14][15]

Sociology of fatherhood

In the United States, 82.5 million women are mothers of all ages, while the national average age of first child births is 25.1 years. In 2008, 10% of births were to teenage girls, and 14% were to women ages 35 and older.[12] In the United States, a study found that the average woman spends 5 years working and building a career before having children, and mothers working non-salary jobs began having children at age 27, compared to mothers with salary positions, who became pregnant at age 31.[13] The study shows that the difference in age of child birth is related to education, since the longer a woman has been in school, the older she will be when she enters the workforce.[13] Other factors determining age of first child birth include infertility rates, when women meet their partners, and the age of marriage.

Families are often influenced by the media portrayal of the way women should run their families. In the book Media and Middle-Class Moms by Descartes, women are often influenced by the social norms, and it is often the reason as to why they believe staying home or working is the right thing to do while having a family. See Ideology of Motherhood.

Some view the mother's duties as raising and looking after children. Despite this, mothers are often criticized for not contributing to the family income but the lack of economic contribution is often due to the time required to raise the child(ren), which restricts potential working time. Often, if the mother is out working, many people view her as abandoning her children and not giving them the best life . In this situation, there is no positive portrayal of the mother.

However, this limited role has increasingly been called into question. Both feminist and masculist authors have decried such predetermined roles as unjust. A nascent father's rights movement seeks to increase the legal standing of fathers in everything from child-custody cases to the institution of paid paternity leave or family leave. The European Working Time Directive allows parents to take 13 weeks of unpaid leave at any time in the first five years of a child's life.[11]

As with cultural concepts of family, the specifics of a mother's role vary according to cultural mores. In what some sociologists term the "bourgeois family", which arose out of typical 16th- and 17th-century European households and is often considered the "traditional Western" structure, the father's role has been somewhat limited. In this family model the father acts as the economic support and sometimes disciplinarian of the family, while the mother or other female relative oversees most of the childrearing. This structure is reflected, for example, in societies which legislate "maternity leave" but do not have corresponding "paternity leave".

In East Asian and Western traditional families, fathers were the heads of the families, which meant that his duties included providing financial support and making critical decisions, some of which must have been obeyed without question by the rest of the family members. "Some Asian American men are brought up under stringent gender role expectations such as a focus on group harmony and filial piety, carrying on their family name and conforming to the expectations of the parents."[10]

(female married to biological father). In most family structures the mother is both a biological parent and a primary caregiver. stepmothers Mothers frequently have a very important role in raising offspring and the title can be given to a non-biological mother that fills this role. This is common in [8] Anna died in 1905 and her daughter created a National Mother's Day to honor her mother.[9][8]

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