Where the Heart Is: The Evolution of Family Science

Posted May 1, 2015 | By Tricia Hussung

The Evolution of Family Science

Despite having an almost two-decade long history in America, the field of family science is not widely understood. As family dynamics continue to evolve and change, however, family science scholars and professionals play an important role in navigating new and different social constructs — both within and outside of the home. Long gone are the days of high school home economics classes that taught girls to cook and sew. The modern family science field is making great strides in the research and application of knowledge about the family.

But what is family science, and how is it related to the home economics classes of the past? The answer lies in an interdisciplinary evolution that combines principles from law, sociology, psychology, anthropology, health care and more. According to the National Council on Family Relations (NCFR), family science is a discipline of study in which “the primary goals are the discovery, verification and application of knowledge about the family.” It includes contributions from related academic disciplines as “vital background information,” while developing its own assumptions, paradigms, methodologies and worldview.

The modern family science field comprises the economics and management of the home and community. It combines components from disciplines such as:

  • Consumer science
  • Nutrition
  • Parenting
  • Early childhood education
  • Family economics
  • Research management
  • Human development
  • Human ecology

What’s in a Name? Home Ec and FCS

From 1909 to 1994, family and consumer science was known as home economics. According to the NFCR, the name was officially changed to “signal a formal break from the field’s association with domesticity, highlighting instead issues of family and consumption.” The field as a whole may have moved beyond the household, but the original function of home economists remains key to both the consumer and community experience. Modern Americans still use home economics skills in daily life. In fact, some of these values “express a national identity and assert a standard of living that is distinct from … the cultures of other industrialized nations …. Even as luxury consumption exerts a cultural pull for many, the [modern] middle class still celebrates consumers who make sensible, controlled choices in the marketplace.”

Officially labeling such an interdisciplinary field continues to be somewhat of a challenge even today. Although it is occasionally referred to as human sciences, home science and domestic economy, many experts feel that these terms only partially represent the field’s dynamic nature. The American Association of Family and Consumer Sciences state that the “family and consumer sciences” label does a better job of effectively “cover[ing] aspects outside of home life and wellness.” According to the American Association of Consumer Sciences, the field has four main areas of practice:

  • Improving individual, family and community wellbeing
  • Impacting the development, delivery and evaluation of consumer goods and services
  • Influencing the creation of public policy
  • Shaping social change

In a practical sense, this means that family science “deals with the relation between individuals, families and communities, and the environment in which they live.” As a group of professions, it includes both educators and human services professionals that focus on individuals and families living in society throughout the human lifespan, from infancy to geriatrics. One of the central strengths of the field is its interdisciplinary nature, which allows for the development of a wide variety of perspectives that can be applied to different aspects of the human and community experience.

The History of Home Economics

To understand how far the field of family science has come, it is helpful to establish its long and impressive history as home economics. Over 150 years ago, Catherine Beecher was one of the first to advocate for the economics involved in running a home. With the Morrill Act in 1862, land grant colleges began educating women in how to run a household while their husbands were learning agricultural methods. States like Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Illinois and Michigan were some of the first to offer these programs for women. They covered topics related to “domestic science,” and these courses formed the basis of the home economics discipline.

The History of Home Economics

Progress and Change

In 1889, Ellen Swallow Richards and a group of contemporaries met for the first time to collaborate and explore advances in home economics. They formed “an education and scientific association” in an effort to formalize their purpose and create professional opportunities for women. These original home economists found a receptive audience among many of their young female followers, who “expressed interest in learning about how to improve their homes, spend their leisure time, and make decisions about what to buy, what to make at home, and even what books to read.” Home economics education prepared students for homemaking as well as career placement in education, the food industry, textiles, hotel management and even nonprofit organizations. When women had a strong background in these topics, it was “a great stepping stone for women to enter the job sector.”

In January of 1909, the American Home Economics Association (AHEA) was formed. Throughout the 20th century, federal and state government acts were passed that helped contribute to the success of the home economics discipline. For example, the George Deen Act of 1936 provided the first federal aid for vocational training of workers and sales personnel. Many more vocational acts in the 1960s and 1970s helped to “fund the research and continuation of the field,” which in turn increased opportunities and rights for women’s education.

In 1993, modern home economists met in Scottsdale, Arizona to define the role of the field in the new millennium. As a result of the Scottsdale conference, the name of the AHEA was changed to the American Association of Family and Consumer Science (AAFCS). Then in 1994, leading organizations and programs made the decision to change the name of the field as a whole to family and consumer science, leaving the home economics label in the past. This served to more accurately reflect the complexity of the profession, as well as meeting “the current challenges facing individuals, families and communities,” according to the AAFCS. Over the years, the content covered by home economics had changed, and the new name reflected the shift.

Family Science Today

Modern Family Science

The central reason that home economics has made the transition to the family science field we know today is the complex social and economic issues that modern families and communities face. As an applied science, family science has evolved to keep pace with advances in both science and technology. With an emphasis on current issues and skills for living successfully in today’s global society, the AAFCS is constantly evolving. Over 100 years after the founding of the first professional family science organization, professionals in the field practice in a variety of contexts, including education, research, community outreach, human services, nutrition and more.

21st-Century Practice

The AAFCS has this to say about modern family science practice: “While our history informs what we teach, investigate and share through practice, any discussion of the body of knowledge in family and consumer sciences must take into account external influences and trends.” When the AAFCS met in January of 2000 to discuss how the family science field would transition to the new millennium, the following key trends were identified as some of the most relevant to modern research and practice:

  • Aging population: By 2030, over half of all American adults will be age 50 or older.
  • Digital technology and globalization: The information revolution is transforming society and creating new careers, industries and ways of working, living and earning.
  • The American family: The majority of families with children will raise them without the presence of both biological parents; families are smaller; marriage is less central.
  • Sustainability: Healthy ecological neighborhoods depend on sustainable practices.
  • Ethnicity: By 2020, America will not have a majority ethnic or racial group.
  • Income gap: The income gap continues to grow larger.

These issues, referred to by the AAFCS as a “body of knowledge,” represent the philosophical framework for the future of the field as a whole, while preserving the “distinctive essentials” of family science.

Modern Career Paths

Today’s family science professionals practice in multiple settings. From early childhood education and community outreach to human services and research, the end goal for family science professionals is to help individuals, families and communities make informed decisions to improve their quality of life. Earning a degree in family science provides students with “the knowledge, skills and abilities needed for a successful career in a variety of fields,” according to the NFCR. The following are just some of the career paths that are open to family science graduates. Note that advanced degrees and state licensure are required for some positions.

Areas and Focus of Practice

  • Administration: Family science professionals often work in government and social services agencies, along with family policy advocacy organizations, corporate businesses and consulting.
  • Marriage and family therapy: Marriage, couple and family therapy draws on the ability of family science professionals to understand relationships and dynamics.
  • Child life: According to the NFCR, child life specialists provide “emotional support for families and encourage optimum development of children facing a broad range of challenging experiences, particularly those related to health care and hospitalization.”
  • Research: A family science professional with an advanced degree can contribute to the field by expanding the current body of knowledge and conducting evaluations of programs and services. This research can be completed in settings such as universities, government agencies, businesses, advocacy organizations and the nonprofit sector.
  • Education: Some family science graduates become certified family life educators. These professionals “empower families by recognizing family strengths and teaching new knowledge, skills and abilities.” They work in various community settings such as human service agencies, the courts system, faith communities and more. 

Education and Certification

Many individuals with a passion for helping others and community service choose to pursue a career in family science. A comprehensive education in family science allows students to become practitioners in this dynamic and interdisciplinary field.

At Concordia University, St. Paul, students can choose from online family science degree programs at both the undergraduate and graduate level. These programs expose students to key topic areas in family science such as:

  • Family law
  • Stages of development
  • Family systems
  • Social issues
  • Economics
  • Parenting

This background of study prepares students for a wide variety of family science careers, in settings such as those discussed previously. Both of Concordia’s family science programs are approved by the NCFR, and undergraduate students have the option to choose a certified track. Because coursework is endorsed by the NCFR, this certified track enables students to earn the designation of Certified Family Life Educator without sitting for the certifying exam.

Next Steps

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Discover how your passion for community and social service can lead to a meaningful, successful career. Learn more about Concordia University, St. Paul’s online family science degree programs to get started.