A Case for Qualitative Methods in U.S. Family Demography: Understanding the Meaning of Unmarried Cohabitation
Demographic knowledge about the family in the United States has been grounded in quantitative data and analysis. This is both appropriate and unsurprising given that a central mission for family demographers is to attain understandings of family structures and processes that can be generalized to various populations. This paper argues, however, that to fully understand the family and particularly new family forms, it is important to include qualitative approaches as well. Using the example of unmarried cohabitation, we first develop a conceptualization of cohabitation, combining sociological understandings of the family as a societal institution with insights derived from symbolic interactionism. We then argue that our conceptualization implies that qualitative, as well as quantitative, research methods are necessary for understanding family forms. Finally, we discuss possible barriers to fully endorsing qualitative methods by demographers studying the United States.