Assess the extent to which the traditional nuclear family is the norm in contemporary British society

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The nuclear family is one which consists of a monogamous and heterosexual couple who are married with children.  Functionalist sociologists advocate the notion that the nuclear family is the norm in society as it is a vital institution which maintain social cohesion and value consensus.  Postmodernists, however, argue that society has changed, and the structure of the family is now diverse, which should be encouraged.  Ken Browne (2006) claims that only 22% of households are married couples with dependent children, which indicates the nuclear family is no longer the norm.

Although not discussing contemporary British society, Functionalist George Murdock (1949) argues that the family is universal.  He studied 250 societies ranging from agricultural to industrial, and claimed that the nuclear family could be found in every society.  He noted that there were some variances, although he emphasized that in all family forms the nuclear family was the building block

This can be criticized due to the diverse nature of families in contemporary life.  The very notion of the nuclear family being universal is questionable, as various family forms are evident, such as the communal Kibbutz in Israel, and the female headed matrifocal family in African-Caribbean communities.  It can also be argued that other family forms can meet the needs of society and individuals.

Parsons (1951), an American functionalist, argues that the nuclear family is the norm as is meets the needs of society and provides functions for contemporary capitalism by being geographically mobile.  The family unit has two irreducible functions; the primary socialization of the young, involving teaching the norms and values of culture to ensure society remains harmonious and stable, and to ensure the stabilization of the human personality by providing a safe haven, using the analogy of the ‘warm bath’.  This is carried out by a gendered division of labour.  He claims that parents specialize in different roles, which are determined by their biology.  Women carry out the expressive roles within the home; this includes nurturing and caring, whilst the father carries out instrumental roles.  This includes technical tasks and being the breadwinner.

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However, this view is criticized by both Marxists and Feminists who reject the consensus assumptions about the functions a family provides and about who benefits from the family.  Parsons fails to take into account social change which has not only resulted in greater family diversity, such as reconstituted, lone-parent, and childless households, but the increasing symmetrical nature and integrated conjugal roles.  As more women have entered the labour market, men have taken on more domestic and childcare responsibilities, rendering Parsons’ notion of a gendered division of labour obsolete.

A more contemporary functionalist, Robert Chester, argues that earlier functionalists may not ...

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