Sociology and the Family

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Sociology and the Family

Many sociologists share the consensus that the family unit is an integral component of society. Defined as a body of people living together or close by who are affiliated through kinship ties or marriage, many variations and modifications are evident in Britain today.

There has been a distinct evolution of the family unit since the preindustrial period.  Functionalists believe the nuclear family thrived with the onset of industrialisation and early capitalism. Before this period, living habits and social structures were vastly different.

According to some functionalists, the most common preindustrial family form in Western Europe was the extended family. Multigenerational households cohabited, working by hand and sharing duties. Farming was the predominant occupation with the majority of the population living in the countryside. Before industrialisation took place, approximately 75% of the population worked in agriculture (Porter, 2004). According to sociologists Peter Willmott and Michael Young (1973) “The division of labour was presided over by the husband. He was not just the husbandman. He was the undisputed master” (p. 67). Changes were brought about with the onset of industrialisation, when the development of machines made hand workers redundant. Migration to the cities ensued with the public working for longer hours and smaller wages in the factories. Specialised agencies were established, fulfilling the regular functions of the family. Whereas local churches previously provided education, city schools were now offering such services. No longer did the family fully socialise children. Furthermore, handouts and financial funding became available, leading to less reliance on kin.

With the elderly too old to relocate, family resources became sparse – forcing the whole family into work. Geographical mobility paired with laborious work resulted in less contact between kin, thus the divergence from the extended family and the emergence of the nuclear family.

American anthropologist George Peter Murdock considers the nuclear family to be ideal. Murdock (1949) defined the family as follows:

The family is a social group characterized by common residence, economic cooperation and reproduction. It includes adults of both sexes, at least two of whom maintain a socially approved sexual relationship, and one or more children, own or adopted, of the sexually cohabiting adults. (p. 1)

In short, Murdock hypothesised that the majority of families live and work together, amassing their resources. The male and female reproduce, bearing at least one child.

Murdock (1949) examined family structures in a broad range of societies. An array of family forms were discovered. Additionally, they all contained the basic “nucleus,” consisting of a husband, wife and offspring. Murdock proposed that this arrangement was found in every known society. Hence, the nuclear family was realised.

The apparent prevalence of the nuclear family is deemed favourable by functionalists. They ascertain that the nuclear family is a positive institution, accrediting their functions (primary socialisation – the ingraining of values during childhood, reproduction – married couples bearing children and economic support – parents providing financial support for said children) as beneficial for society. Sociologist Talcott Parsons (1956) professed “Only the nuclear family unit could effectively provide the achievement orientated and geographically mobile workforce required by modern industrial economies” (p. 67).

Functionalist theory is generally critiqued by Marxists, feminists and historians alike. Marxists dispute functionalistic theories, believing that the nuclear family is far from flawless as it perpetuates a capitalist society. Marxists and feminists reject the notion that society is a harmonious infrastructure, yet alternatively suggesting that it exists solely for the benefit of capitalists or men, respectively.

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Marxist Friedrich Engels (1984) suggested that the monogamous nuclear family developed to resolve inheritance problems. Male offspring were shaped to be suitable heirs for the family assets. Thus, the nuclear family was designed to control women and protect property, conserving patriarchalism .

The “cereal packet” nuclear family is typically portrayed by the media as idealistic. Comprising of man, wife and one or two children, the woman is presented as the willing housewife, and the man as “breadwinner.” Feminists have a dismal viewpoint of this setup, with feminist Fran Ansley wildly proclaiming “When wives play their traditional role as ...

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