The Nuclear family

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Mark Cole  

Contemporary society recognises the family as a ‘Nuclear Family’ with the father financially supporting the family and the mother (have to be married) looking after their children and their home. The Nuclear family is defined as “consists of two adults living together in a household with their own or adopted children.” (Sociology, 391, 1993). However; due to changes over time including the invention of the pill, allowing both men and women to file for divorce without having to prove adultery and even religion not playing such an important part in peoples lives meant that changes in the family structure became more acceptable and the family has now evolved into a more complex and diverse institution. Prior to the war, it was the norm to be a part of a nuclear family. This family was a stable unit, as divorce was expensive and very much frowned upon. Divorces in 1947 were ten times the pre-war figure due to the legal Aid and Advice Act in 1949; this figure decreased again around 1969/1971 with the introduction of the divorce reform act. Reconstituted and lone parent families are becoming more common, gay and lesbian families are becoming more acceptable in today’s society and in Asian areas around Britain, extended families are also growing. Even people who are unable to have children themselves, adoption or fostering is more available due to the decline in orphanages and is looked at as another family structure in society.These diversities are commonly accepted without question. This essay will explore the diversities from the Second World War on, and their possible causes.

        Following the war, the nuclear family is accepted as the ‘norm’ and is even supported by television advertisements. Leach (1967) (cited in Haralambos) called this “the cereal packet family”. These adverts would show the image of a happily married couple with their two children and aimed their products at this particular type of family. This concept of the nuclear family still exists; however as from the beginning of the 21st century there are many more recognised different diverse family types. Study of family and marriage is one of the most important areas of sociological study; different sociologists argue the different functions and structures of the family. The level of interest in research varies according to the perspective. One of the leading areas of research following the war was that of the functionalists. The main premise for the functionalists is a macro approach. They construct theories to explain the whole of the human nature and social institutions. They believe in a human analogy (society is like the human body) in that there is a knock on effect between institutions. One of the main institutions they studied was the family and they believe the family benefits society and performs basic functions. These functions vary depending on which functionalists view is looked at. A positivist approach was used to support these theories, this means that data collected is quantifiable and statistical. A leading theorist from the positivist school of thought is Comte who stated “The only knowledge is scientific knowledge.” (Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 506, 1995). Therefore, functionalists rely on statistics to show trends of family diversity. Murdock a functionalist completed a study of 250 societies and came to the conclusion that all societies perform 4 basic functions, sexual, reproductive, economic, and educational. He believed without these functions society would breakdown, without reproductive functions society would have no members, the loss of economic functions would cause life to cease, lack of education would cause the loss of culture and without culture society would not function. Murdock has been criticised for his theories in his failing to examine alternatives to the nuclear family and stated it was too harmonious. Talcott Parsons undertook a similar study, but only on modern America and concluded that there were only 2 basic functions and that these would exist in all families in all societies. He noted the functions as being “primary socialisation of children” and the “stabilisation of the adult personalities of the population of society” Parsons was also criticised for failing to examine alternatives to the nuclear family, his idealization of the family, and failed to take into consideration any external factors. Morgan criticised him for failing to acknowledge classes, religion and ethnic status. Extended families are an extension of the nuclear family. Vertical includes the 3rd generation (Grandparents, parents, and children), and horizontal (brothers/sisters of parents, and their children). Functionalists Bell and Vogel define “the extended family as any grouping broader than the nuclear family which is related by descent, marriage or adoption” (Sociology Themes and Perspectives, 466, 2004). In modern society the functionalist theory can be supported by the article “He’s gay, I’m not!” (See appendix). Although the concept of their proposed family appears diverse, the functions laid out by functionalists Parsons and Murdock seem achievable.

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Another positivists approach to research is that of Marxism. There is little research to support Marxist views of the family, but one of the leading theorists Engels, believed that the family evolved over time “During the early stages of human evolution, Engels believed the means of production were communally owned and the family as such did not exist” (Sociology Themes and Perspectives, 470, 2004). However his views are very primitive (1884). Although his theory is dated, it laid the foundations for Marxist and Socialist Feminist theories. More recent work on the Marxist theory is that of Eli Zaretsky (1976), ...

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