Whist Britain was undergoing industrialisation, a lot of societal changes took place. Changes that not only affected population but had an impact on family life and the way it was run. Parsons (1955) believed that families were mainly extended before industrialisation which meant that nuclear families didn’t exist during pre-industrialisation. These extended needed the kinship to be able to be producers as it was mainly an agricultural economy, so they would work together mainly farming as their labour. This was then used to provide clothes, shelter, and food etc.
So the family network was a strong one as they played different roles in the household to maintain it. That is why Parsons believed that all this changed when the manufacturing economy came into place, and this caused four major changes to the family. This new economy was now demanding a workforce which was more geographically mobile, so to take advantage of this opportunity people were more likely to move away from their villages to the towns, therefore the family ties were broken and nuclear family was formed.
Parsons also believed that with the state taking over some of the family’s functions like education, wealth and welfare the extended family wasn’t needed and it was easier for them to move away. They could also buy mass produced foods from factories with there new wages. He referred to this process as ‘structural differentiation’. This way families didn’t have to produce anything but became consumers instead. This meant that families could focus on work, and Parson’s view on this was that they could be more effective to the economy.
Another point he stated about nuclear families was the specific roles for the parents. He claimed that socially the husband and Wife were each to perform specific roles. So the man of the house would work to bring a source of income into the house, as he was responsible to provide the welfare and protection for his family. Therefore he was the ‘instrumental leader’, and the wife was the ‘expressive leader’. The wife had the role of emotionally supporting the family and the socialisation of children.
This was believed to be a natural division of labour because women are known for their maternal instincts and would be best for child upbringing; Parsons found the partner’s relationships were complementary to each other each contributing with their own unique roles. He concluded that due this nuclear unit the economy thrived and only because of this it was more effective, because the outcome of this was the work force required was now geographically mobile which was needed for this industrialisation.
However there are many criticisms of Parson’s theory as Peter Laslett’s (1971 study of English parish shows indifferent results to what parsons had said about no nuclear families existing during pre-industrialisation. The records showed that it was only 10 per cent of households with extended families during the pre-industrialisation time which contradicts Parsons Theory. Laslett has shown with his study that the nuclear family unit was predominant, and sociologists claimed this was an important factor in speeding up the process of industrial revolution, as families were already geographically mobile.
Even then Laslett’s study was based on statistics which doesn’t give a true or detailed insight in to what the families actually did. They may not have lived together, but that doesn’t necessarily mean there was no relations with family, they still could have been strongly knitted with kin. So the statistics are unreliable as there is no depth of knowledge of the quality of the family lives during pre-industrialisation which can conclude with his statement.
A historical study was undergone by Michael Andersons (1971) he also argued against Parson’s theory of nuclear families only existing after industrialisation. In contrast he studied the effects of families during industrialisation stating that extended families did not start to disappear during industrialisation. He backed this up with the census records from an industrial town of Preston from1851. He found a large number of households had extended families.
So his thought was that the members of family were further brought together, so they could support each other in paying for rent with their wages, and helping those who were ill and the elderly. This is also known as mutual economic support system. There is also the work of two sociologists who also agree with Andersons, Young and Willmott (1957). They were on the lines that the change that occurred with the formation of nuclear families wasn’t as fast as Parsons claimed it to be, but it was gradual.
In the 1950s they did a study in London, Bethnal Green. Here they found that even at that time when industrialisation had advanced there were still a large proportion of existing extended families. It was a slow change due to the tight family network which was bonded with emotional attachment, and support in childcare, jobs and money matters. They also claimed that it was after the 1960s when the extended families went in decline, which also contradicts Parsons perspective.
This was when the working-class were rehoused and the education act came about allowing people to move away from home to achieve higher jobs etc. Thus it slowly separated the nuclear families as geographical mobility was needed. In conclusion they saw that it was in the late 20th century when it became more of a social norm. Overall the view that nuclear families didn’t exist before industrialisation does not have enough evidence to back the point. Now there is still discussion over this view over whether or not nuclear unit families were either the product of industrialisation or the cause.