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. 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 have been aware of the social changes that have resulted in the decline of the nuclear family as they envisaged it. Whilst marriage rates have declined and new families have emerged, Chester believes that the decline of marriage and the nuclear family as an institution has been exaggerated.
Instead, he uses the concept of the neo-conventional family, to describe how the nuclear family has adapted to meet the changing demands of society, including more integrated gender roles as more women enter the labour market. Chester is keen to point out that despite other family forms, most people live in a household headed by a married couple. Most people in their lifetime will experience a nuclear family, so it is a norm in contemporary British life. Chester can be criticized as he attempts to claim that statistics are overhyped.
He cannot deny that contemporary British life, which is increasingly secular, has appeared to reject the institution of marriage, and the necessity for the nuclear family. Singlehood is on the increase, and people are choosing this because of a creative choice, a view advocated by Postmodernists. However, if we ‘modernize’ the argument of Murdoch and the functionalists, we can see that although other family forms exist, they are based around the nuclear family. Foster claims the extended family is of increasing importance in modern Britain.
Whether vertically or horizontally extended, at the heart of these families is the nuclear family. Reconstituted families are an increasingly common. More children are experiencing co-parenting, where they spend half their week with their mothers and step-fathers, and the other half with their father and step-mother. Sociologists call this a bi-nuclear family, and it operates as a one family structure as far as children are concerned. De’Ath and Slater (1992) agree this type of family is increasingly common, but suggest there are many tensions and complications that can emerge.
The Tory government appears to believe that the nuclear family is the aspiration for most of ‘mainstream society’. Whilst in opposition in 2009, they proposed tax breaks for married couples, to encourage Mothers to stay at home and engage in domestic and childcare duties. Tories appear to regard marriage and the nuclear family as the norm, with traditional conjugal roles, although they claim this isn’t an option for some due to low incomes. However, Katherine Rake (2009) believes any efforts to save the nuclear family from decline is futile, due to the diverse nature of families today.
Functionalist theorists are reductionist as they reduce the complex relationship of family to the functions which the family provides for societies. Functionalist arguments are also biologically deterministic as they assume Mothers have a maternal instinct, and their roles are limited by this, which does not account for the diversity of family forms and choices that people now make. On the other hand, Postmodernists claim the changing nature of society in addition to the agency of individuals and their choices has characterized family life as diverse and changeable.
Giddens focuses on how this has led to a more equal relationship between men and women, since women have greater freedom and opportunities in work, education and due to freely available contraception. People’s relationships are now characterized as ‘pure relationships’ where they exist to meet the needs of both partners, and people aren’t constrained by the norms, values and expectations of society or tradition. This may appear a naive view though. Such opportunities in education and the workplace are not freely available to all women, more realistically to women of a certain class.
Oakley (1974) described more equal relationships among the middle class, but little development for working class women. This sentiment is echoed by Charles et al. (2005) who found that relationships were constrained and had more traditional features, such as women experiencing the double burden of work and domestic care. Changing norms and values have resulted in diverse family forms, one being same-sex families. The civil partnerships Act of 2004 allowed gay and lesbian copes to publically declare their commitment in a ‘marriage’ ceremony.
Children are increasingly being brought up in such families too, and Weekes et al. (1997) sees this as a positive change in family structure, one which is based upon choice, negotiation of roles and expectations. However, the New Right are concerned about same-sex families, believing it is not ‘natural’ for gays and lesbians to have children and believe artificial ways of gaining a family, such as surrogacy and adoption will lead to children having confused identities and being bullied. A PSI (1998) study into ethnic diversity in British family life, showed how diverse family structures can be.
This demonstrates the diversity in family structures from Black Matrifocal families within the African-Caribbean community to the extended family types seen in Bangladeshi and Pakistani families. However, whilst Black Matrifocal families were headed by women and often had absent fathers, other ethnic minority groups, such as the Southern Asians and African families still appeared to have the nuclear family at the base of there wider extended families, thus reinforcing the idea that the nuclear family is the norm.
The Southern Asian families also had traditional segregated conjugal roles and viewed divorce and cohabitation as wrong. Due to increases in divorce, and other aspects of social change, such as less stigma to cohabitation or birth outside of marriage, and women being more independent, lone-parent families are far more common. Nearly one in four dependent children now live in such families. Feminists welcome this family type, seeing it as a positive move for women who can raise their children without being in a dysfunctional nuclear arrangement.
However, as Ford and Millar (1997) state these types of families are often criticized for a multitude of family problems, including rising crime rates and educational failure. The New Right, a more contemporary and politically motivated ideology, agrees with functionalism that the nuclear family best fits the needs of society. However, Murray (1989) bemoans the decline of the nuclear family, claiming this has lead to moral decline and the emergence of an underclass.
The increase of lone-parent families, according to Murray, provides no functions for society, and he advocates a return to the traditional family form, with clear and segregated gender roles. Murray, however, can be criticized for being ethnocentric, as he is a white, middle class, American academic, who is judging social change and new family forms as unacceptable. This is value-laden, and no empirical evidence can be forwarded to support the idea that lone-parent families are to blame for moral decline.
Rather, it is structural causes. In conclusion, whilst it is fair to say in the past the familial ideology of the nuclear family has been the norm, social change has meant a growing diversity of family types. However, Chester may be correct in saying that everyone has had some experience of a nuclear family, which can still be seen in many working class areas and among ethnic minority groups. But, with the growing acceptance of difference and relationships based on love and choice, we may see further evidence of diversity in the future.