The Family and Contemporary Society
A family can simply be defined as a group of people connected by blood or marriage. They can either be living together in a household, for example, a couple and their never married children living in one place as a family or are related based on 'blood' but are not immediate family -for example, genetic relationships and this can simply be referred to as 'kin'.
According to the American anthropologist George Peter Murdock, 'The family is a social group characterised 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'
The two most common forms of family are nuclear family and extended family. The nuclear family comprises of a husband and a wife with one or more children, own or adopted. According to Murdock, the nuclear family is 'a universal social grouping' which means, it is found in all societies. The extended family is a family structure which is often made up of three generations e.g. grandparents, parents and children. Basically, it is the extension of the nuclear family and this can be done in various ways.
Unlike the western society marriage which is monogamous, that is, one wife and one husband, many other societies practice polygamous marriage where by a person can marry more than one wife or husband. It is found in many small-scale traditional societies, particularly in Africa. A part from that, families can be extended if for example grand parents, brothers and sisters of the married couple live in one household. This is mostly practiced by the Indian communities in the UK.
During the pre-industrial period, societies were divided in to kinship groups called lineages, which consist of people descended from a common ancestor. Lineages may contain hundreds or even thousands of members, it is mostly found in traditional societies such as the Nuer of southern Sudan and the Bunyoro of western Uganda. Anyone in that group sees each other as relatives. The only source of livelihood was farming and livestock, for this reason; the most common family structure was extended families because, they work together and to some extent, they share domestic tasks and income. Any member is allowed to farm and graze their livestock in the land owned by the Lineages. People who would be seen as very distant relatives in western societies may be defined as close relatives within a lineage.
According to the 19th century historical research by Michael Anderson (1971), the early stages of industrialisation may have encouraged the development of extended families. He found that 23% of working class households in Preston contained kin beyond the nuclear family. This was due to the fact that, there was widespread poverty, high birth and death rates and without welfare support from the government, people had to depend on their kin for care and support. The working class extended family continued well in to the 20th century. Michael Young and Peter Willmott defined an extended family after their study of Bethnal Green in the east end of London (1957) as 'a combination of families who to some large degree form one domestic unit'. The family members does not have to share one household as long as they contact regularly and share services such as caring for children and elderly relatives.
The industrial revolution gradually undermined and disrupted the existence of extended family because; men were increasingly drawn out of the home in to industrial employment. Long working hours and movement of individuals between different regions affected family socialisation. Despite that, low income working class areas such as Bethnal Green did not break their extended family ties up until the 20th century.
By the 1970s, the family structure changed to home-centred and privatised nuclear family. Family life is focused on the home. Husband and wife depend on each other for companionship. During free time, they silently watch TV at home with less contact of the wider kinship network. According to Talcott Parsons, the isolated nuclear family is the typical form in modern industrial society, on the other hand, Michael Haralambos states in his book, Sociology in focus that, a number of sociologists argue that, the so called modern, self-sufficient and self-centred nuclear family process has been exaggerated and that nuclear family members still contact their extended kin when the need arises though the relationship is not as strong as those in the traditional extended family.
According to Janet Finch and Jennifer Mason (1993) in their study of Greater Manchester, they found that, over 90% of the people they approached had given or received financial help from relatives and almost 60% had shared a household with an adult relative(not parents) at some time in their live. Finch and Mason also found that help was subject to negotiation and not a right
However, the British Social Attitudes have disputed the above study after they conducted a survey representing adults aged 18 and over during 1986 and 1995. They were looking at frequency of contact with kin. They found out that people are less likely to visit or be visited by anybody at all, be it relative or friends because there was no evidence to show that friends have substituted relatives and a large number of women are working outside their home which resulted in 20% drop of seeing their mother at least once a week (McGlone et al, 1999).
People from different backgrounds have different family structure from the indigenous population. For example, the Asian families in Britain have strengthened their ties with their family members more in reaction to lack of value attachment between British family members and their kin. They are worried of losing their values and culture. To help overcome that fear, they maintain links with their villages of origin in Asia.
The main sociological theories of the family are functionalist, Marxists and feminists. Functionalists consider the nuclear form of family as the best type. They believe that family is a vital element at the heart of society and a good source of socialisation. However, they only endorse the nuclear family as the norm, idealistic and more home centred, whereas, they consider the other types of family as harmful. Functionalists see family as a social institution which is there for a purpose that is beneficial to both its members and society.
According to Murdock (1949),' the family is a universal institution with universal functions'. Their theories contain strong arguments that are vital for the wellbeing of society. They argue that, the family help to stabilise the social system by monitoring or setting some limits on their members not engage in sexual relationships outside marriage with some societies completely forbidding such acts unless married. This helps to reduce conflict. The functionalists also see family as a unit of production, for example, a farming family produce food while here in the west, the family is a unit of consumption, families buy goods and services for the rest of their family members, therefore contribute to the economy and to the wider society. The most interesting point of the functionalist's theory is that, the family is responsible for primary socialisation. The first year of our life is very crucial to the rest of our life and all that is made possible by the immediate family members. Murdock believes that, 'no society has succeeded in finding an adequate substitute for the nuclear family' however, the American sociologist Talcott Parsons argues that, the nuclear family in the modern industrial society have become more specialised and unlike the pre-industrial societies, some family functions like looking after the elderly have been taken over by specialised institutions such as social services but he claims that they still perform the basic function which is, the primary socialisation of children.
Despite the strengths of the functionalist theory, there are some weaknesses associated with their views of the family. The first one is that, they ignore the dark side of family life, for example, conflict between husband and wife, child abuse and male dominance etc. They also pay less attention on the harmful effects the family may have on the wider society. Unlike the Marxists, the functionalists never consider variations in family life based on class, ethnicity, religion and locality
The second sociological theory of family which is Marxists concentrates on nuclear family as well but they reject the view that the family is there for the benefit of all, instead they see the family as maintaining the position of the ruling class. They believe that nuclear perpetuate capitalism and that the economy shapes the rest of society. In comparison to the functionalists, Marxists don't accept that the family is largely responsible for primary socialisation, instead they argue that, children are socialised in stereotypically predetermined roles. The Marxists strongly argue that, the status of the society is largely determined by the economy and the capitalist economic system will produce a certain type of society. Basically, they see the family as an institution which is twisted by the requirements of capitalism. According to Friedrich Engels, the modern nuclear family developed in capitalist society. They also pointed out the great inequalities of wealth and income in modern societies. A small minority of the population who privately own economic institutions like banks and factories rule the larger population who are workers. The workers produce goods and services and are paid wages. The Marxists argue that, the minority ruling class exploit the majority of the population by gaining at the workers expense through profit making. The fact that they only endorse nuclear form of family, they argue that, this solved inheritance disputes because there is no doubt about the paternity of the children unlike the monogamous nuclear family. Both functionalist and Marxists see the family as a unit of reproduction and socialisation of children.
The weaknesses associated with the Marxists view are; they ignore the degree of stability in society, instead they concentrate on the idea of power and domination. They also undermine the role of women in the society. Sociologists agree to some extent that the economic system has some influence in the family. However, majority disagree with the Marxist view that the shape of the family is determined by the economic system.
Unlike the Marxists and functionalists, the feminist which is the other sociological theory of the family, criticize the power of men over women. They argue that male dominate the family and that they often control key areas of decision making e.g. moving house. The two main types of feminists which are radical and Marxists have different point of view in regards to unfair treatment of women in the family. The radical feminists see male dominance influence the structure of society and as a result, there is widespread domestic violence of which women suffer most. They promote lesbianism. The Marxists feminists argue that women serve as cushion for the man to release their tension of the day and these inequalities resulted from class variation in capitalist society. The feminists strongly point out that, most of the unpaid domestic work is done by women irrespective of them working full time outside home or not. According to Delphy & Leonard, 1992, Women make the main contribution to family life, men receive the main benefits. They also argue that, in most cases, the wife gives up her work to care for the children and economically depend on her husband.
Feminists base their view from negative perspective and ignore the positive side of family. It is possible that many women are happy to raise their children and do most of the housework. Feminists are criticised by some people as preaching hatred against men and undermining traditional gender roles. In modern societies, there is greater evidence of equality between partners but feminists are criticised for not acknowledging that progress but instead they still remain determined to address remaining inequalities.
Contrary to Murdock's explanation of family which includes at least one adult of each sex, there is significant number of children who were raised by single parents or same sex parents living in a household. A woman with her dependent children, whether adopted or her own is a unit of family. There are a high number of single-parent families in Britain. According to Government statistics, in 1961, 2 percent of the population lived in households consisting of lone parent with dependent children. Lone parenthood can come about through different circumstances eg divorce, separation and death of spouse. In the case of unmarried partners with children break up, one of them will be a lone parent. There are a high number of divorced or separated couples who still keep in touch for the common interest of their children. They share responsibilities of raising their children; In this case they are described as co-parenting or joint parenting. Neal & Smart, 1977 see it difficult to describe such scenarios as lone-parent families. Some Sociologists suggest using the term lone-parent household rather than lone-parent family, this means, one of the parents does not share the same household with the rest but still contributes to the family. Becoming a lone parent is never the first option for both married couples but due to un avoidable circumstances, many choose to be lone parent than living in an unhappy relationship. According to Hantrais and Letablier(1996), Britain has the second highest rate of lone parenthood after Denmark in Europe.
Another type of household is the Gay and Lesbian households. Contrary to Murdock's explanation of family, Gay and Lesbian households do not contain adults of both sexes but they can as well care for children from their past heterosexual relationships, adoption or may have been produced using new reproductive technologies. Diversification of family in modern societies was contributed by high divorce rate, decline of marriage rate and increase in the number of stepfamilies.
- Haralambos M and Langley P (2003). Sociology in focus for OCR AS Level. Causeway press limited.
- Haralambos and Holborn (2004). Sociology Themes and Perspectives, Sixth Edition. HarperCollins Publishers Limited.