Examine how the different theoretical approaches have explained the changes that the family has historically gone through. The family is a universal institution present in every society throughout the world. For many, the family seems a familiar and comfortable institution, but this can appear in many different forms. A particular type of family is the ‘nuclear’ family; this consists of parents and children living together in the same household. The ‘conventional nuclear’ family comprises of a married man and woman with their biological children living together, this type of family is often dubbed ‘the cereal packet family’ where the male is the breadwinner and the female a homemaker. Another family type is the ‘extended’ family which includes all kin beyond the nuclear family e.g. Grandparents, Aunts or Uncles etc. Other family types include; Patriarchal families, Reconstituted or (step) families and Loan Parent Families, all of which are alternatives to the traditional nuclear family.
The family has been the focus of study for many different sociologists, all of which can be criticized in some form.Throughout this essay I am going to examine how the different theoretical approaches explain how family structures and the roles of individuals within them have changed in relation to each of the historical stages that Western society is said to have developed through. There is an underlying assumption amongst sociologists that ‘hunter-gatherer’ bands were the first forms of society. Although these were large communal groups the structure of the ‘nuclear’ family was seen to be present within them. In order to survive the need for team work was essential and therefore separate conjugal roles were necessary. Female mobility was limited due to the impact of child birth and child rearing so they were responsible for gathering nuts and berries from the land whilst the male role was go and hunt for food. Anthropologists studying ‘hunter-gatherer’ societies still in existence today such as The Hadza from Tanzania support this view and speculate this was once the way of life in every society.
Functionalist Gary Lees believed the nuclear family unit was optimal within ‘hunter-gatherer’ societies as they needed to be mobile in order to move around and search for food. Marxist sociologist Friedrich Engels argued that because the means of production was owned communally then the family as such did not exist. He refers to this an era of ‘primitive communism’ characterised by promiscuity. There were no rules limiting the number of sexual relationships so therefore society was in effect ‘the family’. (Holborn, 2004) Feminist sociologists tended to agree with the Marxist view but saw the roots of traditional conjugal roles such as childbirth and child-rearing as a disadvantage to women. The next stage in the development of society is referred to as the ‘pre-industrial’ stage. This stage of history saw a shift towards agricultural based societies. William Goode (1963) believed that the extended family was only appropriate within this type of society due to the amount of Labour intensive work needed to be carried out.
Functionalist Talcott Parsons agreed with this because the extended family system had more people available to carry out the wide variety of functions required. (Owens, n.d.) A study entitled ‘Family and community in Ireland’ (1968) Arensberg and Kimball found that kinship ties were still extremely strong but the basic unit was that of the extended family. They believe that the traditional Irish farming family is a ‘patriarchal extended family, due to considerable authority of the male head; the family is patrilineal because property is passed down the male family line. This has been criticised by Peter Laslett who examined parish records which provided evidence to indicate that in fact only 10% of pre-industrial families included kin beyond the nuclear family. (Owens, n.d.). Michael Young and Peter Wilmott conducted a study attempting to trace the development of the family from pre-industrial England to the 1970s.
They suggest the family develops through four stages, they described the first stage family as one that works together as a unit of production; husband, wife and unmarried children work together as team. Materialist feminist Sylvia Walby believed that economic relations and inheritance of property were a major source of female disadvantage. The period of industrialisation is associated with urbanisation and the growth of factory based industry. Talcott Parsons argued that the family is ‘structurally isolated’ because relationships with other kin are a matter of choice and as the nuclear family contained the basic roles of mother, father and children needed to carry out the essential functions then the extended family of pre-industrial times was no longer required. He believed the family had emerged due to a process structural differentiation society had gone through and due to development of more specialised institutions there are fewer functions needing to be performed by the family and therefore the family ceases to become an economic unit of production. (Holborn, 2004)
However other sociologists such as Michael Anderson (1971) believed that industrialisation actually increased the need for extended family because as people moved into towns they moved in with relatives in order to find comfort and security. Community studies of working class neighbourhoods in the twentieth century such as Dennis et al’s study of a Yorkshire mining village (1956) and Jeremy Tunstall’s study of Hull trawler men (1962) all featured similar conclusions of extended family life and support. (Owens, n.d.) Wilmott and Young referred to this as their Stage two families which began with the industrial revolution. In this stage families cease to be a unit of production and become employed as individual wage earners. They believe due to low wages and high unemployment families extended their nuclear networks to include extended family networks, this provided them financial security against hardship.
They believed this was the tie between mother and married daughter they used as a defence due to the conjugal bond within the nuclear family being so weak, due to the males in the relationship choosing to spend more time away from the family unit. Some people have argued that as industrialisation and modernisation proceeded, kinship-based society and the extended family broke up and the nuclear family emerged as the dominant form. This family has often been referred to as ‘the cereal packet family’. The role of father also saw a shift towards a more family based role and the conjugal bond was strong. Post-industrial times have seen a decline in factory based industry and a rise in people choosing to work within the service sector. The big question now is whether or not the ‘family is in decline?’
Patterns of family life have changed dramatically over recent years. One reason for this is the rise in divorce rates as changes to laws have meant that it is much easier for people to get divorced than it was in the past, also a change in attitude has meant that there is no longer the social stigma around attached with divorce. The development of the state and a rise in women workers means that women no longer have to rely on a male for financial support. Feminist Germaine Greer sees divorce has been good for women as they no longer have to accept living in an unhappy marriage. In conclusion I believe that there has been a widespread change in family structures over time, but I believe this is due more due to cultural changes and a more widespread knowledge and acceptance of the different types of family that exists.
Holborn, H. a., 2004. Sociology themes and perspectives. 6th ed. s.l.:Harpercollins. Owens, R., n.d. Families and Households -Changing Structure. Sociology factsheet.
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