Assess the Claim that the Nuclear Family is Universal

We know that the nuclear family consists of a unit, which has an adult male and female with their dependant offspring, but to start with, we must clarify a common ground on what ‘Universal’ actually means - Assess the Claim that the Nuclear Family is Universal introduction. Well, universal is including or covering all, as a whole, without exception, which occurs everywhere. This means that if the nuclear family is universal, then it must take place in all countries and societies. Despite this indisputable fact, there are so many different views and concepts that conflict with one another from many different sociologists that have studied the universality of the family in close detail.

The first sociologist I am going to look at is Murdock, whose studies were carried out in 1949. The reason that he is a predominant sociologist, when it comes to the family, is mainly because he studied 250 societies, which gave him a large insight to the world around us including minor tribes and LEDC’s (less economically developed counties), but also allows us to make a generalisation.

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All of the societies in Murdock’s sample displayed some form of family organisation. More specifically, although many societies were organised into polygamous and extended families, even these had at least two nuclear families per polygamous or extended family household as a base, which forms the family. The polygamous family was made up of two or more nuclear families through plural marriage, while the extended family consisted of two or more nuclear families joined together through parent – child ties.

Through my research, I found out that during Murdock’s sample, he found 47 societies had only the nuclear family level, while 53 possessed polygamous but not extended families, 92 had some form of extended family organization, and the remainder proved impossible to categorise on the basis that information was limited at the time. Obviously, in terms of age, the more contemporary the study undertaken will result in more accurate statistics than earlier studies as there is more information widely available and technology is enhanced than when Murdock’s evaluation was undertaken in 1949.

Murdock’s key point that should be noted was, that even where complex forms of family organisation occur, nuclear families are still found as the basis of the more complex forms.

Murdock argued further that the nuclear family is not only universal but also universally important for society. Other earlier sociologists wrote that the family provided none or few functions in society. Murdock, in denying this view, stated without the family, society would cease to function. He also pointed out the key functions of the nuclear family. Murdock’s main argument was that the nuclear family is the most efficient arrangement for performing the four essential functions and he went on to identify the four essential functions of the family, which are:

* Sexual: the family provides and environment for regulating sexual desires

* Reproduction: essential for the survival of the human society

* Socialisation: learning the norms and values of a society

* Economic: shelter, division of labour

Despite this convincing argument from Murdock, there are many criticisms that can be made of his views. The first downfall of Murdock is that the functions of the nuclear family can also be equally performed in different family structures. Likewise, cross-cultural evidence can suggest that alternatives to the nuclear family do exist or have existed in the past. Thirdly, many families are lone parent or reconstituted. These can be seen as diverse because they do not fit into Murdock’s definition, as there needs to be two parents belonging to both adults. The confusion with this is because although they are classified as families, they are actually households because unless the child is adopted or blood related, then the stepparent does not have any legal duties or obligations towards the child. This can be seen as a growing family diversity within society.

From these criticisms of Murdock, it suggests that his definition is not always true. Where there are exceptions, it demonstrates that the nuclear family is not universal. These are these can be shown by other sociologists views. Which enables me to compare different sources and concepts.

Firstly, a female sociologist named Kathleen Gough researched the Nayar family. Which are situated in Kerala in west India.

Marriage did not exist among the Nayars, although certain customs that bear a resemblance to aspects of marriage did. In particular, these included the tali-tying ceremony and legitimate unions between a woman and a series of lovers known as sambandham husbands. In contrast, the sambandham relationship involved no religious ceremony, but it did involve a sexual union. Each woman took a series of partners through her life. She could, in fact, be involved in more than one such relationship at a time: twelve to be exact!!!

A sandbanham husband had no obligations within the relationship. His only strong ties were to the family in which he grew up, which included his mother and other relatives related through his mother, such as his sisters and brothers. The father was not socially important, and a man had no obligations toward his children. Therefore, we can see that it is doubtful that the term ‘nuclear family’ accurately applies to this so-called arrangement.

Secondly, are the Kibbutz, who mainly live in Israel. Murdock argued that the nuclear family in all societies performs sexual, reproductive, and economic functions. In the kibbutz it is the case that sexual and reproductive functions are served through marriage. After a period of cohabitation, kibbutz members normally marry under Israeli law, yet contrary to Murdock’s definition, the relationship called ‘marriage’ has no economic functions. Economic activities such as working in the fields are performed for the whole of the kibbutz.

Likewise, education is often the responsibility of the kibbutz as a whole. But whereas this is true to some extent in all modern societies in which children attend school, the kibbutz takes the principle a step further. In many areas of Kibbutz, children are raised from a young age by nurses and teachers, not by their parents, which conveys that this function is not necessarily performed under the nuclear family life. The structure of kibbutz life therefore raises questions about the universality of the family and the nature of family relations.

The third exception that contradicts Murdock’s view is the different concepts that Nancy Gonzalez believes when she carried out her research in 1985. These concepts and arguments stem form the research she did in the West Indian Matrifocal family otherwise know as New world Black families.

Matrifocal can be defined as female orientated, where the female has the authority within the family. For many lower-class West Indians, the role of the father in family life is negligible, hence the focus being revolved around the woman. The mother is the central figure after a household comes into existence when a man and a woman set up house together. Their cohabitation is sometimes based on a legal marriage, but this is not necessarily the case.

What makes the Matrifocal family unusual is that the husband takes little or no part in childcare and may spend little time at home, often living elsewhere in the same community. Although in other parts of the world such behaviour would be frowned on even thought of as deviant, in the West Indies it is socially acceptable. Eventually the older children, when they leave school, contribute toward the earnings of the family, and the importance of the father may be reduced even further.

Based on this information, Gonzalez suggests that Murdock should redefine the family on the basis that there doesn’t necessarily need to be a father in the family, just a mother with her dependant children, and maybe perhaps the grandmother (horizontally extended) for financial matters since the father is absent. It has been argued, for example, that the female-headed household descended from the separation of men from their families during the period of plantation slavery. Smith first argued this, whilst Lewis, another sociologist who researched the causes of matrifocal families concluded that poverty is the basic cause of matrifocal families, which year after year has become the norms for West Indian families.

Marxists would view the family as social control and reproduces capitalist society

Although I couldn’t find any research to back this statement up, in my opinion, from a realistic view of my social societal knowledge of families, including my own, is that the reason families reproduce capitalism is because, although in our ever changing society where women nowadays go to work just as much as men, pregnancies keep the female sex off as work and they are still seen as the stereotypical carers of the family, which look after the children and provide domestic labour, whilst, on the other hand, the stereotypical father is usually the breadwinner of our society. His role is to earn most of the money and provide for the family, hence maintaining the capitalism as the family produces the required labour power. This idea, since it is coming from a recent contemporary issue, it displays the current views that can be debated about the society in the UK.

So, obviously, from the previous paragraph, Marxists believe that patriarchal societies dominate the family institution, but they feel that it is extremely exploitative and wish for communism.

This means therefore that Marx argued for a society based on equality which would put an end to alienation and exploitation – where wealth and property does not rest in on the shoulders if one of the parents. He calls this a communist society, which also prevents any sexism in our society.

The strengths of the Marxist approach is that it:

(a) Explores the role of ‘oppressive ideologies’.

(b) Offers critical approach

(c) Acknowledges the dark-side of the family

(d) Offers explanation for the development of the family.

(e) Links the family to inequality in capitalist society

But on the other hand, it has weaknesses:

(a) Approach toward the family rests on assumptions about the nature of society i.e. that it is based on conflict between opposing groups. Couldn’t society be based on consensus instead?

(b) Ignores family diversity. Sees the nuclear family as being simply determined by the economy. It ignores how change may come about because of legal and attitudinal changes.

(c) Radical Feminists suggest that Marxists ignore the patriarchal nature of society

The fact Marxists feel that the family is too patriarchal, it therefore shows that they must base their concepts on the nuclear family only, which means that they favour the view that the family is one of universality.

The last society that I have researched is by Callahan, who whilst studying the Gay family, found that most children from gay couples are from previous heterosexual relationships. There are also more lesbian mothers than gay fathers, the obvious reason being because the mother has more rights than the father and the judicial system would prefer a child be brought up by two women rather than two men. During his research he also found that if homosexuals could marry, then most gay couples would take that option, despite the social diversity.

As a whole, Callahan’s main point of the family is that gay households are the same as homosexual ones, which also hinders the case that the family is universal.

On the other hand, it was not only Murdock that believed that the nuclear family was universal as his claim was aided by Talcot Parsons, who was an American sociologist, which shared similar views on the family. Parsons suggests that the nuclear family is the best organisational basis for society.

Because Murdock and Parsons theories and concepts of the family it makes them both functionalists. Functionalists are groups that support the family, which also believe that the family regulates sexual behaviour.

Parsons says that the family has to include two irreducible functions. These are primary socialisation, which is the teaching of basic norms, beliefs and values within the family; and, the second, which is that the family is a vehicle to release tension and let off steam, before going out into the outside community in a calm and civil manner.

So basically, the main argument for the essay is dependant on how the universal is defined. For the basis of my essay I have defined it so that the nuclear family must take place in all countries and societies, without exceptions, and, here I have found in my research a number of these, which obviously shows that although there are nuclear families around the globe, not all societies have them.

Therefore to conclude the discussion, I believe that after studying the concepts, theories and many, many sociologist perspectives, it has become quite apparent that although the nuclear family is commonly found in societies, it is not in all.

The fact that a rookie sociologist like myself disagrees with a great sociologist such as Murdock is because he was working within different parameters, i.e. because he defined ‘universal’ differently to me, he felt that as exceptions are few in number and are not statistically different, it didn’t affect his case, whereas I feel it does.

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