It has been claimed that the nuclear family is a universal feature of human societies - Sociology Essay Example

Many sociologists have regarded the family as the cornerstone of society, as it forms the basic unit of social organization - It has been claimed that the nuclear family is a universal feature of human societies introduction. The nuclear family has traditionally been defined as, the basic family unit, consisting of adult partners and their dependent children. Although the composition of the family varies as sociological research reveals that our view of what a family should be may vary from that of other cultures, such differences can be seen as variation on a basis theme.

Some sociologists claim that in general there are many universal similarities in family life, therefore the family has been seen as a universal social institution. This view is mainly held by functionalists such as Murdock. Functionalists have traditionally stressed the positive role of the family in society, regarding it as carrying out beneficial functions which help to maintain the very existence of society. Functionalists regard the family as a means of social control, as parents enforce certain behavior patterns on their children.


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The child learns the culture of their society within the family, as they are thought norms and values of society according to what their society considers socially acceptable behavior. Murdock’s study entitled “social structure “studied the institution of the family in a wide range as his study had a sample of 250 societies ranging from small hunting and gathering bands to large-scale industrial societies. On examining his study he claimed that some form of family existed in every society and concluded that the family is universal.

Murdock defines the family as a social group characterized by common residence, that universally performs four functions; economic co-operation, reproduction, controlled outlet for sexual gratification and lastly educational as it passes on knowledge and skills from one generation to the next. The idea of the universality of the family is particularly important for functionalists because it fits with their ideals that within the family, that society puts best use the different biological characteristics of males and females.

These are the sexual divisions of labor, Murdock suggests the biological differences such as greater physical strength of men and the fact that women bear children lead to gender roles out of sheer practicality. Which as he puts it as the most efficient way of organizing society. Sociobiology argues that social behavior, such as living together in families is directed by biological drives. However most sociologists would reject the argument that the family is simply a result of biological functions, they point towards the important that the role of culture plays in influencing the organization of families and kinships.

They see families existence more social rather than biological terms. There are many studies which suggest that the nuclear family isn’t a universal feature of all human societies such as Kathleen Gough’s study “Nayer”. Gough discovered a family which was based upon the women: there were no husbands, nor was it necessarily for long-term sexual relationships. The Kibbituzim in Israel, the Kibburz replace the family as the centre for economic and social activities. The Kibbutz is a settlement where members work together and share property.

Where men and women usually form couples and marry, their children are seen as the responsibility of the Kibbutz as a whole. They are brought up by specially trained foster parents in a separate children’s home, visiting their parents for only a short time each day. Some sociologists argue that the family does not exist as a unit in the traditional Kibbitz since some of its essential functions for example the couple do not form a residential unit with their children and the socialising of children is seen as the responsibility of the whole community.

However a major exception to the nuclear family is the matrifocal or matriarchal family, these are terms used to define female-headed families. Matrifocal families are common in low-income black communities in the USA. In 1985, 51 per cent of all black children with fathers absent from the home lived with their mothers. Nancie Gonzalez in her study of Livingston, Honduras in 1956, found that 45 per cent of black arib families had female heads.

Murdock’s definition of the family included at least one adult of each sex, therefore it is claimed that the matrifocal family simply isn’t performing basic family functions, so it can not be called a family unit. It is also claimed that the matricfocal family is often a nuclear family that has been broken. Which is usually a product of separation or divorce, therefore it did not begin life as matrifocal family. Simply because in statistical terms the matrifocal family is not the norm does not mean that it can’t be recognised as an alternative family structure, as members of the matrifocal families regard the unit as a family.

The matrifocal family should not be seen simply as a broken nuclear family. Gonzalez argues that the female-headed family is a well-organised social group which represents a positive adaptation to the circumstances of poverty. That by not tying herself to a husband, the mother is able to maintain casual relationships with a number of men, who can provide her with financial support. Gonzaleez states that by retaining her strong links with her relatives she receives both economic and emotional support and that increases her chances of maintaining her children and household.

In a situation of poverty, “the chances that any one man may fail are high”. The nuclear family is mostly regarded as being universal, though clearly a wide variety of domestic arrangements have been devised by humans beings which are quite distinctive from the nuclear form. It could be argued that it is true to say that the mother and child link, is more universal than the nuclear family as the number of the lone parent or matricfocal family is increasing – as present day statistics show that 1 in 6 household consists of children under 16 and headed by a single parent compared to 1 in 12 ten years ago.

These changes are due to divorce/separation this effects 18% of people, death of a spouse 9% of all families, or no marriage 5% of all families. Marriage rates have declined steeply across Europe in the last 20 years. In 1961 there were 340,000 first marriages, yet in 1990 it had fallen to 251,000 and now re-marriages form 36% of all marriages in the UK compared to 14% in 1961. More than 95% of people marry today, However the number of people cohabiting has trebled.

In 1992 only 24% of households consisted of nuclear families, according to Robert and Rhona Rapoport, “more people are now choosing to have different types of family life”. Therefore the nuclear family is not so universal as it is portrayed to be. In all areas of sociology, functionalists perspective on the family have been accused of having a conservative bias. With their emphasis on the universality and inevitability of the family, as they justify its existence, with their preoccupation with positivism.

As Barrington Moore argues, ” I have the uncomfortable feeling that authors, despite all their elaborate theories and technical research devices, are doing little more than projecting certain middle-class hopes and ideas into refractory reality”. Leach sums up the basic jest of what moore was saying in three words as he calls this ideology the ” cereal packet image”. Although functionalist views on the family are no longer particularly influential in sociology, similar views are still influential in society. David Cooper argues that the families ideological conditioning device is exploiting

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