The definition of the term ‘family’ has somewhat gone through radical changes over the past few decades in the UK, some 30 years ago a family was defined as being father, mother and children. Some referred to this as the “cereal box family” as this was typically the type of family to be shown on television commercials for cereal. This stereotype is more correctly known as the nuclear family, however changes over the years has meant that this “nuclear family” is no longer a typical family type within the UK.
This has proven difficult for sociologists to provide a clear definition or generalisation of the term ‘family’ and such difficulties will be explored throughout this essay, covering different viewpoints and their criticisms. In 1949, George Peter Murdock conducted a ‘Social Structure’ study and found that a form of family existed in every known form of society. He argued that the family is a function for society and the family members and that the society and individual members could not survive without it.
His view was that the nuclear family was best in conforming to this and that the nuclear family performed four essential functions: • Sexual – understanding and/or expressing different sexualities • Reproductive – rearing children in stable conditions • Economic – providing food and shelter for family members • Educational / Socialisation – teaching sociably acceptable behaviour Murdock strongly linked the nuclear family with society whereby having an interrelationship between family and other social institutions had benefits to the society.
He proposed that family prepares children for adult working life and surviving economy, thus linking the family with society and the nuclear family being the best type of family to pursue this. This is otherwise known as the ‘functionalist view’. Talcott Parsons (1955) supported this theory in suggesting that the family, no matter how specialised it became, had two functions: • Primary socialisation for children • Stabilisation of human personalities Parsons suggested that the nuclear family was best to perform and maintain these functions.
Having a spouse and children provides security and release thus applying less pressure to the individual and the threat of stability to the society. Functionalists’ have very biased views on the nuclear family and they believe that it is unlikely that any society will find an adequate substitute to take over the functions of the nuclear family. The functionalist views are not without their criticisms though. Some of these being that the views are generally out of date. Being that it was initially derived in the 50’s and at this time few women worked and were stay at home mums, leaving the father to be the sole breadwinner of the family.
This provided the mother with more time at home to cook and clean, however in today’s climate the mother is working just as many hours as the father and in some cases, the father providing or taking on greater responsibilities regarding childcare. Furthermore, this ignored the exploitation of women and many attributes to the family of which she is contributing i. e. her responsibility to maintain the housework, constant childcare undermining her position in paid employment due to such things as preparing meals school runs and looking after the family when members become ill.
There is also a ‘darker side of life’ which Parsons and Murdock fail to bring to attention. They both portray a very simple and happy way of family life which downplays such conflicts as child abuse, and violence towards women, which wholly has a very strong affect against children and the family. Leach (1967) suggested that the nuclear family has become so self involved and detached from the wider community that in effect, causes an inward-looking institution leading to emotional stress. This then has an effect against family members and family life ‘stunting individual development’.
This is known as privatization. In addition to these criticisms are the views of feminists, which also disagree with the functionalist viewpoint of the nuclear family. The Marxist viewpoint on the family revolves around a capitalist society and believes that the nuclear family is not a functionally necessary institution, although it is probably the best suited. However, Marxists believe that the family bases itself upon private property and profit, whereby men marry and then have children to pass on their profit to and women simply marry the men for financial security.
Together, Marxist feminists also revolve their viewpoint around a capitalist society but focus more on the woman’s role, rather than heirs and profit. They believe that the woman’s primary role is based within the home and therefore can be exploited as a source of cheap labour because she is dependant on that of her husband’s income. The woman, they believe, is a housewife doing home chores to increase the father’s ability to work and thus delivering more to society.
Also, by nurturing and teaching their children to become the next viable source of workers in the future, the woman is helping society and saving on capitalisation costs. This therefore lays a foundation for their children to be obedient later in life, punctual and altogether submit to their boss in later life, without the need for society training these conformities, thus having cost nothing to the capitalist. Other reasons suggest that the nuclear family is no longer suited or even the most frequent type of family in contemporary UK.
The standard ‘cereal packet family’ has declined a vast amount in recent years due to the variation in today’s society as a whole. Divorce rates have made a substantial climb due to the accessibility that they previously did not have and the financial implications that have changed. It is likely that 40% of marriages within the UK will end in divorce and Britain has the highest divorce rate in the European Union. This has proved that first time marriage for both partners has more than halved since the 1970’s.
This means that there is a lot more remarriage and reconstituted families evolving because of this. There are more remarried men than there are women in the UK, and because the child generally stays with the mother after separation this has meant that stepfathers are increasingly more common. One in six men in their 30’s are stepfathers compared to that of the 1990’s, this has nearly doubled, and over two fifths of marriages involve a remarriage for one or both partners making the reconstituted family the fastest growing family type in contemporary UK.
In addition to the reconstituted family, one of the biggest changes in the family has been that of the lone parent family, or single parent family. Again, Britain has one of the highest rates for single parenthood in Europe and the figure for this type of family has tripled since the 1970’s and nearly one in four children live as part of such a family. Such explanations could be again, because of the divorce rate and change in such laws toward divorce.
However there are further explanations, such as men possibly feeling less obliged to marry when the woman becomes unintentionally pregnant and the easier access and legality on abortion. The strain on forced marriage because of pregnancy has become more lenient, and so fewer weddings are being derived from such pregnancies. There is less criticism against single mothers in today’s society making for less disapproval and the attitudes of single mothers being less of a social stigma as it once was.
For mothers who previously are unable to have children for medical reasons, this has now advanced and they have such options as IVF (in vitro fertilisation) meaning they can bear children without the necessities of a male partner. It is fair to describe the family in contemporary UK as that of a changing purpose. Whilst some few decades ago it was primarily based around the woman being a stay at home mum and the father being the breadwinner of the family, it has evolved ever so differently in today’s society.
A lot more women are working as well as bringing up the children and caring for the family, alongside the men who are appearing to have a lot more involvement within their children’s upbringing than they once did. The need to conform to a certain society and way of living has changed so dramatically and will keep on changing depending on such laws and benefits which surround our everyday life. It would still be fair to describe the woman as the glue to which holds the family together, however her role is ever changing as is the different types of family within UK society.
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