changing family patterns

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  • Created on: 23-05-20 15:23


Marriage under threat

(Patricia Morgan 2003) believes that the institution of marriage is under threat from a range of factors, including;

  • Falling marriage rates and people marrying at a later age.
  • The growth and increasing acceptance of alternatives to marriage
  • An increase in single-person households.
  • Declining fertility and birth rates.

Explanations for declining marriage rates

  • Changing social attitudes which see marriage as less socially desirable than in the past 
  • Decline in religious belief (secularisation) weakens commitment to marriage as an institution.
  • An increase in cohabitation 
  • A greater emphasis on individualism
  • Men and women tending to delay marriages until later in life. 
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marriage/cohabitation/divorce (2)

Decline in marriage

Declining marriage does not necessarily indicate a decline in commitment to long-term relationships; for example:

• Civil partnerships among gay and lesbian couples have numbered over 60,000 and couples have started to take advantage of the opportunity for same-sex marriages since they were made available in 2014.

• (Wilson and Smallwood 2007) point out that marriage rates do not include people married abroad and there is an increasing trend for British couples to travel outside the country to marry.Cohabitation 

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marriage/cohabitation/divorce (3)

Cohabitation - increased rapidly

(2004/5, around 80% of couples getting married cohabited before their marriage).

  • (Patricia Morgan 2003)notes that cohabiting couples tend to stay together for a shorter time than married couples.
  • (Joan Chandler 1993) disagrees - cohabitation as a relatively stable, one-term alternative to marriage

(British Social Attitudes Survey 2001) evidence of increasing acceptance of cohabitation outside marriage, with younger age groups being more likely to find it acceptable than older age groups.

(Beaujouan and Bhrolchain 2011) found that over 60% of cohabitants were still together after 10 years.

(Sasha Roseneil 2015) and others refer to this as ‘living apart together’ - argues that close relationships which have many of the characteristics of marriage can be sustained without living under the same roof.

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marriage/cohabitation/divorce (4)

Divorce - 40% of marriages now end in divorce – six times more than 50 years ago.

Types of marital breakdown

  • Divorce, the legal ending of a marriage.
  • Separation, the physical separation of spouses so that they live apart.
  • ‘Empty-shell marriages’, in which husbands and wives continue to live together and remain legally married, but their relationship has broken down.


  • Legal changes (In the 20th century, legal changes made divorce easier and cheaper)
  • Less stigma – stigma is a negative label. Divorcing has become more acceptable.
  • Secularisation - decline in the influence of religion on society.
  • Higher expectations of marriage - (Fletcher 1966)
  • Women’s financial independence
  • Feminist explanations – awareness of patriarchal oppression at home may result in divorce.
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The extended family today

Functionalists argue that in modern society the nuclear family replaces the extended family.  However, Willmott (1988) found that it still exists as a dispersed extended family, where relatives maintain frequent contact.

The beanpole family is a type of extended family (Julia Brannen 2003) describes as ‘long and thin' its extended vertically through three generations

Beanpole families may partly be the result of two demographic changes:

  • Increased life expectancy means more surviving grandparents and great-grandparents.
  • Smaller family sizes mean people have fewer siblings and thus fewer horizontal ties.

Obligations to relatives - many people still feel obligation to their wider extended kin. 

(Finch and Mason 1993) found that half their sample had cared for a sick relative. 

The extended family continues to perform important functions, e.g. financial and domestic help. This is very different from Parsons’ classic extended family, whose members lived together.

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one person households

Fewer people today are living in couples:

  • In 2013, almost three in ten households contained only one person 
  • 40% of all one-person households are over 65.
  • By 2033, over 30% of the adult population will be single (unpartnered and never-married).

Reason for changes:

  • The increase in separation and divorce has created more one-person households 
  • The decline in the numbers marrying, and the trend towards marrying later
  • It is possible that a growing number are opting for ‘creative singlehood’

Living apart together ‘LATs’:

(Simon Duncan and Miranda Phillips 2013) found that about 1/10 adults are ‘living apart together’ 

It has been suggested that this may reflect a trend towards less formalised relationships and ‘families of choice’.

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same sex couples

(Stonewall 2012), the campaign for lesbian, gay and bisexual rights, estimates that about 5 to 7% of the adult population today have same-sex relationships.

Social policy now treats all couples more equally (e.g 2002 cohabiting couples have had the same right to adopt as married couples and 2014 same-sex couples could marry)

(Weeks 1999) argues that acceptance is leading to more stable relationships among gays.

(Allan and Crow) argue that, because of the absence of such a framework until recently, same-sex partners have had to negotiate their commitment and responsibilities more than married couples. This may have made same-sex relationships both more flexible and less stable than heterosexual relationships.

  • Feminists - gay families are good as women can be free from patriarchal nuclear family
  • Postmodernists - sign of post modern society where families are more diverse. Individuals have more freedom and choice and can choose which family type best suits their needs.
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ethnic differences

- Black families (Black Caribbean and Black African people -higher proportion of lone-parents)

Under slavery, children stayed with the mother - argued that this established a pattern of family life that persists today.

  • (Heidi Safia Mirza 1997) argues that the higher rate of lone-parent families among blacks is not the result of disorganisation, but reflects black womens independance
  • (Tracey Reynolds 2010) argues that the statistics are misleading, in that many apparently ‘lone’ parents are in fact in stable, supportive but non-cohabiting relationships.

- Asian families

  • Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Indian houses tend to be larger than those of other ethnic groups
  • Asian households also reflect the value placed on the extended family in Asian cultures.(Roger Ballard 1982) found that extended family ties provided an important source of support
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Over half of all children are now born outside marriage – five times more than in 1971. The main reason is the increase in cohabitation.

Women are having children later. More are remaining childless, or having fewer children, mainly because they now have more options, e.g. a career.

Lone parent families (account for a quarter of all families). 

The New Right blame generous welfare benefits for encouraging the increase and creating a ‘dependency culture’. Over 90% are female-headed, due to the belief that women are suited to the expressive role and to courts giving mothers custody.

Lone-parent families tend to be female-headed for several reasons. These include:

  • the widespread belief that women are by nature suited to an ‘expressive’ or nurturing role
  • the fact that divorce courts usually give custody of children to mothers
  • the fact that men may be less willing than women to give up work to care for children
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parenting (2)

Reconstituted or stepfamilies

These are increasing due to divorce and re-marriage. They now account for 8% of all families with children. These are mostly children from the woman’s previous relationship. 

(Elsa Ferri and Kate Smith 1998) found that stepfamilies are very similar to first families

- the involvement of stepparents in childcare and childrearing is a positive one. However, they found that stepfamilies are at greater risk of poverty.

(Graham Allan and Graham Crow 2001) stepfamilies may face particular problems of divided loyalties and issues such as contact with the non-resident parent can cause tensions.

 (Jane Ribbens McCarthy et al 2003) conclude that there is diversity among these families and so we should speak of ‘stepfamilies’ plural rather than ‘the stepfamily’.

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theories on divorce

The New Right - See a high divorce rate as unwanted because it undermines marriage and the traditional nuclear family, which they regard as vital to social stability.

Feminists - See a high divorce rate as desirable because it shows that women are breaking free from the oppression of the patriarchal nuclear family.

Postmodernists - See a high divorce rate as showing that individuals now have the freedom to choose to end a relationship when it no longer meets their needs. 

Functionalists - Argue that a high divorce rate is not necessarily a threat to marriage as a social institution. It is simply the result of people’s higher expectations of marriage today. The high rate of re-marriage shows people’s continuing commitment to the idea of marriage.

Interactionists - Interactionists aim to understand what divorce means to the individual. (David Morgan 1996) argues that we cannot generalise about the meaning of divorce

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families; plp

  • Focuses on small-scale interactions rather than on the social structure
  • How meanings are constructed through social interaction
  • People have a degree of control and influence over social behaviour

- take a ‘bottom up’ approach:look at the meanings family members give to their relationships

- draws attention to other personal relationships that are important to people even though they may not be conventionally defined as (blood or marriage) ‘family’;

  • Fictive kin; close friends who are treated as relatives
  • Gay and lesbian; ‘chosen families’ made up of a supportive network 
  • Relationships with dead relatives; who live on in people’s memories 
  • Even relationships with pets; (Becky Tipper 2011) 
  • Donor-conceived children

Evaluation - accused of taking too broad a view - by including a wide range of different kinds of relationships, we ignore what is special about relationships that are based on blood or marriage

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families; new right perspective

Political rather than a sociological perspective which has had considerable influence on government policies in Britain and elsewhere.

It is a conservative view of the family based on the following assumptions: 

- A biologically based division of labour 

Like functionalists, the New Right see the division of labour in the family between a male breadwinner and a female homemaker as natural and biologically determined. 

Similarly, they believe that a nuclear family with segregated conjugal roles is the best place in which to socialise children. 

- Families should be self-reliant 

Reliance on state welfare leads to a dependency culture, undermines traditional gender roles and produces family breakdown and lone parent families. 

- Lack of a male role model for boys results in social problems and delinquency.

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