Changing patterns and family diversity

  • Created by: rdowd40
  • Created on: 01-06-19 11:53


42% of marriages now end in divorce - six times more than 50 years ago. There are several reasons for this increase. 

Legal changes:

In the 19th century, divorce was almost impossible. In the 20th century, legal changes made divorce easier; equalising the grounds between the sexes (1923); widening the grounds, e.g. 1969 'irretrievable breakdown', and cheaper divorce, e.g. 1949 legal aid was introduced. 

Less stigma:

Stigma is a negative label. In the past, divorce was stigmatised, e.g. most churches condemned it. However, since the 1960s, this stigma has declined rapidly. This has made divorce more acceptable, so couples are more willing to divorce to solve their problems. Also, because divorce is now more common, this normalises it, thus further reducing the stigma. 

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Secularisation is the decline in the influence of religion on society. According to Wilson, religious institutions and ideas are losing influence - e.g. church attendance, weddings etc. have been declining steadily. 

Higher expectations of marriage:

Functionalists such as Fletcher argue that higher expectations of marriage today are leading to higher divorce rates. This is linked to the ideology of romantic love: marriage is now based purely on love, not duty or economic factors as it was in the past. If love dies, there is no longer any reason to stay together. In the past, individuals had little choice about marriage. The family was the unit of production, so marriages took place for economic reasons. People thus had lower expectations and were not dissatisfied by the absence of love, so divorce was less common.

Functionalists are optimistic. They argue that the high rate of re-marriage shows divorcees haven't rejected marriage as such. 

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Women's financial independence:

More women are now in paid work, and lone parent welfare benefits are available. This makes women less economically dependent on their husbands and more able to afford divorce.

Feminist explanations:

Women becoming wage-earners also creates a new source of marital conflict. At work, women are increasingly likely to be treated equally - whereas at home they're expected to perform a triple shift. The resulting awareness of patriarchal oppression at home may result in divorce and explain why 70% of divorce petitions come from women. 

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Modernity and individualisation:

Beck and Giddens argue that in late modernity, traditional norms (e.g. the duty to remain with the same partner for life) lose their hold. Individuals become free to pursue their own self-interest. This results in more divorce, because they become unwilling to stay married if the marriage fails to deliver personal fulfilment. 

Modernity encourages both sexes to pursue their career ambitions and to adopt a free market, consumerist identity based on self-interest. This causes conflict of interest that pull couples apart.

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There are now fewer first marriages, due to several reasons:

  • Changing attitudes mean there is less pressure to marry.
  • Alternatives such as cohabitation are less stigmatised.
  • Women's economic independence gives them freedom not to marry.
  • The impact of feminism means some women see marriage as a patriachal institution. 
  • Rising divorce rates may put some off marrying.

Other trends in marriage include:

  • More re-marriages More divorce means more divorces available to re-marry, giving rise to serial monogamy. 
  • Later marriages The young now spend longer in education and also now cohabit first.
  • Fewer church weddings due to secularisation and some churches not marrying divorcees.
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Cohabitation 1.5 million couples in England and Wales cohabit. This is due to less stigma attaching to sex outside marriage, and women's improved economic position - they don't need the financial security of marriage. Cohabitation may be:

  • Trial marriage Cohabitation before marriage is now the norm. 
  • An alternative to marriage Couples who see marriage as patriachal may opt for cohabitation as a more equal relationship.

Gay marriage and same-sex relationships There is now greater acceptance, moves towards legal equality and policies treating all couples equally (e.g. in terms of marriage and adoption rights). Weeks argues that acceptance is leading to more stable relationships among gays. 

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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. Most births are jointly registered by both parents.

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

Lone-parent families:

These account for a quarter of all families. Numbers have tripled since the 1970s, due to increased divorce and the decline in stigma of births outside marriage. However, 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 mother custody. 

Reconstituted or stepfamilies 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. Stepfamilies are at a higher risk of poverty because they have more children, and may also have to support children from a previous relationship. 

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Ethnic differences:

The main ethnic differences in family patterns are:

  • More black lone parents (49% of families) than white (23%) or Asian (11%). This may be the legacy of slavery, the result of high male unemployment, or black women valuing independence more highly.
  • Larger Asian households, due to the cultural importance of the extended family and need for support when migrating. (However, most Asian households are actually nuclear). 
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The extended family today

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

The 'beanpole' family is extended vertically through three generations, but not horizontally: it doesn't involve aunts, cousins etc. It is partly the result of increased life expectancy and smaller family sizes. 

Obligations to relatives:

Many people still feel obligation to their wider extended kin. Finch and Mason found that half their sample had cared for a sick relative. Reciprocity (balance) is important - people felt that help recieved should be returned. More is expected of daughters than sons. But not all daughters play an equal part; much depends on what other responsibilities they have. 

The extended family continues to perform important functions, e.g. financial and domestic help. However, this is very different from Parsons' classic extended family, whose members lived together and were bound by strong mutual obligations 

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The extended family today

Perspective on family diversity:

Changing family patterns are leading to greater family diversity - a wider range of family types, rather than just the dominance of the nuclear family. There are different perspectives on the extent and importance of family diversity...

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Functionalism and the New Right

Functionalism is a modernist sociological perspective. It sees the conventional nuclear family, with a division of labour based on biological differences between the husband's instrumental role and the wife's expressive role, as uniquely suited to the needs of modern industrial society and of family members. 

The New Right is more a political than a sociological perspective. It has had considerable influence on government policies. It takes a conservative view of the family and opposes diversity. It sees the conventional nuclear family as the only normal or 'natural' one. 

Other family types are seen as unnatural and producing social problems, e.g. lone parent families lack an adult male role model and lead to a dependency culture and delinquency. Generous welfare benefits have encouraged these deviant family types. 

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Chester: the neo-conventional family

Chester argues that although there is some increased diversity, the nuclear family remains dominant. The only important change has been from the conventional family, with a male breadwinner, to the neo-conventional family, where both spouses work (like the symmetrical family).

The nuclear family remains the norm that most people aspire to. Most still marry, bring up their children as a couple and don't divorce. Cohabitation has increased but is a temporary phase; most divorcees re-marry. Many of those not currently in a nuclear family either have been or will be. Statistics on household composition are just a snapshot, so they don't show these changes in individuals' life cycles.

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The Rapoports: five types of diversity

Rapoport and Rapoport disagree with Chester. They see diversity as central to the family today. Unlike the New Right, they see diversity as meeting people's needs, not causing family decline. They identify five types of diversity:

  • Organisational - e.g. joint or segregated conjugal roles.
  • Cultural - e.g. ethnic groups have different family structures.
  • Class - e.g. differences in child-rearing practices.
  • Life cycle differences - e.g. pensioner couples, parents with young children. 
  • Generational differences - e.g. in attitudes to cohabitation.
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Postmodernism and family diversity

In postmodern society, there is high level of family diversity. Postmodernists see this as resulting from greater individualism and choice. 

The individualisation thesis:

These ideas have influenced the individualisation thesis of Giddens and Beck, who claim that individual self-interest now governs our actions.

In the past, people's lives were defined by traditional gender and family structures, with fixed roles that prevented them choosing their own life course. They were expected to marry and play conventional gender roles in a traditional patriarchal family. Although oppressive, this family provided stability by defining each member's role.

Today, the patriachal family has been undermined by individualism. We have become 'disembedded' from traditional family structures, leaving us free to choose how we lead our lives. Giddens argues that one reason for this is greater gender equality.

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Postmodernism and family diversity

Giddens argues that these changes have brought about the pure relationship. Rather than a relationship defined by law or tradition, or as for producing children, it exists solely to satisfy each partner's needs. This means it lasts only as long as it continues to meet their needs. 

The negotiated family Beck argues that equality and individualism have created the negotiated family, which is not fixed but varies according to its members' wishes. Although more equal than the patriachal family, it is less stable, because there is more emphasis on the needs of individuals, rather than those of the family, and individuals are free to leave if these are not met.

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Postmodernism and family diversity

From a personal life perspective, Smart proposes the connectedness thesis as an alternative to the individualisation thesis:

  • Traditional patriachal norms and structural inequalities still limit people's choices about relationships, identities and families. E.g. women's powerlessness compared with men means many remain trapped in abusive relationships.
  • We are not disembedded individuals. We make decisions about relationships within a social context or 'web of connectedness'. This challenges the pure relationship; e.g. parents who divorce remain linked by their children, often against their wishes. 
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