Families & Households



  • Sociologists disagree as to whether couples are becoming more equal. Functionalists argue for the necessity of segregated conjugal roles based on biological differences between the sexes.
  • However, 'march of progress' sociologists argue that the family is becoming more symmetrical, with joint conjugal roles.
  • Feminists disagree, arguing that men's contribution remains minimal and women now shoulder a dual burden of paid and unpaid work, or even perform a triple shift that also includes emotion work.
  • Couples remain unequal in terms of decision making and control of resources. Men earn more and are more likely to take the major decisions, even where incomes are pooled. The personal life perspective argues that we need to understand the different meanings of money can have within a relationship.
  • Radical feminists argue that domestic violence is an extreme form of patriarchal power over women. However, though most victims are female, not all women are equally at risk.
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  • Childhood is a social construction and varies between times, places and groups. Most sociologists see the idea of childhood as a fairly recent one, the result of industrialisation and other social changes. Modern society contructs childhood as a time of vulnerability, innocence and segregation from the adult world. Some argue that we are witnessing the disappearance of childhood as the media erode the boundary between childhood and adulthood. In postmodernity, adult surveillance and control increase.
  • 'March of Progress' sociologists believe we live in an increasingly child centred society. They state that children have never had it so good. Critics argue that it ignores the continued existence of child poverty, abuse and exploration.
  • Child liberationists argue that children in modern western society are victims of age patriarchy and are subject to adult control. The new sociology of childhood argues that we must take the perspective of the child.
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Theories of the family

  • Functionalists take a consensus view of the family. They see it as a universal institution that performs essential functions for society as a whole and for all its members.
  • Parsons sees a functional fit between the nuclear family and modern society's needs for a mobile labour force.
  • Marxists see the family as serving the economic and ideological needs of capitalism e.g. transmissions of property from one generation of capitalists to the next.
  • Feminists see the family as perpetuating patriarchy. Liberal/Radical/Marxist feminists differ over the cause of women's subordination and the solution to it.
  • Functionalist/Marxist/Feminist theories have all been criticised for neglecting family diversity and individuals capacity to choose their family arrangements.
  • The personal life perspective argues that we must focus on the meaning people give to relationships and on how they define what counts as family.
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  • Population size is influenced by natural change and net migration.
  • Since 1900, the birth rate has declined, producing smaller family sizes. Reasons include lower infant mortality and changes in the position of women and children.
  • The death rate declined and life expectancy increased, largely due to social changes. Effects of an ageing population include greater costs of health care and pensions, ageism, and an increase in the dependency ratio. In modernity, exclusion from work makes old age a dependent status, but in postmodernity, old age no longer determines identity.
  • Migration affects age structure and fertility rates. Reasons for migration can involve push and pull factors. Globalisation has increased migration. There is more diversity in types of migration, and transitional identities are more common. Migration has become politicised, but assimilationist policies may be self defeating.
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Changing family patterns

  • Recent decades have seen some major changes in family patterns. Changes in partnerships include fewer first marriages, more divorces, re-marriages and cohabitions. Changing patterns of parenting include more births outside marriage, lone parents and step families. There are more one person households and same sex families. There are also ethnic differences in household composition. The extended family survives mainly in dispersed form.
  • Reasons for these changes include greater indivdualism, secularisation, reduced stigma and changes in attitudes, changes in the law and in the position of women.
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Family diversity

  • Modernists such as functionalists and the new right see only the nuclear family as normal and other family types as deviants. Chester sees only one major change - the neo-conventional family - whereas the Rapoports identify five types of diversity.
  • Sociologists influenced by postmodernism believe that in today's postmodern society, individuals have more choice in their relationships and family practices.
  • The individualisation thesis argues that traditinal structures have lost influence, leading to more choice and diversity but also more risk and instability. Individuals now seek the pure relationship, based solely on satisfying their own needs.
  • The connectedness thesis argues that people are not simply isolated individuals and that wider structures still limit choice and diversity.
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Families and social policy

  • Functionalists see social policies as supporting the family in performing its functions for the benefit of all its members.
  • Donzelot argues that state professionals exercise control and surveillance, intervening to regulate family life.
  • Social policies may work to undermine/support different kinds of family. New right argue that over generous welfare benefits to unmarried mothers encourage a dependency culture.
  • Feminists disagree, arguing that government policies legitimate the heterosexual patriarchal nuclear family and make other family types seem less valid.
  • Countries with individualistic gender regimes follow policies promoting women's equality. Feministic regimes perpetuate women's patriarchal dependence.
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