Family Diversity

Info taken from:

AQA Sociology Book 1 (Including AS Level) - written by Webb, Westergaard, Trobe and Townend

HideShow resource information

Modernism and the Nuclear Family

Perspectives such as functionalism and the New Right have been described as 'modernist'.

This means that they see modern society as having a fairly fixed, clear-cut and predictable structure

They see on 'best' family type - the nuclear family - as slotting into this structure and helping to maintain it by performing certain essential functions. 

1 of 18


According to Parsons, there is a 'functional fit' between the nuclear family and modern society - it provides a geographically/socially mobile workforce, and performs two 'irreducible' functions of primary socialisation of children and stabilisation of adult personalities. 

In the functionalist view, therefore, because of the family's ability to perform these essential functions, we can generalise about the type of family that we will find in modern society - namely, a nuclear family with a division of labour between husband and wife. 

Hence, other family types can be considered dysfunctional, abnormal, or even deviant, since they are less able to perform the functions required of the family.

2 of 18

The New Right

The NR are firmly opposed to family diversity. They agree that there is only one correct family type - the traditional patriarchal nuclear family with a married couple, dependent children, and a clear division of labour between the breadwinner-husband and homemaker-wife.

They see this as 'natural', based on the fundamental biological differences between men and women. 

They oppose family diversity, arguing the decline of the traditional nuclear family/growth of family diverisity are the cause of many social problems. They are especially concerned about the growth of lone-parenthood, which they see as damaging to children. They argue that...

  • Lone mothers cannot discipline their children properly
  • Boys are often left with no male role model, resulting in educational failure, delinquency, and social instability
  • Such families are also likely to be poorer and thus as burden on the welfare state and taxpayers
3 of 18

Cohabitation Vs Marriage

The NR believe that only marriage can provide a stable environment to raise children in. They claim that the main cause of lone-parenthood is the collpase of relationships between cohabiting couples.

Benson (2010-11)...

  • analysed data on parents of 15,000 babies - found that over the first three years of the baby's life, family breakdown was much higher among cohabiting couples (20%, compared to 6% among married couples) 
  • argues that couples are more stable when they are married, e.g. the rate of divorce among married couples is lower than the rate of breakups among cohabiting couples. This is because marriage is more stable, requiring a deliberate commitment to each other.

New Right thinkers use such evidence to support the view that family/society at large are 'broken'. They argue that only a return a 'traditional values' including the value of marriage, can prevent social disintegration and damage to children; they regard laws and policies such as easy access to divorce/gay marriage etc. as undermining the traditional conventional family. Benson thus argues that the governemtn needs to encourage couples to marry by means of policies that support marriage.

4 of 18

Criticisms of the New Right

  • Feminist Ann Oakley (1997) agues the NR wrongly assume husbands and wives' roles are biologically fixed - cross-cultured studies show great variation in the roles that men and women perform within the family.
  • Feminists argue the conventional nuclear family is based on patriarchal oppression of women and is a cause of gender inequality - it prevents women working, keeping them financially dependent on men.
  • Critics argue that there is no evidence that children in lone-parent families are more likely to be delinquent. 
  • The view that marriage equals commitment, while cohabitaion does not, has been challeneged - it depends on the meaning of the relationship to those involved. 
  • The rate of cohabitation is higher among poorer groups - as Smart states, it may be poverty that causes the breakdown of relationships, rather than the decision not to marry. 
5 of 18

Chester (1985) - The Neo-conventional Nuclear Fami

Chester recognises that there has been some increased family diversity in recent years. However, unlike the NR, he does't regard this as very significant, nor does he see it in a negative light. 

Chester argues that the only important change is a move from dominance of the traditional/conventional nuclear family, to what he called the 'neo-conventional family' - a dual-earner family in which both spouses go out to work and not just the husband. This is similar to the symmetrical family described by Young and Willmott. 

He also argues that most people are not choosing to live in alternatives on a long-term basis, and the nuclear family remains the ideal to which most aspire. 

Although many are not part of a nuclear family at any one time, this is due to the life cycle - most people will spend a major part of their lives in a nuclear family. As evidence Chester explains that most people live in a household headed by a married couple; most adults marry and have children; most children are reared by their two natural parents; most marriages continue until death; most divorcees remarry; cohabitation is usually a temporary phase before marriage etc...

6 of 18

The Rapoports (1982) - 5 Types of Family Diversity

  • Argue that diversity is key in understanding family life today, and we have moved away from the traditional nuclear family as the dominant family type
  • Families have adapted to a pluralistic society - where cultures and lifestyles are more diverse
  • Family diversity reflects greater freedom/choice and the acceptance of different cultures

The Rapoports see diversity as a positive responce to people's different needs/wishes; they identify 5 different types of family diversity...

1) Organisational Diversity - difference in the ways family roles are organised

2) Cultural Diversity - different cultural, religious and ethnic groups have different family structures

3) Social Class Diversity - differences in family structure are partly the result of income differences

4) Life Stage Diversity - family structures differ according to stages in the life cycle

5) Generational Diversity - older/younger generations have different attitudes/experiences

7 of 18

Postmodernism and Family Diversity

Modernist perspectives emphasise the dominance of one family type (the nuclear family). By contrast, postmodernists start from the view that we no longer live in 'modern' society with its predictable structures such as the nuclear family. We have instead entered into a postmodern stage where it is no longer one dominant stable family structure

Some writers argue that this greater diversity and choice brings with it both advantages and disadvantages:

  • gives individuals greater freedom to plot their own life course - to choose the kind of family and personal relationships that meet their needs
  • but greater freedom of choice in relationships means a greater risk of instability, since these relationships are more likely to break up. 
8 of 18

Stacey (1998) - Postmodern Families

...argues that greater freedom/choice has benefitted women, enabling them to free themselves from patriarchal oppression and shape their family arrangements. 

  • used interviews in California, finding women have been the main agents of changes in the family, e.g. many women had rejected the housewife/mother role, having worked/returned to education etc. They had created new types of family better suited to their needs.
  • One of these new family structures was the 'divorce-extended family', whose members are connected by divorce rather than marriage, e.g. key members are usually female and may include former in-laws or a man's ex-wife and new partner. 

This illustrates how the structure of postmodern families depend on people's choices on how to live their lives.

9 of 18

The Individualisation Thesis

The individualisation thesis argues that traditional social structures such as class, gender and family have lost much of their influence over us. Individuals today have fewer certainties or fixed rules to follow. 

We have therefore become 'disembedded' from traditional roles/structures, leaving us with more freedom to choose how we lead our lives. 

Beck states the 'standard biography' of life course that people followed in the past has been replaced by the 'do-it-yourself biography', that individuals must construct for themselves. 

10 of 18

Giddens (1992) - Choice and Equality

...argues that in recent decades the family and marriage have been transformed by greater choice and more a equal relationship between men and women. This transformation has occurred because:

  • Contraception has allowed sex/intimacy rather than reproduction to become the main reason for the relationship's existence
  • Women have gained independence as a result of feminism and because of greater opportunities in education and work

Thus, couples are now free to define their relationship themselves, rather than acting out roles that have been defined by law or tradition. 

11 of 18

Giddens (1992) - The Pure Relationship

Giddens states that intimate relationships are now based on individual choice and equality. This is the 'pure relationship' - one that is unbound by traditional norms. 

It exists solely to satisfy each partner's needs and survives only as both partners think it is in their own interest to do so. E.g. because of love, not a sense of duty. 

However, Giddens notes that with more choice, personal relationships inevitably become less stable - the pure relationship is a kind of 'rolling contract' rather than a permanent commitment. 

This produces greater family diversity by creating more lone-parent families, one-person households, and step-families etc. 

12 of 18

Giddens (1992) - Same-Sex Couples as Pioneers

Giddens sees same-sex relationships as leading the way towards more democratic/equal relationships, because they have been able to develop based on choice rather than on traditional roles, as these were largely absent, unlike for heterosexual couples. 

Weston (1992) found that same-sex couples created supportive 'families of choice' from among friends, former lovers and biological kin. Weeks (2000) found that friendship networks functioned as kinship networks for gay men and lesbians. 

13 of 18

Beck (1992) - The Negotiated Family

  • Argues that we now live in a 'risk society' where tradition has less influence/ people have more choice. 
  • We are therefore more aware of risks, because making choices involves calculating risks/rewards. 
  • Previously, people's roles were fixed by rigid norms, dictating how they should behave. Though patriarchal and oppressive, it provided a stable basis for family life by defining each member's roles and responsibilities. 

However, the patriarchal family has been undermined by 2 trends: 

1) Greater gender equality - challenging male domination in all spheres of life. 
2) Greater individualisation - where people's actions are influenced more by calculations of their own self-interest than by sense of obligation to others. 

These trends have led to a new type of family replaceing the patriarchal family. It is what Beck and Beck-Gernsheim (1995) call the 'negoiated family'. 

14 of 18

Beck (1992) - The Negotiated Family (cont.)

However, although the 'negotiated family' is more equal than the patriarchal family, it is less stable, as individuals are free to leave if their needs are not met

Although in today's uncertain risk society people turn to the family in the hope of finding security, in reality family relationships are themselves now subject to greater risk and uncertainty than ever before. 

For this reason, Beck describes the family as a 'zombie catagory'; it appears to be alive, but in reality it is dead. People want it to be a haven of security in an insecure world, but today's family cannot provide this because of its own instability. 

15 of 18

The Personal Life Perspective

Sociologists from the personal life perspective, such as Smart and May, agree that there is more diversity, but disagree with Beck and Giddens' explanation of it. They make several criticisms of the individualisation thesis:

  • it exaggerates how much choice people have - traditional norms that limit people's relationship choices have not weakened as much as the thesis claims. 
  • it wrongly sees people as 'free floating', ignoring how choices about personal relationships are made within a social context, and the importance of structural factors, e.g. class/gender norms, in limiting and shaping these choices. 

May notes that Giddens and Becks' view of the individual is simply an 'idealised version of a white, middle-class man'. They ignore that not everyone has the same ability as this group to exercise choice about relationships. 

16 of 18

The Connectedness Thesis

This is the personal life perspective's alternative to the individualisation thesis

Instead of seeing us as disembedded, isolated individuals with limitless choice about personal relationships, Smart argues that we are fundamentally social beings whose choices are always made 'within a web of connectedness'.

This involes networks of existing relationships and personal histories which influence our range of options in relationships. For example, parents who separate remain linked by their children, often against their wishes. As Smart says, 'where lives have become interwoven and embedded, it becomes impossible for relationships to simply end'. 

This challenges the notion of the 'pure relationship', as we cannot always walk away from them when we like. 

17 of 18

Class and Gender

The connectedness thesis emphasises the roll of class/gender in limiting our choices about the kinds of relationships, identities and families we can create for ourselves:

  • After a divorce, gender norms generally dictate that women should have custody of children, which may limit their opportunity to form new relationships. By contrast, men are free to start new relationships and second families. 
  • Men are generally better paid than women; this gives them greater freedom and choice in relationships
  • The relative powerlessness of women and children as compared with men means that many lack freedom to choose and so remain trapped in abusive relationships. 

The connectedness thesis also highlights sexuality - while women can now pursue 'masculine goals' such as careers, they're still expected to be heterosexual. Einasdottir argues while lesbianism is tolerated, heteronormativity means many lesbians feel forced to remain 'in the closet', limiting their choices still. 

18 of 18


No comments have yet been made

Similar Sociology resources:

See all Sociology resources »See all Families and households resources »