Sociologists compare the diversity of comtemporary family and household structures with the conventional family. This is also known as the cereal packet, cornflake or oxo family based on the image advertisers often show of married couples where the father is a breadwinner and the wife at home looking after two children. Thistype of nuclear family, where biological parents care for their children, was never as common as we might think. In previous centuries, many families were shattered by early deaths or dessertion, so that one-parent and step-families were by no means rare. However, the increase in divorce and the ease with which people cohabit and then seperate has led to a change in proportions of types of families with dependent children. In 2011 about 62% were headed by married couple or civil partnership, 24% by a lone parent, 14% by a cohabitating couple and a tiny proportion by a same sex couple. The average number of children in each type was two.
Some sociologists, particularly the New Right, are concerned about the relative decline in the married nuclear family, which they view as the most stable and functional way of bringing up children and a source of secirity for adults. Between 2001 and 2010:
- the number of married couples, 38% of them with dependent children, decreased by 100,000. This seems to reflect a decline of popularity of marriage;
- 45,000 civil partnerships were formed as a result of the Civil Partnership Act (2005), and gay households that were not civil partnerships increased by 6,000. 2,000 of eah type had dependent children;
- the number of opposite-sex cohabitating couples, 39% of them with dependent children, increased by 608,000;
- the number of lone parent with dependent children increased by 12% to 2 million. 9 out of 10 of these parents were women. This figure includes never married and divorced parents;
- the number of people living alone increased to 7.5million. Of these, 3.4 million were 65 or over, and 70% were female.This can partly be accounted for by people living longer. Of the under-65s, 42% were female. The largest change was in the 45-64 age group where the number of people living alone increased by 31%. This was partly due to the increasing population over the last decade as the 1960s baby boom generation started to reach this age group and to a rise in the percentage of those in this age group who have never married or are divorced.
Robert Chester (1985) suggested that family diversity has been exaggerated because of the way statistics are interpreted. While the proportion of households tat are not conventional families is quite high, the proportion of people not living in conventional households is much lower. This is because conventional families tend to have more members than alternative arrangments.
Furthermore, statistics are snapshots, based on experiences individuals have at one point in their lives. For example many experience divorce but remarry soon afterwards or cohabit for a couple of years and then marry. This shows that marriage is more popular than is often suggested. A summary of an individual's life course might show them spending the majority of their life married, thus presenting a more convential picture than statistics do.
Chester also argues that, though the majority of wives work now, unlike the cereal packet stereotype, many give up while their children are young and only return on a part-time basis, resulting in what he describes as the neo-convential family. Though Chester's points are well argued, there have been significant changes in society since he made them, including the Civil Partnership Act. Kenneth Roberts (1995) argued that the life course is de-standardised now compared with the past. Previously, the majority of young people stayed in the locality to enter traditional occupations so members of a peer group tended to marry and have children at roughly the same time.
Nowadays people's lives are much more diergent. Postmodernists identify the choices people have about their sexuality, whether to live with their parent, alone or with others, to marry or not to marry, to have children early or later in life or not at all, and about the order in which they do these things. While those with traditional religious beliefs or conservative views deplore this diversity of choice, others, such as liberals, feminists and less religious, wlecome it as an opportunity to adopt their preferred lifestyle.
Births outside marriage
The New Right, including the current Conservative Party, is concerned about the rise in th proportion of conceptions and births outside marriage. In 2010 conceptions outside of marriage/ civil partnerships accounted for 57% of all the conceptions in England and Wales. 69% of these resulted in maternity (others were aborted). In contrast, only 43% of conceptions occurred outside marriage in 1990.
The New Right is particularlyconcerned about children brought up solely by single mothers, as the lack of a responsible male role model is thought to correlate with juvenile delinquency in males, as well as being associated with poverty and other social problems.
A counter argument is that most illegitimate births are registerd in the father's name as well as the mother's, suggesting that the child is likely to have at least some contact with the father. About three- quarters of joint-registered births show the parent living at the same address. Many may eventually marry or at least maintain a stable relationship while the child is maturing.
Other types of diversity
Instead of organisational diversity as it relates to the population as a whole, some sociologists focus on how household types vary within different groups of people.
Ethnic group Families with different religious beliefs or cultures tend to favour different family structures. Beishon, Mohood and Virdee (1998) found that the majority of the Pakistanis and Bangladeshis they interviewed preferred tto live with extended family, whereas Indian and African Asians believed that married children should set up home on their own but near enough to support parents when neccessary. All unmarried children of South Asian parents were expected to live with them. Caribbeans and White were tolerant of cohabitation, illegitimacy and divorce, while South Asians found them shameful.
Evaluation There are some validity problems when discussing interviewees' attitudes to sensitive topics such as family lifestyle. There is also a differnce between preference and practice. Afro- Caribbeans told Beshion that they did not want their parents living with them, valuing their own space and privacy, but a larger survey found a third of Caribbean elders living woth their children.
Other types of diversity
Social Class In underclass: The Crisis Deepens (1994), Charles Murray associated illegitimacy with 'lower classes', suggesting that unskilled young men were unwilling to take uninspiring work, so that the mothers of their children were better off on benefits than marrying them. However, Kiernan and Estaugh (1993) found few socio- economic difference between childless cohabitants and childless married couples, predicting that living together before marriage would become the norm for all classes.
Locality Eversley and Bonnerjea (1982) found distinctive types of families according to region. Two-parent, upwardly- mobile families are attracted to the affluent South, elderly people prefer the coast, while very rural areas have extended families on farms. Inner cities and declining areas provide cheap accommodation for recent immigrants, lone parents and student households.
Cohort Each generation may be influenced by different values. Currently, youngerpeople are more likely to cohabit or have openly gay relationships than the elderly.