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Sociology and the Family

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Many sociologists share the consensus that the family unit is an integral component of society. Defined as a body of people living together or close by who are affiliated through kinship ties or marriage, many variations and modifications are evident in Britain today. There has been a distinct evolution of the family unit since the preindustrial period. Functionalists believe the nuclear family thrived with the onset of industrialisation and early capitalism. Before this period, living habits and social structures were vastly different.

According to some functionalists, the most common preindustrial family form in Western Europe was the extended family. Multigenerational households cohabited, working by hand and sharing duties. Farming was the predominant occupation with the majority of the population living in the countryside. Before industrialisation took place, approximately 75% of the population worked in agriculture (Porter, 2004). According to sociologists Peter Willmott and Michael Young (1973) “The division of labour was presided over by the husband. He was not just the husbandman. He was the undisputed master” (p. 7).

Changes were brought about with the onset of industrialisation, when the development of machines made hand workers redundant. Migration to the cities ensued with the public working for longer hours and smaller wages in the factories. Specialised agencies were established, fulfilling the regular functions of the family. Whereas local churches previously provided education, city schools were now offering such services. No longer did the family fully socialise children. Furthermore, handouts and financial funding became available, leading to less reliance on kin.

With the elderly too old to relocate, family resources became sparse – forcing the whole family into work. Geographical mobility paired with laborious work resulted in less contact between kin, thus the divergence from the extended family and the emergence of the nuclear family. American anthropologist George Peter Murdock considers the nuclear family to be ideal. Murdock (1949) defined the family as follows: The family is a social group characterized by common residence, economic cooperation and reproduction.

It includes adults of both sexes, at least two of whom maintain a socially approved sexual relationship, and one or more children, own or adopted, of the sexually cohabiting adults. (p. 1) In short, Murdock hypothesised that the majority of families live and work together, amassing their resources. The male and female reproduce, bearing at least one child. Murdock (1949) examined family structures in a broad range of societies. An array of family forms were discovered. Additionally, they all contained the basic “nucleus,” consisting of a husband, wife and offspring.

Murdock proposed that this arrangement was found in every known society. Hence, the nuclear family was realised. The apparent prevalence of the nuclear family is deemed favourable by functionalists. They ascertain that the nuclear family is a positive institution, accrediting their functions (primary socialisation – the ingraining of values during childhood, reproduction – married couples bearing children and economic support – parents providing financial support for said children) as beneficial for society.

Sociologist Talcott Parsons (1956) professed “Only the nuclear family unit could effectively provide the achievement orientated and geographically mobile workforce required by modern industrial economies” (p. 67). Functionalist theory is generally critiqued by Marxists, feminists and historians alike. Marxists dispute functionalistic theories, believing that the nuclear family is far from flawless as it perpetuates a capitalist society. Marxists and feminists reject the notion that society is a harmonious infrastructure, yet alternatively suggesting that it exists solely for the benefit of capitalists or men, respectively.

Marxist Friedrich Engels (1984) suggested that the monogamous nuclear family developed to resolve inheritance problems. Male offspring were shaped to be suitable heirs for the family assets. Thus, the nuclear family was designed to control women and protect property, conserving patriarchalism . The “cereal packet” nuclear family is typically portrayed by the media as idealistic. Comprising of man, wife and one or two children, the woman is presented as the willing housewife, and the man as “breadwinner.

Feminists have a dismal viewpoint of this setup, with feminist Fran Ansley wildly proclaiming “When wives play their traditional role as takers of shit, they often absorb their husbands’ legitimate anger and frustration at their own powerlessness and oppression” (as cited in Bernard, 1972, p. 233). It is probable that the nuclear family was already commonplace before industrialisation. Historian Peter Laslett had an alternative perspective in regards to its establishment, discovering that only 10% of families were extended before the industrial period; co residential family types were not present.

The lack of extended family type was presumably a repercussion of late marriage and low life expectancy (as cited in Haralambos and Holborn, 2008). Nevertheless, statistics reveal that the nuclear family type is declining. Between 1971 and 2009, the magnitude of nuclear households fell from 52% to 36% (Wallop, 2009, para. 8). Based on these statistics, a further decline is probable. Journalist Sophie Ballard (2009) reports that there will “be no such thing as a ‘typical family’ in the next 10 to 20 years” (para. 9).

The declination of the nuclear family in postmodern Britain could be attributed to cohabitation, marriage delay and marriage breakdown. Only 54. 2% of people were married in 2009, a steep decrease since 1970 when as many as 85% of opposite sex adults wed (“The UK Marriage Index,” 2009). Figures demonstrate that cohabitation is on the increase. Surveys inform that 25% of young men and women were cohabiting in 2006 (“Estimating the Cohabiting Population,” 2009). Increased cohabitation could be a consequence of growing religious intolerance, economic factors or merely convenience.

However, sociologists Jacqueline Burgoyne and David Clark suggest that most people are more than happy to cohabit, seeing themselves as pioneers of an alternative lifestyle (as cited in Haralambos and Holborn, 2008). However, Doctor Jon Bernardes argued (as cited in Haralambos and Holborn, 2008), that the majority of the population would eventually marry. Doctor Guy Brandon and Doctor John Hayward (2010) estimated that 40% of cohabiting couples will eventually progress into marriage; however 26% of these marriages result in divorce. Conflicts, modernity, and the ease of divorce contribute towards increasing divorce statistics.

Secularisation in society has diminished the religious belief which prohibits the act of divorce. Furthermore, as a result of relaxations of British divorce laws, it has become more widespread and accessible for persons seeking divorce. “Empty Shell” marriages and physical separation also account for marriage breakdown. Spouses continue living together, although their marriage exists in name only. Married couples choose to sleep in separate rooms, with some even going as far as living separately. Marriages are changing, as are attitudes. Society is not as patriarchal as it once was.

Only 1. 8% of women were economically inactive as of February 2012, as opposed 2. 4% of men (“Labour Market Statistics,” 2012). It is now deemed acceptable for the female to assume the role of “breadwinner. ” Single mothers who govern the household are also not uncommon, nor are lesbian households. Matriarchalism is proving to be a significant component of contemporary society. The contemporary British family is breaking away from gender specific stereotypes. Willmott and Young perceive the modern family to be mainly conjugal, sharing household tasks and responsibilities.

Symmetrical families are becoming the norm, particularly in middle class society (as cited in Haralambos and Holborn, 2008). Certain individuals are rejecting marriage and cohabitation, sparking the rise of the single person household. By 2006, 13% of the population lived alone in Britain, either electively or through force. The elderly are most likely to live alone due to the death of their spouse. Young people, particularly men, are inclined to live alone, with some seeing it as a permanent lifestyle choice (Bennet and Dixon, 2006).

The institution of marriage is still a significant factor for certain cultures. British Asians, who make up approximately 6% of the British population (“Population Estimates by Ethnic Group 2002-2009,” 2011) appear to have extremely successful marriages. Journalist Jemima Khan (2012) reports “The divorce rate for Asians in the UK over the past decade has been consistently between 15 and 20 percent lower than for White British marriages” (para. 16). The occurrence of cohabitation and divorce is fairly rare, with British Asians marrying more (and earlier) than White British citizens (Berthoud, 1997).

The nuclear family is still prevalent within the British Asian community. Geoff Dench, Kate Gavron and Michael Young mutually suggest that a large portion of British Asian households consist of couples with dependent children, and contrary to stereotypical belief, 61% of British Asian families are nuclear, as opposed to extended (as cited in Haralambos and Holborn, 2008). Elderly Asians may be deceased or still living in their respective country which could account for the unremarkable amount of British Asian extended families (Berthoud, 1997).

Although intergenerational links remain strong, Dench et al. affirms that in 2006, only 25. 7% of British Asian families were extended, although this is still a higher proportion than the White British and Black British community (as cited in Haralambos and Holborn, 2008). The modified extended family is becoming more apparent in contemporary Britain. Surveys reveal that in 2009, 50% of parents in Britain (who lived apart from relatives) saw their own mother at least once per week (“British Social Attitudes Survey,” 2009).

Such families are becoming customary with technological advancements, allowing kin to remain in contact via telephone or email – regardless of their whereabouts. However some some sociologists suggest that family size in contemporary Britain is diminishing. Due to high divorce rate and fertility problems, many multigenerational families are now long and thin (“Continuities and Change in Families,” 2003). Defined as the “beanpole” family, this type of family lacks siblings, cousins, et cetera. It would not branch outwards on an ancestral tree, but as the name suggests, resemble a thin, extended beanpole.

Social scientists Rhona Rapoport and Robert Rapoport claim that the quantity of reconstituted families is growing (as cited in Haralambos and Holborn, 2008). Such families are formed after remarriage or divorce; children from previous marriages live together as step siblings. However, Journalist Martin Beckford (2008) reported that children are “more likely to develop emotional problems than those whose mothers and fathers stayed together” (para. 9). Additionally, modern British women are frequently bearing children out of wedlock; a sectionable act during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

As of 2005, lone parent households accounted for 7% of all British households. By 2005, 2% of all British people were of African or Caribbean descent, with 52% of Black British adults raising a child or children alone – as opposed to just 22% of White British adults (“Focus on Ethnicity and Identity,” 2005). This could have been a consequence of the extreme low marriage and high divorce rates within Black British community (Berthoud, 1997). Partnerships of different races, cultures, and sexes are now widely accepted by society and the incidence of interracial relationship is becoming more common.

Professor Richard Berthoud (1997) alleged that an overwhelming amount of Black British men are marrying white women. Figures suggest that by 2005, 2% of all British citizens were in an interethnic marriage (“Focus on Ethnicity and Identity,” 2005). Diminishing homophobia is resulting in more same sex cohabitations and civil partnerships. As of 2010, gay and lesbian people accounted for 1. 7% of the British population. Gay and lesbian families may or may not have children – by adoption or otherwise (“Measuring Sexual Identity: An Evaluation Report,” 2011).

According to some sociologists, multiculturalism may have a negative impact on British society. Berthoud (1997) estimates that half of Black British lone parents are dependent on income support, furthermore, British Asian family budgets are stretched as a consequence of extensive family size. Such implications may contribute towards child poverty in minority communities. Additionally, sociologist Elisabeth Beck Gernsheim (2002) suggests that multicultural families may face prejudice from their respective ethnic groups due to differing expectations .

However, Gernsheim (2002) is also optimistic about the prospect of multiculturalism and ethnic diversity. According to Gernsheim, the impact of multiculturalism may help to reduce intolerance between ethnic groups. Furthermore, studies show that ethnic children adapt well to British conduct. British Asian children show westernised qualities whilst away from the family, yet at home they conform to Asian ideology (Ballard, n. d. ). In 2009, a study revealed that 77% of British Asians strongly identified with Britain, as opposed to just 55% of their white counterparts.

The same study showed that 67% of British Asians were happy to live in mixed neighbourhoods (“The Gallup Coexist Index,” 2009). The evolution of the family shows no signs of ceasing. Culture continues to diverse, as does the family. Nuclear families developed, flourished, and dwindled. Romanticised functionalist ideals do not conform to modern standards – other ideals are becoming the norm. No longer are people expected to marry; cohabitation, civil partnership and single lifestyle are convenient alternatives.

Western women are no longer suppressed, allowing for more symmetrical and less patriarchal households and families. A person can bore as many children as they desire, whether they are in matrimony or not, and without being socially segregated. Prejudice and racism is under no circumstance acceptable due to the array of race, religion and sexual inclination in Britain. Sociologists accept the impact of ever changing families and cultures, and society has no choice but to embrace it. Whether one favours such change, it is an undeniable fact of modernity.








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