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Q: Examine the sociological evidence concerning the idea that there is contemporary diversity in the structure of the family.

The family is often seen as the corner stone of society. In pre-modern and modern societies alike it has been regarded as the most basic unit of social organisation and one that carries out vital tasks, such as the socialisation of children.

Functionalists’ approaches to the family are based on the assumption that society operates on the basis of consensus and that there is a balance between various parts of society so that they work together harmoniously. Functionalists assume that social institutions must have a function or purpose; therefore the family is examined in terms of the functions it performs for the benefit of society and the individual.

Functionalists view the family a little like a machine with many different parts all contributing to the smooth running of the whole (if one part breaks down there’s a chance that the whole thing wont work), therefore functionalist theories stress the interrelationship between the family and other social institutions.
E.g. the family prepares children to become adult workers and take on roles in the economy to support themselves an their dependents.

Functionalist consensus theorist, Talcot Parsons, sees two functions of the family as being basic and irreducible, these are:
The primary socialisation of children
Stabilisation of adult personalities
For Parsons the nuclear family is the ideal institution to perform these essential functions in industrial societies.

New Right thinkers also see the Nuclear family unit as the normal family’. John Redwood a conservative mp stated in 1993 that the two adult family caring for their children was the natural state’, these perspectives reflect the sociobiological view that the family is a natural institution based on biological requirements.

Another functionalist George Peter Murdock made the claim that the family is a universal feature in all society in his study entitled “social structure”, he made this claim following case studies and anthropological work on 250 societies, Murdock defines the family as follows.

The family is a social group characterised by common residence, economic cooperation and reproduction, it includes adults of both sexes, at least two of whom maintain socially approved sexual relations, and one or more children, own or adopted of the sexually cohabiting couples
Murdock (1949)

The concept of the nuclear family is important to functionalists such as Murdock as it adds weight to there claim that the nuclear family is biological and the correct family form.
If we accept this claim there is evidence to show that in societies such as the Nayar society of southern India or Matrifocal societies the nuclear family does not and never has existed.

There are undoubtedly differences between now and the recent past, however, there are also strong continuities.

Edmund Leach, critic of the nuclear family argues that the isolation and the close-knit nature of contemporary family life incubates hate which finds expression in conflict in the wider community.’ The families in which people huddle together create barriers between them and the wider society. The privatised family creates suspicion and fear of the outside world. Only when individuals can break out of the prison of the nuclear family, rejoin their fellows and give and receive support will the ills of society begin to diminish. Leach’s conclusion is diametrically opposed to functionalist’s view of the family. He stated that far from being the basis of the good society, the family, with its narrow privacy and tawdry secrets, is the source of all our discontents.

Another critic of the nuclear family R.D. Laing, views the family in terms of sets of interactions. Individuals form alliances, adopt various strategies and play one ore more individuals off against others in a complex tactical game.

However, despite critics such as Leach and Laing, who agree that the nuclear family is destructive and exploits the once predominant nuclear family still maintains its popularity.

However common the nuclear family may be, it cannot be classed as universal especially with the rise of single parent, reconstituted families, and gay and lesbian families in contemporary societies that are continually on the increase.

Leach describes the nuclear family as the cereal packet image as married couples with their two children are prominent in advertising and the family sized packets of cereals and other products are aimed at just this type of grouping. It also tends to be taken for granted that this type of family has a male breadwinner

Robert and Rhona Rapoport also attacked the nuclear family and drew attention to the fact that in 1978 just 20% of families consisted of married couples in which there was a single bread winner

The conventional family’ no longer makes up the majority of households and the Rapoports identify five distinct elements of family diversity in Britain

The first is organisational diversity
This refers to different types of family structure, for example single parents, and reconstituted families, it also refers to the domestic division of labour,

Functionalists, new right and conservative politicians often frown upon these types of families.

In the case of single parents it has become a quarrelsome issue, with some arguing that it is becoming a problem for society, in 1995 John Redwood stated that single parents should put their children up for adoption before accepting state benefits, among other things his arguments for this were
Single parents are inherently bad because children need parents of both gender
There are incentives in the benefit system for single parents, and young girls feel motherhood will not only gain them an income but also provide them with beneficial housing.

Although some commentators agree that single parenthood can generate problems, many sociologists believe that it is a sign of social progress
Sarah McLanahan and Karen Booth said

Some view the mother only family as an indicator of social disorganisation, signalling the demise of the family’; others regard it as an alternative to the family form consistent with the emerging economic independence of women.
McLanahan and Booth 91′

Evidence also shows that reconstituted families are also becoming more common, these families are formed after divorce and remarriage, this can lead to a variety of family forms

Burgoyne and Clarke (1984)
Suggested that reconstituted families face difficulties not experienced by other families, for example, children still have links to natural parents and families, and parents may have to negotiate with ex, spouses over access and holidays etc. from this perspective families are not independent units in the same way as other families. Reconstituted families as with single parents are not regarded as normal families’ therefore have difficulty fitting into a society that is designed for the nuclear family.

Domestic division of labour,
Willmott and Young stated that families are symmetrical and home centred; they share tasks and have joint marital roles. Many sociologists (particularly female) argue that the extent is divided is greatly exaggerated. Anne Oakley for example found that Willmott and Young used inadequate methodology in their research producing results which did not give accurate image of the family, her own results gave a contrasting Image of conjugal roles. Willmott and Young simply asked one question to husbands in their research-“do you help with the house work?”, a yes’ answer to this question would include that men do the washing up once a week, and men who help on a daily basis, therefore evidence would show more help being given than there actually was. Oakley’s findings were based on more in depth interviews with unemployed housewives her findings did not agree with that of Willmott and Young, however there was some evidence to support there claim such as men more likely to help with child care than they used to, according to the 1984 British sociology attitudes survey this seems to be restricted to the jobs they actually enjoy (such as playing with children), Oakley found that that very few men were willing to do the undesirable jobs such as change a dirty nappy. It would therefore appear that men can negotiate their way out of chores that they do not like; a society with the ideology that women should be homemakers, makes it easier for them to do so.

The second is cultural diversity
Britain is a multi-ethnic society. In the case of South Asian families, both Hindu and Muslim, there is a tendency for the families to be extended, traditional and patriarchal. Afro-Caribbean, like Asian families tend to reflect the societies from which they migrated. The stereotypical image of the Afro-Caribbean family in Britain is the single parent household, but perhaps the key point is that Afro-Caribbean families tend to be women centred. Modood et al (1997), found the following variations
Whites and Blacks had higher rates of divorce
South Asians are more likely to be married
South Asian families were least likely to form lone parent families
The highest rate for lone parents was among Black families
In a study of Cypriot families in Britain, R.Oakley (1982), found strong extended family ties, he argued that that parents retained strong connections with their married children, a pattern native to Cyprus, but little changed by the migration to Britain.
WWW. Ask
The third is class diversity
Inequalities in lifestyle possibilities have increased since the 1980’s, wealth and income have an obvious impact in terms of types of housing, room size, number of financial problems, and holidays etc, manual workers tend to marry young and have children at an earlier age.

Social class position has an important influence on family life. In general, the lower a family’s class position, the lower its income, the more likely the members are to live in overcrowded and substandard housing and the more likely the adults are to experience unemployment. Inequalities of social class may stay with children for the rest of their lives
(Children of parents from a higher social class, the more likely he/she is of obtaining a better education, better qualifications and in result of this a well paid job).

The fourth is life course
The life course of individuals can vary greatly. This can reflect choice or circumstance and this covers such factors as the number of children, the spacing of children, divorce, remarriage and widowhood.

Robert Chester believes that life course makes it inevitable that at any one time people will not be a part of a nuclear family, however, many of those living in other types of family households would have experienced living in a nuclear family in the past or will do at some point in the future. (He claims those living alone are likely to be widowed or younger people who will eventually marry). In 1985 argued that the changes in the family are only minor and claimed that evidence by writers such as the Rapoports are misleading. Chester also claims that since World War II the basic features of the family have remained unchanged for the vast majority of the population. He argued:

Most adults still marry and have children. Most children are reared by their natural parents. Most people live in a household headed by a married couple. Most marriages continue until parted by death. No great change seems currently in prospect.
Chester 1985

The final element of family diversity identified by the Rapoports is cohort
A cohort of individuals refers to those born in the same year (or band of years). Such individuals may well of shared historical events, for example, the introduction of comprehensive schools, or the introduction of birth control etc. Cohort affects the life experiences of the family. For example, families whose children were about to enter the labour market in the 1980’s may be different to other families: high levels of unemployment during that period may have increased the length of time that those children were dependent on their parents.

As stated earlier, above are the five elements of family diversity as identified by the Rapoports, however it doesn’t stop here as to these we can also add:

Regional diversity
David Eversley and Lucy Bonnerjea (1982) argue that there are distinct regional variations in household types within Britain. They argue that there are distinct patterns of household form in different parts of Britain. For example, they describe the sun belt’ family of the affluent South East as family builders. The South Coast towns, where many elderly retired live, are named the geriatric wards’. Inner city areas tend to have more lone parents, and ethnic minority households.

International diversity
Boh (1989) analysed data from a cross-cultural study of 14 European countries. She found that different countries produced patterns of family life. For instance, the likelihood of women working varied considerably, as did marriage and co-habitation. However there were some common trends, a rise in divorce, co-habitation becoming more common and a decline in birth rates. Boh characterised the diversity she found as being a consequence of the increased choices available to people

Gay and Lesbian Diversity
Weeks et al (1999) argue that there are many openly gay or lesbian households than there were in the past. These are the consequence of the growth in choice and the relaxation of tradition. Weeks, argues that such households do see themselves as families, and would even include friend as members of chosen families’. For Weeks, such families are founded in commitment rather than ascription.


In 1990, Kathleen Kiernan and Malcom Wicks summed up the nuclear family stating that although the most prominent family form, it is only one several possible family types that is experienced during the life of an individual.

In 1999 Elizabeth Silva and Carol Smart argued that the fairly traditional family remains important. They note that:

In 1996 73% of households were composed of heterosexual couples (with just under 90% of these being married), 50 % of these households had children, and 40% had dependent children only 9% of households with dependent children were headed by lone parents.

However they argue that personal choices appear as increasingly autonomous and fluid.

The Rapoports believe that it is acceptable to form alternative households and families to the nuclear family. They said:

Families in Britain today are in a transition from coping in a society which there are a single over riding norm of what family life should be like to a society in which a plurality of norms are recognised as legitimate, indeed, desirable.

American sociologist Judith Stacey believes it no longer makes sense to discuss what type family of family is dominant in contemporary societies because family forms have become so diverse.

Stacey acknowledges that the modern family has its disadvantages, she believes that there is certain degree of unsettling instability; nevertheless, she generally welcomes it as an opportunity to develop more equal and more democratic family relationships.


It seems that the shackles of convention have been loosened and people now have far more freedom to form the sort of family they prefer. A large number of people still seem to prefer relatively conventional/traditional relationships, albeit with modifications in one aspect or another. There is much wider tolerance of difference. There is no eternal right or wrong about the family; it has always been a changeable institution, and will go on changing whether we like it or not, according to material conditions in the world outside and not according to ideas of morality. Overall there are clear patterns of continuity with the past but within an overall trend towards increased diversity.


The family is a social group. Murdock (1949)
Some view the mother only family  Mclanahan and Booth (1991)
Most adults still marry Chester (1985)
In 1996 73% of households were Silvia and smart (1999)
Families in Britain today Rapoport & Rapoport (1982

International diversity
Gay and Lesbian diversity      WWW.ask.co.uk
Cultural diversity


Taylor, P., et al Sociology in focus, (1995), cause way

Haralambus, M., Themes and Perspectives, fifth edition (2000), Collins Educational.
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Kirby, M., et at, Sociology in perspective, (1997), Heinemann.

O’Donnell, M., et al, Sociology in practice, (1990), Nelson.

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