The Postmodern Perspective on The Family

Postmodernists argue that recent social changes such as increasing social fragmentation and diversity have made family more a matter of personal choice and as a result families have become more unstable and more diverse.

Before reading this post you might like to review the topic of postmodernity more generally.

Postmodernity, Social Change and the Family

Postmodernists argue that we no longer live in the modern world with predictable orderly structures, such as the nuclear family. Instead society has entered a new, chaotic postmodern stage.

In postmodern society, family structures are incredibly varied and individuals have much more freedom of choice in aspects of their lives which would have been relatively constrained in the past i.e. lifestyles, personal relationships ad family arrangements.

Postmodernity and The Family

Two social changes associated with postmodernity are of particular interest when considering effects on the family….

  • Diversity and fragmentation – Society is increasingly fragmented, with a broad diversity of subcultures rather than one shared culture. People create their identity from a wide range of choices, such as youth subcultures, sexual preferences and social movements such as environmentalism.
  • Rapid social change – New technology such as the internet, email and electronic communication have transformed our lives by dissolving barriers of time and space, transforming patterns of work and leisure and accelerated pace of change making life less predictable.

As a result of these social changes, family life has become very diverse and there is no longer one dominant family type (such as the nuclear family). This means that it is no longer possible to make generalisations about society in the same way that modernist theorists such as Parsons or Marx did in the past.

The rest of this post now considers two specific post-modern thinkers about the family – Judith Stacey and Tamara Hareven.

Stacey (1998) “The Divorce-Extended Family”

Judith Stacey argues that women have more freedom than ever before to shape their family arrangement to meet their needs and free themselves from patriarchal oppression. Through case studies conducted in Silicon Valley, California she found that women rather than men are the driving force behind changes in the family.

She discovered that many women rejected the traditional housewife role and had chosen extremely varied life paths (some choosing to return to education, becoming career women, divorcing and remarrying). Stacey identified a new type of family “the divorce-extended family” – members are connected by divorce rather than marriage, for example ex in laws, or former husband’s new partners.

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Hareven (1978) “Life Course Analysis”

Tamara Hareven advocates the approach of life course analysis, that is that sociologists should be concerned with focus on individual family members and the choices that they make throughout life regarding family arrangements. This approach recognises that there is flexibility and variation in people’s lives, for example the choices and decisions they make and when they make them. For example, when they decide to raise children, choosing sexuality or moving into sheltered accommodation in old age.

Criticisms of Postmodern Views on the Family

  • Late-Modernists such as Anthony Giddens suggest that even though people have more freedom, there is a still a structure which shapes people’s decisions
  • Contemporary Feminists disagree with Postmodernism, pointing out that in most cases traditional gender roles which disadvantage women remain the norm.

Signposting and Related Posts 

This post has been written primarily for students studying the families and households option in their first year of A-level sociology.

Related posts include:

The Personal Life Perspective on the Family

The Late Modern Perspective on the Family

Both of the above criticise the Postmodern perspective for over-emphasising the degree of personal choice individuals have, while still recognising that social changes have indeed made family life more chaotic!

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