The Postmodern Perspective on the Family

More individual freedom and choice means more family and life course diversity.

Last Updated on September 25, 2023 by Karl Thompson

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

In postmodern society there is no longer one typical type of family such as the nuclear family, rather there is huge diversity of family types and it is no longer possible to make general theories about the role of the family in society like Functionalists and Marxists have done in the past.

Postmodernity, Social Change and the Family

During the later part of modernity (around 1850-1950) society was clearly structured along social class lines with clear gender norms and the nuclear family formed part of (what at least appeared to be) a stable social structure.

Since the 1950s we have seen a shift to a postmodern society which is more global, fragmented (fractured), culturally diverse, consumerist, media saturated, uncertain and in which individuals have more freedom of choice.

The changes associated with postmodernity since the 1950s have changed the nature of the family: now that people have more choices, families are less stable and more diverse.

Postmodernity and The Family mind map

How has postmodernity changed the family?

  • The rise of consumer culture and individual choice: people have come to expect choice over what goods they buy, and the same applies to relationships: people choose when or whether to go get into a relationship, whether to get married, and when or whether they break up.
  • Technological changes and media saturation – ties into the above in the form of online dating and hookup sites – which set up a new norm of relationships being like shopping: if you can’t find someone ‘just right’ then either don’t bother or find someone that will do for now and ditch them when someone who does tick all your boxes comes along! This might explain the rise of serial monogamy.
  • Changes to work: there are no more jobs for life in the factory and this has led to a decline in the male breadwinner role. People have to spend longer training for careers, and change jobs more often during their working lives. Work is more pressured today, and there is less time for relationships which means more single people and more relationship breakdowns.
  • Changing gender norms: gender identity is more of a choice today which means we have more LGBTQ chosen families and also more gender equality within families, which leads to more diversity
  • The decline of religion – there is less social pressure to get married and stay married, meaning higher rates of divorce, potentially more reconstituted families.
  • Globalisation – more immigration means more ethnically mixed marriage, more relationships across borders, even more diversity.
  • Rapid social change, risk and uncertainty: instability in society affects relationships: if one partner loses a job or has to move for a new job, it might trigger a breakup, also awareness of high rates of divorce and the challenges of relationships might put people off getting involved in the first place.

To summarise: the shift to postmodern society has meant more individual choice which means more family and household diversity in society naturally means more types of family, for example:

  • More people staying single.
  • More short-term serial monogamy type relationships.
  • More cohabitation rather than marriage.
  • more people regarding their friends and other fictive kin as part of their families (see the Personal Life Perspective for more details).
  • more ethnic diversity within families.
  • changing gender norms mean an increase in more LGBTQ chosen families.
  • Higher rates of divorce and more single parent households and stepfamilies.

Furthermore there is no longer one dominant family type (such as the nuclear family). This means it is no longer possible to make generalisations about the role of the (nuclear) family society in the same way that modernist theories such as Functionalism did.

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.

book cover: judith stacey family

Hareven (1978) “Life Course Analysis”

Tamara Hareven advocates the approach of life course analysis, that is that sociologists should be concerned with focusing 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.

Supporting evidence for the postmodern perspective on the family

Increasing family diversity

The 2022 Children’s Commissioner’s Family Review certainly supports the postmodern view that families are becoming more diverse over time. The review reports that family structure has gradually changed over the last 20 years: 

  • There are fewer married couples. 
  • There are more couples cohabiting.  
  • There are fewer ‘traditional’ nuclear family units today. 
  • 44% of children born at the start of the century, were not in a nuclear family for their full childhood, compared to 21% of children born in 1970.  
  • Over 80,000 children are in care, and many more in less formal arrangements, including kinship care. 

Stacey Dooley Sleeps Over is a recent documentary series exploring the diversity of family life in the UK. Most of the families are not nuclear families, but even those that are have non-standard lives, so even within the nuclear family set up, there is diversity!  

Marginalised Families is a website where people in diverse family structures can share their stories. It is designed to give more voice to non-nuclear families and provides some interesting case studies in family diversity.

More people are choosing to stay single than ever (5), but they are not isolated or lonely. In fact single people are more social than people in nuclear families and tend to have a broader conception of the family: in which they include friends, neighbours and ex-partners, thus challenging traditional definitions of the family.

(5) The Conversation (2017) More people than ever before are single and that’s a good thing. See also Bella de Paulo for the benefits of being single r

Low levels of belief in marriage

According to a 2022 YouGov Survey – does marriage matter 63% of UK adults think marriage is an outdated institution, although this is up from 68% in 2019.

Only 22% of the UK population thinks it matters that people are married before they have children: YouGov survey (2023) does marriage and children matter?

Criticisms of Postmodern Views on the Family

Late-Modernists such as Anthony Giddens suggest that even though people have more freedom, there is still a structure which shapes people’s decisions about the family.

Postmodernists over emphasise the amount of choice people have when it comes to relationships. However in truth, most people want to be in a stable long term relationship, but the social pressures of late modern life make this impossible for many to sustain. Thus people don’t ‘choose’ to get divorced or stay single as such, life just sort of pushes them into these ‘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!

If you like this sort of thing, you might also like these revision videos on YouTube.

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