How has increased choice in personal life affected family structures in the UK today?

This question recently came up on the June 2022 A-level sociology exam paper two, the families and household topic.

It was one of the 10 mark questions which linked to an item, as follows:

‘People have more choice today than in the past over who they can be in a personal relationship with. They also have more choice when a relationship ends.

This increased choice in personal life has affected family structures in the UK today’.

Then the question: Applying material from Item C, analyse two effects the increased choice in personal life has had on family structures in the UK today.

How to answer this question

It should be quite easy to spot the two hooks in the item:

  • choice over WHO one can be in a relationship with.
  • choice over when the relationship ends.

So these are going to form the basis of your two points and the fact that the question refers to ‘family structures’ in the plural gives you plenty of options to develop each point.

Although be careful not to repeat yourself too much!

AND REMEMBER – THERE ARE NO MARKS FOR EVALUATION IN THESE 10 MARK WITH THE ITEM QUESTIONS!

Suggested answer

The answer below should get 10/10.

The fact that there is more personal choice over WHO one can be in a relationship with (as it says in the item) means there is more diversity in partnerships today.

In the 1950s the vast majority of couples were heterosexual leading to the norm of the cereal packet family, one man, one women and their children.

With the increasing acceptance that sexuality is a matter of personal choice, however, there are now a higher proportion of openly gay couples, however despite the law changing so that adoption agencies cannot discriminate against non-heterosexual couples, gay couples are still much less likely to have children than heterosexual couples, which is a change in family structure.

It’s not just sexuality over which people have more choice – people are more free today to get involved intimately with people from other ethnic backgrounds, meaning there are more ethnically mixed families today.

And people can also choose more long distant relationships with people in other countries, meaning families are more stretched globally.

It’s not just about partners either, people have more choice over whether or when to have children, meaning there are more childless families.

A second way people have more choice in relationships is ‘when to end them’ as it says in item C. This ties into Ulrich Beck’s concept of the negotiated family – because relationships are now a choice, people have to spend more time negotiating the rules of family life, such as whether they should get married and what ‘structure’ that family might take (how many kids to have, or whether to have them at all, for example, which has resulted in more diversity of family structures with increasing amounts of co-habitation, and childless families for example, but also still many families having children.

It also ties into Giddens concept of the pure relationship – people are in a relationship for the sake of the relationship, not because of tradition or a sense of duty – this means, because being in a relationship is now a choice, that they can end if just one person isn’t happy.

This in turn can lead to more relationship breakdowns and there are more step-families today and complex relationships such as the Divorce Extended Family identified by Judith Stacey – where it is mainly women who make the effort to keep in touch which ex-partners and children.

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