The Personal Life Perspective on the Family

The Personal Life Perspective: dogs and dead relatives are part of the family too!

The personal life perspective on the family is essentially an Interactionist perspective and makes two basic criticisms of structural perspectives such as Functionalism, Marxism and Feminism’. Carol Smart is the main thinker associated with this perspective.

The Personal Life Perspective: Key Ideas

  1. ‘They tend to assume that the traditional nuclear family is the dominant type of family. This ignores the increased diversity of families today. Compared with 50 years ago, many more people now live in other families, such as lone-parent families and so on.
  2. They are all structural theories. That is, they assume that families and their members are simply passive puppets manipulated by the structure of society to perform certain functions – for example, to provide the economy with a mobile labour force, or serve the needs of capitalism or of men.

The Sociology of Personal life is strongly influenced by Interactionist ideas and contrasts with structural theories. Sociologists from this perspective believe that in order to understand families, we must start from the point of view of the individuals concerned and the meanings they give to their relationships.’

Carol Smart: ‘Personal Life: New Directions in Sociological Thinking’

Carol Smart Sociology of Personal Life

Carol Smart is the main person associated with this perspective. She has become frustrated by the fixation of many commentators with the supposed decline of the possibility of family life. She rejects many of the assumptions about the decline of family life found in theories of individualisation by authors such as Beck and Beck Gernsheim and Giddens.

Instead, her approach prioritises the bonds between people, the importance of memory and cultural heritage, the significance of emotions (both positive and negative), how family secrets work and change over time, and the underestimated importance of things such as shared possessions or homes in the maintenance and memory of relationships.

‘By focusing on people’s meanings, Carol Smart’s personal life perspective draws our attention to a range of other personal or intimate relationships that are important to people, even though they may not be conventionally defined as family. These include all kinds of relationships that individuals see as significant and give them a sense of identity, relatedness and belonging, such as:

  • Relationships with friends who might be like a sister or a brother to you.
  • Fictive kin: close friends who are treated as relatives, for example your mum’s best friend who you call your ‘auntie’
  • Gay and lesbian ‘chosen families’ made up of a supportive network of close friends, ex partners and others who are not related by marriage or blood
  • Relationships with dead relatives who live on in people’s memories and continue to shape their identities and affect their actions
  • Even relationships with pets. For example, Becky Tiper (2011) found in her study of children’s views of family relationships, that children frequently saw their pets as ‘part of the family’

In short – The Family is not in decline, it is just very very different and much more diverse and complex than ever before. 

Evaluation of the Personal Life Perspective

  • ‘It helps us to understand how people themselves construct and define their relationships as ‘family’ rather than imposing traditional sociological definitions of the family from the outside.
  • However, taking the personal life perspective can be accused to taking too broad a view. Critics argue that by including a wide range of personal relationships, we ignore what is special about relationships that are based on blood or marriage.
  • The personal life perspective rejects the top down view taken by other perspectives, such as functionalism but it does see intimate relationships as performing the important function of providing us with a sense of belonging and relatedness
  • However, unlike functionalism the personal life perspective recognises that relatedness is not always positive’

Related Links

Late Modern Perspectives on The Family (what Smart criticises)

Understanding Society – A longitudinal study of changing households in the UK (you can use this data to assess the validity of the Personal Life Perspective)

The Personal Life Perspective is one the main perspectives on the family within the A-Level Sociology Families and Households topic

Please click here to return to the main ReviseSociology home page!

Further Reading

Vanessa May Sociology of Personal Life

Why Do so Many Twenty Somethings Live with Their Parents?

For the video version of what’s below please click here

This post is designed to help you revise the ‘increasing family diversity‘ of the AS Sociology families and households module

1. Not quite adults – Vital Statistics  

According to the Office for National Statistics, in 2011, nearly 3.0 million adults aged between 20 and 34 were living with a parent or parents, an increase of almost half a million, or 20 per cent, since 1997. This is despite the number of people in the population aged 20 to 34 being largely the same in 1997 and 2011. This means that nearly 1/3 men and 1/7 women in the UK now live with their parents.

If you look at just 30 somethings, however, then the numbers drop to just 5% of women and 10% of men living with their parents

However – Not all ‘Kippers*’ are the same! (*Kids living in their parents’ pockets)

It is important to keep in mind that not all ‘adult kids’ are the same; experiences of living at home with your parents into your 30s will vary.

For example, the experience of being a NEET and living at home with your parents may well be different to being one of the ‘Boomerang Kids’ – who move out to go to university but then move back in with their parents afterwards

Some adult kids would have lived at home continuously, but many would have moved out for a period with a partner, and then moved back in again.

Adult-Kids will also vary as to the extent to which they are forced into living with their parents due to financial reasons, or choose to do so for ‘lifestyle reasons’.

Experiences will also differ depending on parental attitudes to having their adult children living with them.

2. Why are increasing numbers of ‘adult children’ living with their parents?

Many commentators stress that young adults have no choice but to live with their parents, focusing on structural (mainly economic) reasons that force people to live with their parents.

The following structural changes mean it is harder for young people to transition to independent living.

  1. The massive expansion in higher education has seen the number of undergraduate students triple since 1970, from 414,000 to 1.27 million – this means more young adults are not in work and economically dependent on their parents for longer.
  2. The recent recession has been accompanied by a sharp increase in unemployment rates among young adults,” This means that recent graduates, especially men, are increasingly returning to live with their parents after graduating.  Their numbers are being swelled by the increasing levels of student debt they have accumulated by the time they finish their studies.
  3. Then there are changes in the housing market. Even those in work cannot afford to move out of the family home as first-time buyers now face house prices that are, on average, five times average incomes, compared with a multiple of three times 20 years ago.

However, there are also cultural changes which mean young adults are more likely to choose to live with their parents even when they could move out.

  1. There is more uncertainty about what a ‘normal relationship’ is. Changing roles of men and women and changing expectations of relationships and family life result in young people being more reluctant to settle down in a classic long term relationship.
  2. The meaning of ‘being 20 something is different today to what it was in the 1970s. Today, we simply want to ‘settle down’ later in life – 20s have become about ‘pulling and dating’, ‘30s about serious long term relationships, and late 30s about children. Of those 20 somethings who do flee the parental nest, they are increasingly likely to either live alone or share with friends. The number of young couple households has been decreasing in recent years.
  3. The increasing number of ‘kippers’ might also be linked to the increasing instability of relationships. There are plenty of late 20s and 30 somethings who have previously moved in with a partner for a few years, suffered a relationship breakdown, ended up back with their parents and are now reluctant to recommit!

See this Guardian post for further info

3. Perspectives on the ‘not quite children’

Most of the commentary on this social trend seems to be negative – focussing on such things as:

Some research, however, suggests that adults living at home with their parents can be a positive thingAs this research, based on 500 ‘adult-kids’ in the USA suggests

‘Few 20-somethings who live at home are mooching off their parents. More often, they are using the time at home to gain necessary credentials and save money for a more secure future.

Helicopter parents aren’t so bad after all. Involved parents provide young people with advantages, including mentoring and economic support, that have become increasingly necessary to success.’

Find out More

Nice blog post on ‘how returning to live with our parents in our 30s benefited both sides’

BBC News – 1.6 Million people aged 20-40 live with their parents

Barbara Ellen of the Guardian really doesn’t approve – NB most of the commentators don’t approve of her views either!

Family diversity by ethnicity in the UK

How does family life vary by ethnicity in the UK today?

This brief update explores the extent to which family life and attitudes to family-life vary across some of the different ethnic groups in the UK. It looks at such things as marriage, divorce, birth rates, household types, equality and household structure.

It has been written mainly for the A-level sociology specification, families and households topic.

Data from the latest (2011) census shows that 86% of the UK population are classified as ‘white’, 7.5% as ‘Asian’ or ‘Asian-British’, 3.3% as’ Black’, 2.2% as ‘Mixed’ and 1% as ‘other’.

(NB – This represents a signficant increase in ethnic minorities compared to the 2001 census. In 2011, 14% of the population were non-white, compared to 9% in 2001.)

A brief history of South-Asian Family Life in the UK

Ballard (1982) noted that most South-Asian families had a much broader network of familial-relations than a typical white-British family and one individual household might be only one small part of a complex global network of kin-relations.

Ballard argued that in order to understand South-Asian family life in the UK in the 1980s, you had to look at the ideal model of family life in Asia which is Patriarchal, being based on tight control of women, collectivist (the group is more important than the individual) and obsessed with mainting family honour (primarily through not getting divorced/ committing adultury or having children outside of wedlock) because maintaining honour was crucial to your being able to do business in the wider community.

Ballard also stressed the importance of Honour and its Patriarchal nature….. The complexity of the question of the asymmetry of the sexes is nowhere better illustrated than in the concepts of honour, izzat and shame, sharm. In its narrower sense izzat is a matter of male pride. Honourable men are expected to present an image of fearlessness and independence to the outside world, and at the same time to keep close control over the female members of their families. For a woman to challenge her husband’s or her father’s authority in public shamefully punctures his honour. To sustain male izzat wives, sisters and daughters must be seen to behave with seemly modesty, secluding themselves from the world of men.

One of the key questions A-level sociology students should ask themselves is the extent to which the above research is true today, or the extent to which things have changed!

Household type by Ethnicity, UK Census 2011

According to the UK 2011 Census, we had the following variations by ethnicity:

Some of the most obvious differences of ethnic minority households (compared to white) households include:

  • Asian households are three times less likely to be cohabiting, and have higher rates of marriage
  • Asian households have half the rate of Lone Person households compared to white households.
  • Black and mixed households have twice the rate of lone parent households.
  • Black, Asian and mixed households have incredibly low levels of pensioner couple households compared to White households, and much higher rates of ‘other households’ (could be ‘multigenerational?)

Source here.


British Asians have more conservative views towards marriage and sexuality.

According to a poll in 2018, British Asians are twice as likely to report that ‘sex before marriage’ is unacceptable than ‘all Britons’, they are also more likely to be against same-sex relationships.

Source: BBC News report, 2018

A previous UK National Statistics report showed that the highest proportions of married couples under pension age, with or without children, are in Asian households. Over half of Bangladeshi (54%), Indian (53%) and Pakistani (51%) households contained a married couple, compared with 37% of those headed by a White British person. Demonstrating the importance of marriage for the Brit-Asian communities.


Divorce today is now much more common among Asian couples

Divorce has traditionally been seen as something shameful in Asian culture, with children under pressure to stay in loveless marriages in order to uphold the family’s honour and prevent shame falling on the family.

However, for today’s third and fourth generation Asians, things are much different.. According to this article there is a soaring British Asian divorce rate now that young Asian men and especially women are better educated and increasingly going into professional careers.


Forced Marriages are more common among Asian Families

There is also a dark-side to Asian family life, and that comes in the number of Forced Marriages associated with Asian communities.

In 2018 the British authorities dealt with 1500 cases of Forced Marriage, with there being over 1000 cases a year for most of the last decade.

Nearly half of all cases involve victims being taken to or originating from Pakistan, with Bangladesh being the second most involved country.

Only 7% of Forced Marriages take place entirely in the UK, so there’s an interesting link to (negative) Globalisation and family life here.

Source: ONS Forced Marriage Statistics


Immigrant women have higher fertility rates

The fertility rate for UK born mothers is 1.63, compared to 1.99 for non UK born mothers. This means the birth rate for non-UK born mother is about 25% higher.

The percentage of babies born to women from outside the UK has increased considerably over the last 20 years, but has recently leveled off and could now be declining.

Around 28% of births are to women who were born outside of the UK in 2018.

Source: ONS statistics: Births by Parents Country of Birth

The number of interracial relationships is increasing

The fact that interracial relationships are increasing might make it more difficult to make generalisations between ethnic groups in the future…..

Overall almost one in 10 people living in Britain is married to or living with someone from outside their own ethnic group, the analysis from the Office for National Statistics shows.


But the overall figure conceals wide variations. Only one in 25 white people have settled down with someone from outside their own racial background. By contrast 85 per cent of people from mixed-race families have themselves set up home with someone from another group.


Age is the crucial factor with those in their 20s and 30s more than twice as likely to be living with someone from another background as those over 65, reflecting a less rigid approach to identity over time.

Source: The Guardian, 2015

Other stuff

This is interesting: When will we stop blaming single black mother households.

Please click here to return to the main ReviseSociology home page!

Evaluating the view that the nuclear family is in decline (part 3/3)

Some commentators argue that the extent of ever increasing family diversity has been exaggerated

Robert Chester – The Neo-Conventional Family

Robert Chester (1985) recognises that there has been some increased family diversity in recent years. However, unlike the new right, he does not regard this as very significant, nor does he see it in a negative light. Chester argues the only important change is a move from the dominance of the traditional or conventional nuclear family, to what he describes as the ‘neo conventional’ family.

The Conventional Family – (declining) The Traditional nuclear family with ‘segregated conjugal roles’ – Male breadwinner and female homemaker.

The Neo-Conventional Family (the new norm) – a dual-earner family in which both spouses go out to work – similar to the symmetrical family of Young and Wilmott

Chester argues that most people are not choosing to live in alternatives to the nuclear family (such as lone parent families) on a long term basis and the nuclear family remains the ideal to which most people aspire. He argues that many people living alone have been or one day will be part of the nuclear family. Chester identifies a number of patterns that support his view:

  • Most children are still reared for most of their lives by their two natural parents
  • Most marriages still continue until death.
  • Cohabitation has increased, but for most couples it is a temporary phase before marrying.
  • Some ethnic groups are very likely to live in nuclear family households – Pakistani and Bangladeshi especially.

Pat Thane – A Historical Perspective on the ‘myth of the nuclear family’

This is a slightly different criticism to Chester – rather than criticising the idea that the nuclear family is in decline, Pat Thane challenges the idea that the nuclear family was ever the ‘norm’ in the first place. 

Family diversity was the norm up until world war two, then there was a brief period of thirty years from the 1940s -to the 1970s where nearly everyone got married and lived in nuclear families, and now we are returning to greater family diversity.

If we look at Marriage and Divorce – the decades after the end of the Second World War were an abnormal period, with much higher marriage rates than usual. Previously, in the 1930s for example, 15 percent of women and 9 percent of men did not marry. Similar numbers had long been normal.

If we look at lone parenthood –  In the early 18th century, 24 percent of marriages were ended by the death of a partner within ten years. As a result, a mixture of lone-parents, step-parents and step-children were commonplace in Britain.

Explaining the increase in family and household diversity (part 2/3)

4. Feminism: Changing Gender Roles

Liberal Feminists and Late Modernists would point to the increasing number of women going into work as one of the most important underlying structural shifts in Late Modern Society.

Rather than needing to depend on men for their financial independence, women are now much more likely to focus on building a career before ‘settling down’ and starting a family. This goes some way to explaining the increase in single person households. The increased earning power of women also explains the growth of the number of never-married women who choose to have babies on their own. While this only accounts for a relatively small proportion of single parent households, such numbers are increasing.

Women’s increased financial independence has also led to relationships becoming more fragile and thus helps explain the increase in single parent households and single person households following divorce.

Evaluation: It is important not to overstate the extent of ‘women’s liberation’ – In 2012, women accounted for 91 per cent of lone parents with dependent children and men the remaining 9 per cent. These percentages have changed little since 1996. Women are more likely to take the main caring responsibilities for any children when relationships break down, and therefore become lone parents.

5. Social Policies

There are two important policies which lie behind many of the above changes – the 1969 Divorce Act and the 1972 Equal Pay Act.

In addition to the above, The New Right believe that overly generous welfare benefits have created an underclass in the UK, and a subsection of this underclass consists of teenage girls who choose to get pregnant in order to get a council house and live a comfortable life on welfare.

Evaluations (of the New Right): In reality, only 2% of single parents are teenagers, which is hardly a significant proportion compared to the overall numbers.

Also, it is not so much the benefits system which is to blame – The money is simply not enough to encourage someone to have a child to get housed – If you are on benefits, whether you have a child or not, you get enough to exist rather than to have a comfortable life. (The current weekly Jobseekers allowance is under £60/ week).

6. Late Modernism

Late Modern Sociologists argue against Postmodernists. The increase in family diversity is not simply a matter of individuals having more freedom of choice and choosing to live alone or become a single parent, people are forced into these options because of structural changes making life more uncertain.

Firstly, most people don’t choose to live with their parents until they are 30, and most people don’t choose to live in a multigenerational household, they do so because they have to out of economic necessity.

Secondly, most people still want to get married and have children, but fewer people do so because of an increase in ‘risk consciousness’ – There is more uncertainty about what a ‘normal relationship’ is. Changing roles of men and women and changing expectations of relationships and family life result in young people being more reluctant to settle down in a classic long term relationship.

Thirdly, Ulrich Beck also talks about indivdualisation – a new social norm is that our individual desires are more important than social commitments, and this makes marriage less likely. People are more likely to go through a series of monogamous relationships (serial monogamy) – which means cohabiting for a few years and then back to living alone again and then so on.

Finally, Anthony Giddens argues that the typical type of relationship is the ‘pure relationship’… it exists solely to meet the partners’ needs and is likely to continue only so long as it succeeds. Couples stay together because of love, happiness of sexual attraction rather than for tradition or for the sake of the children. In short, we have increased expectations of marriage, and if it doesn’t work for us, then we get a divorce, increasing the amount of single person and single parent and then reconstituted families.

6. Other Factors Explaining the Increase in Family and Household Diversity

  • Fewer people today are living in couples; there has been a big rise in the number of people living alone, and in 2006 almost three in ten households contained only one person. Half of all one person households are people of pensionable age. Many women in their 70s and 80s live alone simply because there are too few partners available in their age group – women marry men who are older than them and men die younger.
  • The massive expansion in higher education has seen the number of undergraduate students triple since 1970, from 414,000 to 1.27 million – this means more young adults are not in work and economically dependent on their parents for longer.

Evaluating the idea that there is increasing family diversity (part 3 of 3)

Explaining the increase in family diversity (part 1/3 )

This is part 1 of 3 posts outlining the underlying factors which explain the increase in household diversity

Explaining the long term increase in family diversity

1. Changing patterns of marriage, divorce and cohabitation

The increase long term decline or marriage and increase in cohabitation and divorce can explain many of the above trends:

The fact that people are getting married later explains why there are more Kidult and single person households (for those who can afford it).

Any divorce which involves children is very likely to create one single parent household and one single person household for a period of time, and then many of these people will go on to form reconstituted families.

Relationship breakdown is more common amongst cohabiting rather than married families, and the cohabiting family household is the fastest growing family type in the UK.

Higher rates of divorce might also explain the increase in multigenerational households – as single mothers move back in with their parents, thus forming a multigenerational household.

2. Postmodernism and Postmodernisation

Postmodernists argue that the increase in the diversity of family household structures reflects the fact that we live in a diverse, tolerant society in which people are free to choose any type of family.

More people choose to stay single and hence there is an increase in Single Person Households Kidult households and because people are more tolerant it is easier than it was to be a single parent today because there is less stigma associated with being a single parent.

Another related factor here is that people are freer to choose non-nuclear families because of the decline of tradition and religion – there is much less social pressure to get married, have kids and stay married, so all other options become more viable.

Evaluation: Other perspectives argue that people do not simply choose to go into ‘alternative family structures’ – For example, Burghes and Browne’s 1995 research with 31 single parents found that not one of them had planned to become single parents, and all of them arributed their single parent status to the fact that their male partners had been either violent or too immature for parenthood

3. Economic Factors

The long term increase in wealth and overall rising standards of living explains the long-term increase in single person households. Generally wealthier countries have a higher proportion of single person households, and it is only wealthy countries where significant numbers of people can afford to live alone because it is expensive compared to two adults sharing the cost of a mortgage, bills, and food. It seems that when people can afford to do so, they are more likely to choose to live alone.

However, not everyone has benefitted from increasing wealth in the UK because at the same time as increasing wealth, the cost of living, and especially the cost of housing has increased. This explains the recent increase in multigenerational households and Kidult Households: at the lower end of the social class scale there are millions of people who cannot afford to buy or even rent their own houses, and so they stay living with their parents.

Explaining the increase in family diversity part 2 of 3

%d bloggers like this: