Test Yourself –
Assess the reasons for the long term increase in the divorce rate (20)
This essay looks at social policies such as the 1969 divorce act, changes to gender roles, economic factors, secularisation and postmodernisation.
Introduction – The divorce rate has generally increased since the 1960s. The number almost trebled in the years following the 1969 divorce act and from the mid-1970s, the divorce rate has risen steadily, although it has been declining since 2005.
Social Policy changes are the first factor that explains rapidly increasing divorce in the early 1970s – the 1969 the Divorce Act extended the grounds of divorce to ‘irretrievable breakdown’, making divorce possible even if only one partner wanted a divorce. However, this cannot explain all of the increase, since the divorce rate was rising before the act, and continued to rise for many years afterwards.
Economic Factors – We also need to look at economic factors – Increasing inequality in the UK has meant that the lower social classes now get paid less compared to rising living costs (mortgages/ bills). This means that both partners in a marriage now need to do paid work to get by, which puts a strain on the marriage which leads to higher numbers getting divorced. A positive evaluation of this is that divorce rates are higher amongst poorer families.
The New Right would claim that increasingly generous welfare benefits for single mothers is a crucial factor which allows women to divorce if they deem it necessary – because if divorce occurs within a family, in 9/10 cases, the child will go with the mother – making it difficult to find full time work – and hence benefits may be a necessary link in the chain of explaining the increase in divorce. The New Right would also see the increasing divorce rate as a sign of wider moral decline, a point of view which is not shared by the next three perspectives…
Feminism/ changing gender roles. Many commentators argue that the changing position of women in society. Is crucial to understanding the increase in divorce rates.
Women today are much more likely to be in employment today and this means they are less financially dependent on their husbands and thus freer to end an unsatisfactory marriage. The proportion of women in some kind of paid work is now 70%, whereas in the 1950s it was less than 50%
Giddens himself argues that two trends are the most important – the impact of the Feminist movement, which arguably lies behind all of the above changes, and also the advances in contraception – which allows women to avoid unwanted pregnancies – and women in marriages without children will be freer to leave those marriages. Feminists however, point out that the advances of women can be exaggerated – women still earn less than men, and traditional gender norms remain in many families.
A further set of reasons are those associated with Postmodernism. Both religion and traditional values have declined in Britain. As a result there is no longer a set of social values which force people into staying married, there is less social stigma attached to getting a divorce and so people are freer to choose to get divorced. This change reflects the declining importance of social structure and the rise of consumer culture – the idea that individuals can choose their own lifestyles. However, one exception to this might that among some Muslim communities the concept of Izaat still prevents people from getting divorced.
Late Modern Sociologists argue against Postmodernists – getting a divorce is not simply a matter of individual choice, rather the increasing divorce rate is because of the changing nature of the typical relationship.
Anthony Giddens, for example 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.
Ulrich Beck points out that divorce has increased because the typical late-modern family is characterised by more gender equality and negotiation – pleasing both partners takes a lot of time and effort, which is simply not sustainable when both partners are in paid work, which in turn explains the high levels of divorce.
By way of a conclusion, there are many different historical trends that go into explaining the increase in divorce rates – it is important to remember that social structural forces are at work – such as changes in the law, the impact of Feminism and the changing role of women, which have had the effect of making our society more gender equal and providing people with greater choice, all of which work together to explain the increasing rate of divorce.
As a final word, it is also worth noting that the divorce rate is now decreasing – which could be due to the fact that the age at which people get married is increasing – people get married after a lengthy period of co-habitation – and so are more likely to marry the right person for the right reasons!
For more essays, please see my main post on exam advice, short answer questions and essays.
An essay plan that should be sufficient to get you into the top mark band
Examine some of the reasons for changes in the patterns of marriage and cohabitation (24)
There have been many changes in the patterns of marriage and cohabitation in the last 40 years. This is due a number of different factors including secularisation and changing attitudes towards the value of marriage and larger acceptance of cohabitation. Divorce rates have also influenced patterns of marriages and remarriages – likewise has women’s liberation and changing attitudes in women’s position.
Secularisation – or the decreased value of religion in society has had a large impact on marriage roles and cohabitation. Marriage is now viewed as a contract of love, friendship and trust – often resulting in divorce if these fail to continue throughout the marriage (only ½ of marriages last for ten years). This is juxtaposed to the religious nature of marriage in the past – a binding contract – ‘til death do us part’. Cohabitation has also become less frowned upon. However, this trend seems to be generational. 80% of 16-24 year olds said it was acceptable to cohabit in 2007, compared to only 44% of the 56-64 year olds.
Thus these changes in societal values have resulted in a decrease of marriage – due to declining of value and the increasing accessibility of divorce whilst roles of cohabitation are still on a steady incline.
The divorce act of 1969 made irretrievable breakdown the sole basis for attaining divorce. This caused a large influx of divorce, peaking in 1999. The seemingly stable idea of marriage now began to contract for many people. If their partner was not suitable, divorce was now available, which is another factor for the rise in cohabitation and the decrease in marriage.
Cohabitation is now seen as an option instead of marriage supporting more freedom and flexibility. Living together apart is one example of a serious relationship type where people do not live together. However, 80% of cohabitating partners intend to marry.
A decrease in secularisation has brought about an acceptance of cohabitation of same sex couples. The 2004 civil partnership act also allowed homosexual couples to marry – some sociologists argue that cohabitation – particularly a lesbian couple – is a way of resisting gender scripts and norms
This is relative to women’s liberation – women now resist the idea of marriage due to financial independent and stability. Also, women are increasingly resisting the idea of segregated conjugal roles for a more symmetrical relationship. For many women, cohabitation offers these opportunities. Availability of contraception has lessened the obligation of having to conceive children when in a long term relationship.
Feminists argue this is a movement of resistance towards the patriarchal institutions of marriage not the family as such.
Concluding, patterns of marriage and cohabitation have changed significantly due to divorce, women’s liberation and secularisation. Secularisation is perhaps the basis for the change due to social change in attitudes towards cohabitation and marriage. However, women’s liberation and divorce further instil this idea, offering more choice to the individual.
Assess the view that the modern nuclear family is the most effective type of family unit in which to socialise children and stabilise adult personalities (24)
The above view is associated mainly with the Functionalist perspective, to an extent with the Marxist perspective, while Feminists tend to disagree.
George Murdock (1949) argued that that the nuclear family performs four essential functions to meet the needs of society and its members: The stable satisfaction of the sex drive – which prevents the social disruption cased by a ‘sexual free for all’; the reproduction of the next generation and thus the continuation of society over time; thirdly, the socialisation of the young into society’s shared norms and values and finally he argued the family provides for society’s economic needs by providing food and shelter.
Murdock thus agrees with the two statements in the question and goes further, arguing that the nuclear family performs even more functions. Furthermore, he argued that the nuclear family was universal, following his study of over 250 different societies.
Some sociologists, however, criticise Murdock’s view as being too rose tinted – pointing out that conflict and disharmony can occur both within nuclear families and within societies where the nuclear family is dominant. A second criticism is that the nuclear family is not universal – Gough studied the Nayr of South India and found that women and men had several sexual partners, but this type of matrifocal family was functional for that society.
A second Functionalist, Talcott Parsons argued that the type of society affects the shape of the family – different societies require the family to perform different functions and so some types of family ‘fit in’ better with particular societies.
To illustrate this, Parsons argued that there were two basic types of society – modern industrial society and traditional pre-industrial society. He argued that the nuclear family fits the needs of industrial society and that the extended family fitted the needs of pre-industrial society. He argued that as society became industrialised, society had different needs, and that the nuclear family evolved to meet these needs. For example, one thing industrial society needed was a geographically mobile workforce – the nuclear family is appropriate here because it is more mobile than the extended family.
Parsons also argued that the family performs less functions with the move to industrialisation – as the health care and welfare functions come to be taken over by the state. However, the family becomes more specialised – and performs two ‘essential and irreducible functions’ – these are the two mentioned in the question – the primary socialisation of children is where we are first taught societies norms and values and learn to integrate with wider society and the stabilisation of adult personalities is where the family is the place of relaxation – the place to which one returns after a hard day of working to de – stress.
Parsons has, however been criticised, as with Murdock, for having a ‘rose tinted view’ – Feminists argue that women get an unfair deal in the traditional nuclear family, for example. A second criticism is that while he may have been right about the 1950s, when he was writing, the nuclear family seams less relevant in our post-modern age when many couples need dual incomes – meaning the nuclear family may be too small to effectively perform the two functions mentioned in the question.
The Marxist view of the family is that it does do what is stated in the question, but they criticise the Functionalist view, arguing that the family also performs functions for Capitalism. Firstly, they say it performs an ‘ideological function’ in that the family convinces children, through primary socialisation, that hierarchy is natural and inevitable. Secondly, they also see the family as acting as a unit of consumption – the family is seen by Capitalists as a something to make money out of – what with the pressure to ‘keep up with the Joneses and ‘pester power’
Thus, applying Marxism we learn that the Functionalist view is too optimistic – they see the Capitalist system as infiltrating family life, through advertising, for example, which creates conflict within the family, undermining its ability to harmoniously socialise children and stabilise adult personalities.
Finally, we come onto Feminist views of the family. Radical Feminists are especially critical of the view in the question. They argue, for example, that many nuclear families are characterised by domestic abuse and point to the rising divorce rates in recent years to suggest that the nuclear family is not necessarily the best type of family. Moreover, many Feminists have argued that the nuclear family and the traditional gender roles that go along with it has for too long performed an ideological function – this set up is projected as the norm in society, a norm which women have been under pressure to conform to and a norm which serves to benefit men and oppress women – because women end up becoming dependent on men in their traditional roles – so they see the nuclear family as being the primary institution through which patriarchy is reproduced, again criticising the rather rose tinted view of the Functionalist perspective on the family.
So to conclude, while the statement in the question may have appeared to be the case in the 1950s, this no longer appears to be the case in British society today.
The New Right believe the traditional nuclear family is the ideal type of family. They support social policies which encourage nuclear families – they are pro marriage and against benefits for single mothers.
The New Right believe that the traditional nuclear family is best type of family, where both partners are married. The believe this is the most stable environment in which to raise children who will conform to the values of society.
The New Right see married families are better than cohabiting families because the former provide are less likely to break up. They are against single parent families and the Welfare State which they believe encourages higher levels of single parenthood.
In the 1980s New Right thinkers argued that government policy was undermining the family so policy changes were needed. Their thinking dominated policy development from 1979 to 1997.
Like Functionalists, the New Right hold the view that there is only one correct or normal family type. This is the traditional or conventional nuclear family. Again like Functionalists, the New Right sees this family as ‘natural’ and based on fundamental biological differences between men and women. In their view this family is the cornerstone of society; a place of contentment, refuge and harmony.
The New Right argue that the decline of the traditional family and the growth of family diversity are the cause of many social problems such as higher crime rates and declining moral standards generally.
The New Right believe that it is important for children to have a stable home, with married mother and father, and that ideally the wife should be able to stay at home to look after the children.
They believe that the introduction of the welfare state led to a culture where people depend on hand-outs from the state and that these encourage single parenting, which in turn, they argue leads to deviancy and a decline in morality.
New Right thinking encouraged the conservative government to launch the Back to Basics campaign 1993 to encourage a return to traditional family values. This was criticised for being unsuccessful, and hypocritical due some Conservative MPs being found to be having affairs or being divorced.
A more recent example of a social policy which the New Right would probably agree with is the The Troubled Families Programme – in which mainly underclass and lone-parent families were targeted with interventions to try and reduce such things as youth offending.
The main source of the evidence below is the Daily Mail Article below (1), supplement with comments (I won’t call it ‘data’) from the right wing think tank CIVITAS. (2 below).
NB: the political bias of CIVITAS means their research may not be objective and value free.
The New Right relies on correlations between family types and social problems to conclude that children from families which have broken up suffer more social problems than children who remain in two parent families.
However, correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causation. It might not be lone parent families that ’cause’ children to have problems. It could be the higher levels of poverty suffered by lone parents, for example.
Similarly wealthier middle class couples are more able to afford the costs of getting married compared to poorer lower class couples, so any higher rates of breakdown among cohabiting. couples may be due to financial pressures as they have less money.
So we should be careful that the New Right view is a biased, middle class view. These are the people who themselves live in stable married nuclear families and this is the type of family they support.
Feminists argue that higher levels of relationship breakdowns and divorce are not necessarily bad. The fact that divorce is easier today is potentially good. This is because it is better for both a woman and a child to be on their own as a single parent family rather than being trapped in unhappy or abusive relationships.
Feminists further argue that gender roles are socially determined rather than being fixed by biology. The traditional gender roles which the New Right tend to support are oppressive to women.
The New Right stereotypes single parents and wages a moral panic against them. Most single parents are not welfare scroungers – most want to work but find it difficult to find jobs that are flexible enough so they can balance work and child care. They need appropriate social policies in place to enable them. todo this, rather than the pro-marriage policies the New Right support.
The New Right have exaggerated the decline of the Nuclear family. Most adults still marry and have children. Most children are reared by their two natural parents. Most marriages continue until death. Divorce has increased, but most divorcees remarry.
The New Right Perspective on the family is a key part of the families and households module within A-level sociology.
The Feminist View of The Family – criticises the New Right view.
The Late Modern View of The Family – criticises the New Right view.
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(1) The Daily Mail (2008) : Broken Home Children are ‘Five Times More Likely to Suffer Mental Troubles’, based on a Department for Health funded Study which sampled 8000 children aged between 5 and 16 in 2004,
(2) CIVITAS (NO PUBLICATION DATE PROVIDED*) Does Marriage Matter
*That’s how flakey ‘research’ fro CIVITAS is, probably best NOT to trust it! Link provided here for historical context and entertainment purposes only!
The pure relationship and the negotiated family become the new family norms. Choice but within structure.
Late-Modernists such as Anthony Giddens and Ulrich Beck recognise that people have more choice in terms of their relationships and family arrangements, but do not believe that people are as free as postmodernists suggest. There are still underlying patterns, and shared experiences of relationships that are a consequence of our living in a ‘late-modern’ society – rather than families just being diverse and random.
For example, people are less likely to get married because of structural changes: gender equality means that both partners have to work and spend longer building their careers, which means the average person has less time to spend making a relationship work, which means a decline in marriage, and an increase in divorce.
Ulrich Beck also argues that fewer people getting married is because of an increase in ‘risk consciousness’ – people see that nearly half of all marriages end in divorce and so they are less willing to take the risk and get married.
This is not simply a matter of freedom of choice – people are ‘reflexive’ – they look at society, see the risk of marriage, and then choose not to get married – their personal decisions are informed by what they see going in society.
Beck also talks of individualisation – a new social norm is that our individual desires are more important than social commitments, and this makes marriage less likely.
Giddens builds on this and says that the typical relationship today is the Pure Relationship – one which lasts only as long as both partners are happy with it, not because of tradition or a sense of commitment. This makes cohabitation and serial monogamy rather than the long term commitment of a marriage more likely.
Giddens’ and Beck’s perspectives on the family are briefly summarised below.
Giddens argues that in recent decades the family and marriage have been transformed by greater choice and a more equal relationship between men and women. Giddens argues that relationships are now characterised by three general characteristics:
However Giddens notes that with more choice, personal relationships inevitably become less stable and can be ended more or less at will by any partner! Joy! For example most teenagers (57%) think that their relationships will only last 1 year and only 2% of relationships at 18 will progress to marriage’
Ulrich Beck puts forward a similar view to that of Anthony Giddens. Beck argues that we now live in a ‘risk society’ where tradition has less influence and people have more choice. As a result we are more aware of risk (we have developed a ‘risk consciousness’) because having choice means we spend more time calculating the risks and rewards of different courses of action available.
Today’s risk society contrasts with the modern society of the past with its stable nuclear family and traditional gender roles. Beck argues that even though the traditional patriarchal family was unequal and oppressive, it did provide a stable and predictable basis for the family by defining each member’s role and responsibly. However the patriarchal family has been undermined by two trends.
These trends have led to the rise of the negotiated family. Negotiated families do not conform to the traditional family norm, but vary according to the wishes and expectations of their members, who decided what is best for them by discussion. They enter the relationship on an equal basis.
However, the negotiated family may be more equal, but it is less stable, because it is characterised by greater equality.
There is a lot of sociological evidence that supports the view that there is still a social structure which shapes families, that people don’t have 100% freedom to make choices about families, and a lot of evidence that families require a lot of negotiation to work.
There has been an increase in dual earner households. Between 2003 to 2013 the proportion of families with dependent children in which both parents worked full time rose from 26% to 31%, a significant increase in just 12 years. (1).
In 2022 95% of fathers were in work and 75% of mothers (either full or part time), both percentages have increased since the year 2002, especially working mothers, up 10% points in 20 years. This really does mean the dual-earner household has become the norm….
60% of Britons aged 18-35 say they want to get married, but this figure has declined to just 11% for those aged over 55 (2). This implies that people start off wanting to get married, but that 30 to 40 years of life experience batters them into deciding that marriage is a bad idea, against their youthful optimism. This isn’t the same as simply ‘choosing to not get married’, something happens to change people’s attitudes over the life course…
Young people don’t themselves value traditional family structures such as marriage, but still feel under social pressure to get married according to a Relate Milestone Survey of 2000 people carried out in 2022.
Only 27% of Gen Z and 38% of millennials say that marriage is important to them, but 83% of Gen Z and 77% say the feel social pressure to reach life milestones such as getting married, having children and buying a house, with marriage being the number one milestone they feel under pressure to achieve.
This shows some support for both the Late Modern and Personal Life view that while people have diverse views of family life, they are not completely free of social norms when they make choices about their own personal relationships.
A good example that supports the Late Modern perspective on relationships is this article in Psychology Today: How Much Time do you need to dedicate to your relationship? Part of the advice is to have a periodic check-in with each other about where the relationship is going – which means ‘negotiating’ the relationship!
NB that is just one article, there are SEVERAL like this on all sorts of websites.
The Scottish Government (3) has an advice site for how to involve young people more in decision making (based on U.N. guidelines). Part of this is advice to families, which suggests parents are spending time thinking about how to negotiate relationships with with children.
This Co-Parenting Guide is an interesting example of helping people to negotiate change in a relationship. It offers advice on how to include in-laws in children’s lives after a divorce. This kind of ‘expert advice’ online is very late modern.
(1) 2018: The Modern Families Index UK
(2) YouGov (2022) Do Britons Still Want to Get Married?
(3) Scottish Government: Decision making and Young People’s Participation
A summary of liberal, marxist and radical feminist views on the traditional nuclear family
Almost all feminists agree that gender is socially constructed. This means that gender roles are learnt rather than determined by biology, and the family is the primary institution which socialises individuals into these gender roles.
The proof for gender being constructed (rather than biologically determined) is found in the sometimes radically different behaviour we see between women from different societies: i.e. different societies construct being a “women” in different ways (and the same can be said for differences between men in different societies as well).
This post summarises Feminist perspectives on the family covering:
All sections include what different Feminists think about the role of the family in causing gender equality, their ideas about solutions to inequalities and criticisms.
The content below is primarily designed to help students revise for the AQA A level sociology paper 2, families and households option.
Feminists have been central in criticising gender roles associated with the traditional nuclear family, especially since the 1950s. They have argued the nuclear family has traditionally performed two key functions which oppressed women:
Essentially, feminists viewed the function of the family as a breeding ground where patriarchal values were learned by individuals, which in turn created a patriarchal society.
For the purposes of teaching A-level sociology Feminism is usually to be split (simplified) into three distinct branches: Liberal Feminists, Marxist Feminists and Radical Feminists. They differ significantly over the extent to which they believe that the family is still patriarchal and in what the underlying causes of the existence of patriarchy might be. Remember – all the theories below are discussing the “nuclear” family.
(See also –A Marxist Feminist Perspective on the Family for more depth.)
Marxist feminists argue the main cause of women’s oppression in the family is not men, but capitalism. They argue that women’s oppression performs several functions for Capitalism.
Ansley argues women absorb the anger that would otherwise be directed at capitalism. Ansley argues women’s male partners are inevitably frustrated by the exploitation they experience at work and women are the victims of this, including domestic violence.
Ansley famously referred to women as ‘the takers of shit‘ within the nuclear family under capitalism.
Laurie Penny argues that neoliberal capitalism has encouraged women to seek self-empowerment and freedom through consumerism (by buying high heals and overt expressions of sexuality, for example).
The problem is that only a relatively few women earn enough to be able to ‘consume their way’ to liberation and so this isn’t a solution for the majority of women.
In reality many women work very long hours in unpaid domestic roles or low paid unskilled jobs, and it is mainly the exploitation of women which sustains both patriarchy and capitalism.
Feminists should be campaigning for better working conditions for women, and if women realised their power and just stopped working they could bring capitalism down, but this kind of activism is not very sexy or exciting and women remain ‘distracted’ with consuming their way to liberation.
For Marxist Feminists, the solutions to gender inequality are economic: we need to tackle capitalism to tackle patriarchy.
Two specific solutions include campaigning for better pay and conditions in jobs where mainly women work, such as cleaning and caring jobs.
Another solution is paying women for housework and childcare, thus putting an economic value on what is still largely women’s domestic work.
(See also – A Radical Feminist Perspective on the Family for more depth)
Radical feminists argue that all relationships between men and women are based on patriarchy, essentially men are the cause of women’s exploitation and oppression. For radical feminists, the nuclear family is where this system of oppression starts, it is the foundation on which patriarchy is based and thus should be abolished.
Against Liberal Feminism, they argue that paid work has not been ‘liberating’. Women’s lives within the family have not simply become better because they now have improved job opportunities and pay which is more equal to men’s.
Instead women have acquired the ‘dual burden’ of paid work and unpaid housework and the family remains patriarchal: men benefit from women’s paid earnings and their domestic labour. Some Radical Feminists go further arguing that women suffer from the ‘triple shift’ where they have to do paid work, domestic work and ‘emotion work’ – being expected to take on the emotional burden of caring for children.
Radical Feminists also argue that, for many women, there is a ‘dark side of family life’ – According to the Crime Survey for England and Wales domestic violence accounts for a sixth of all violent crime and nearly 1 in 5 adults will experience domestic violence at some point in their lives, with women being more than twice as likely to experience it than men.
Key thiker –Kate Millet (see below) was one of the leading American Second Wave Feminists in the 1960s and 70s and is one of the best known radical feminists.
“Patriarchy’s chief institution is the family. It is both a mirror of and a connection with the larger society; a patriarchal unit within a patriarchal whole. Mediating between the individual and the social structure, the family effects control and conformity where political and other authorities are insufficient. As the fundamental instrument and the foundation unit of patriarchal society the family and its roles are prototypical. Serving as an agent of the larger society, the family not only encourages its own members to adjust and conform, but acts as a unit in the government of the patriarchal state which rules its citizens through its family heads.
Traditionally, patriarchy granted the father nearly total ownership over wife or wives and children, including the powers of physical abuse and often even those of murder and sale. Classically, as head of the family the father is both begetter and owner in a system in which kinship is property. Yet in strict patriarchy, kinship is acknowledged only through association with the male line.
In contemporary patriarchies the male’s priority has recently been modified through the granting of divorce protection, citizenship, and property to women. Their chattel status continues in their loss of name, their obligation to adopt the husband’s domicile, and the general legal assumption that marriage involves an exchange of the female’s domestic service and (sexual) consortium in return for financial support.
The chief contribution of the family in patriarchy is the socialisation of the young (largely through the example and admonition of their parents) into patriarchal ideology’s prescribed attitudes toward the categories of role, temperament, and status. Although slight differences of definition depend here upon the parents’ grasp of cultural values, the general effect of uniformity is achieved, to be further reinforced through peers, schools, media, and other learning sources, formal and informal. While we may niggle over the balance of authority between the personalities of various households, one must remember that the entire culture supports masculine authority in all areas of life and – outside of the home – permits the female none at all.
Although there is no biological reason why the two central functions of the family (socialisation and reproduction) need be inseparable from or even take place within it, revolutionary or utopian efforts to remove these functions from the family have been so frustrated, so beset by difficulties, that most experiments so far have involved a gradual return to tradition. This is strong evidence of how basic a form patriarchy is within all societies, and of how pervasive its effects upon family members.”
Radical Feminists advocate for the abolition of the traditional, patriarchal nuclear family and the establishment of alternative family structures and sexual relations.
The various alternatives suggested by Radical Feminists include separatism – women only communes, and matrifocal households. Some extreme radical feminists also practise political lesbianism and political celibacy as they view heterosexual female relationships with men as “sleeping with the enemy.”
Radical feminists also argue for more support for female victims of domestic violence to help women out of abusive relationships.
(See also – A liberal Feminist Perspective on the Family for more depth)
Liberal Feminists do not emphasise the role of the family in perpetuating gender inequality in society as much as Marxist or Radical Feminists.
According to liberal Feminists gender inequalities are primarily caused by inequalities in the public sphere rather than inequalities in the home. Prior to 1972 the main problem was the lack of equal pay in work between men and women, and today two problems include:
Liberal Feminists tend to focus on achieving greater equality of opportunity in the public sphere: focussing on achieving equal access to education, equal pay, ending gender differences in subject and career choice won primarily through legal changes.
In Liberal Feminist theory if women have an equal chance as men to pursue careers outside of the family, they are free to choose NOT to be housewives and mothers.
We have made enormous progress towards equality in the public sphere in recent decades, and all that remains is ‘tweaking’ in certain areas, such as improving equality in higher managerial positions: there are still very few women employed at the senior executive levels.
Two social policies liberal feminists would support include the 2015 shared parental leave act in which the mother and father can share the mother’s maternity leave between them and the forthcoming 2024 act which proivdes free childcare for children down to 9 months of age.
A key thinker who can be characterised as a liberal feminist is Jennifer Somerville (2000) who provides a less radical critique of the family than Marxist or Radical Feminists and suggests proposals to improve family life for women that involve modest policy reforms rather than revolutionary change.
Somerville argues that many young women do not feel entirely sympathetic towards feminism yet still feel some sense of grievance.
To Somerville, many feminists have failed to acknowledge progress for women such as the greater freedom to go into paid work, and the greater degree of choice over whether they marry or cohabit, when and whether to have children, and whether to take part in a heterosexual or same-sex relationship or to simply live on their own.
The increased choice for women and the rise of the dual-earner household (both partners in work) has helped create greater equality within relationships. Somerville argues that ‘some modern men are voluntarily committed to sharing in those routine necessities of family survival, or they can be persuaded, cajoled, guilt-tripped or bullied’. Despite this, however, ‘women are angry, resentful and above all disappointed in men.’ Many men do not take on their full share of responsibilities and often these men can be ‘shown the door’.
Somerville raises the possibility that women might do without male partners, especially as so many prove inadequate, and instead get their sense of fulfilment from their children. Unlike Germain Greer, however, Somerville does not believe that living in a household without an adult male is the answer – the high figures for remarriage suggest that heterosexual attraction and the need for intimacy and companionship mean that heterosexual families will not disappear.
However, it remains the case that the inability of men to ‘pull their weight’ in relationships means that high rates of relationship breakdowns will continue to be the norm which will lead to more complex familial relationships as women end one relationship and attempt to rebuild the next with a new (typically male) partner.
What Feminists thus need to do is to focus on policies which will encourage greater equality within relationships and to help women cope with the practicalities of daily life. One set of policies which Somerville thinks particularly important are those aimed at helping working parents. The working hours and culture associated with many jobs are incompatible with family life. Many jobs are based on the idea of a male breadwinner who relies on a non-working wife to take care of the children.
Somerville argues that in order to achieve true equality within relationships we need increased flexibility in paid employment.
For a more in-depth exploration of Somerville’s work you can read her book, published in the year 2000: Feminism and the Family: Politics and Society in the UK and the USA.
If you like this sort of thing, then you might like my AS Sociology Families and Households Revision Bundle
The bundle contains the following:
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(1) This division goes back to Alison Jaggar’s (1983) Feminist Politics and Human Nature where she defined four theories related to feminism: liberal feminism, Marxism, radical feminism, and socialist feminism
Engels believed the nuclear family emerged with capitalism and private property, contemporary Marxists argue the family performs ideological functions.
Marxists argue that the nuclear family performs ideological functions for Capitalism – the family acts as a unit of consumption and teaches passive acceptance of hierarchy. It is also the institution through which the wealthy pass down their private property to their children, thus reproducing class inequality.
The Marxist Perspective on the Family an Overview:
This post has been written primarily for students studying the families and household option as part of A-level sociology.
Before reading this post, you might like to look at this summary of the key ideas of Marxism.
Marxism is a ‘structural conflict’ perspective. They see society as structured along class lines with institutions generally working in the interests of the small elite class who have economic power (the ‘Bourgeoisie’) and the much larger working class (the ‘Proletariat’). The Bourgeoise gain their wealth from exploiting the proletariat. There is thus a conflict of interests between the Bourgeoise and the Proletariat.
However, this conflict of interests rarely boils over into revolution because institutions such as the family perform the function of ‘ideological control’, or convincing the masses that the present unequal system is inevitable, natural and good.
Something else Marxists suggest about the family (like the Functional Fit theory) is that the family type generally changes with society – more specifically, the nuclear family emerges not because of the needs of industrialisation, but because of the needs of the capitalist system.
According to Engels, the monogamous nuclear family only emerged with Capitalism. Before Capitalism, traditional, tribal societies were classless and they practised a form of ‘primitive communism’ in which there was no private property. In such societies, property was collectively owned, and the family structure reflected this – there were no families as such, but tribal groups existed in a kind of ‘promiscuous horde’ in which there were no restrictions on sexual relationships.
However, with the emergence of Capitalism in the 18th Century, society and the family changed. Capitalism is based on a system of private ownership – The bourgeois use their own personal wealth to personally invest in businesses in order to make a profit, they don’t invest for the benefit of everyone else.
Eventually the Bourgeois started to look for ways to pass on their wealth to the next generation, rather than having it shared out amongst the masses, and this is where the monogamous nuclear family comes from. It is the best way of guaranteeing that you are passing on your property to your son, because in a monogamous relationship you have a clear idea of who your own children are.
Ultimately what this arrangement does is to reproduce inequality – The children of the rich grow up into wealth, while the children of the poor remain poor. Thus the nuclear family benefits the Bourgeois more than the proletariat.
Gender inequality clearly preceded Capitalism….. The vast majority of tribes in Africa and Asia are patriarchal, with women being barred from owning property, having no political power, and having to do most of the child care and hard physical labour.
Wealthy Capitalist economies such as the UK and USA have seen the fastest improvements in gender equality over the last 100 years. Capitalism, increasing wealth and gender equality within a nation seem to be correlated.
The modern nuclear family functions to promote values that ensure the reproduction and maintenance of capitalism. The family is described as an ideological apparatus – this means it socialises people to think in a way that justifies inequality and encourages people to accept the capitalist system as fair, natural and unchangeable.
One way in which this happens is that there is a hierarchy in most families which teaches children to accept there will always be someone in “authority” who they must obey, which then mirrors the hierarchy of boss-worker in paid employment in later life.
Capitalists/business owners want to keep workers’ wages down so they can make a profit, but to do so they must also be able to sell the workers goods i.e. they must create demand for their products. The family builds demand for goods in a number of ways
1) Families must keep up with the material goods/services acquired by their neighbours and peers e.g. family holidays, cars – this is known “Keeping up with the Joneses”. There are significant amounts of advertising and TV programmes influencing parents in this way.
2) The media and companies target children in their advertising who then persuade their parents through pester power to buy more expensive items. This is particularly bad in the UK where there few legal restrictions on adverts aimed at children; in Sweden advertising aimed at children under 12 is illegal.
If you like this sort of thing, then you might like my Sociology Families and Households Revision Bundle
The bundle contains the following:
The Marxist perspective on the family is normally taught after the Functionalist perspective on the Family, and is normally the second of five perspectives on the family within the families and households module in A-level sociology.
Functionalists focus on the positive functions of the nuclear family, such as secondary socialisation and the stabilisation of adult personalities.
Functionalists see the family as one of the essential building blocks for stable societies. They tend to to see the nuclear family as the ideal family for industrial societies and argue that it performs positive functions such as as socialising children and providing emotional security for parents.
There are two main Functionalist theorists of the family: George Peter Murdock and Talcott Parsons.
Murdock argued that the nuclear family was universal and that it performed four essential functions: stabilising the sex drive, reproduction, socialisation of the young and economic production. (Obviously this has been widely criticised!)
Parsons developed the Functional Fit Theory: In pre-industrial society families used to be extended, but with industrialisation families became nuclear because they fitted industrial society better.
This post covers:
Functionalists regard society as a system made up of different parts which depend on each other. Different institutions perform specific functions within a society to keep society going, in the same way as the different organs of a human body perform different functions in order to maintain the whole.
Functionalists see the family as a particularly important institution because it as the ‘basic building block’ of society which performs the crucial functions of socialising the young and meeting the emotional needs of its members. Stable families underpin social order and economic stability.
Before you go any further you might like to read this more in depth post ‘Introduction to Functionalism‘ post which covers the key ideas of Functionalism.
George Murdock was an American Anthropologist who looked at 200 different societies and argued that the nuclear family was a universal feature of all human societies. In other words, the nuclear family is in all societies!
Murdock suggested there were ‘four essential functions’ of the nuclear family:
1. Stable satisfaction of the sex drive – within monogamous relationships, which prevents sexual jealousy.
2. The biological reproduction of the next generation – without which society cannot continue.
3. Socialisation of the young – teaching basic norms and values
4. Meeting its members economic needs – producing food and shelter for example.
Parsons has a historical perspective on the evolution of the nuclear family. His functional fit theory is that as society changes, the type of family that ‘fits’ that society, and the functions it performs change. Over the last 200 years, society has moved from pre-industrial to industrial – and the main family type has changed from the extended family to the nuclear family. The nuclear family fits the more complex industrial society better, but it performs a reduced number of functions.
The extended family consisted of parents, children, grandparents and aunts and uncles living under one roof, or in a collection of houses very close to eachother. Such a large family unit ‘fitted’ pre-industrial society as the family was entirely responsible for the education of children, producing food and caring for the sick – basically it did everything for all its members.
In contrast to pre-industrial society, in industrial society (from the 1800s in the UK) the isolated “nuclear family” consisting of only parents and children becomees the norm. This type of family ‘fits’ industrial societies because it required a mobile workforce. The extended family was too difficult to move when families needed to move to find work to meet the requirements of a rapidly changing and growing economy. Furthermore, there was also less need for the extended family as more and more functions, such as health and education, gradually came to be carried out by the state.
I really like this brief explanation of Parson’s Functional Fit Theory:
According to Parsons, although the nuclear family performs reduced functions, it is still the only institution that can perform two core functions in society – Primary Socialisation and the Stabilisation of Adult Personalities.
The nuclear family is still responsible for teaching children the norms and values of society known as Primary Socialisation.
An important part of socialisation according to Functionalists is ‘gender role socialisation. If primary socialisation is done correctly then boys learn to adopt the ‘instrumental role’ (also known as the ‘breadwinner role) – they go on to go out to work and earns money. Girls learn to adopt the ‘expressive role’ – doing all the ‘caring work’, housework and bringing up the children.
The stabilisation of adult personalities refers to the emotional security which is achieved within a marital relationship between two adults. According to Parsons working life in Industrial society is stressful and the family is a place where the working man can return and be ‘de-stressed’ by his wife, which reduces conflict in society. This is also known as the ‘warm bath theory’.
Functionalists identify a number of positive functions of the nuclear family, below is a summary of some of these and a few more.
It is really important to be able to criticise the perspectives. Evaluation is worth around half of the marks in the exam!
Both Murdock and Parsons paint a very rosy picture of family life, presenting it as a harmonious and integrated institution. However, they downplay conflict in the family, particularly the ‘darker side’ of family life, such as violence against women and child abuse.
Parson’s view of the instrumental and expressive roles of men and women is very old-fashioned. It may have held some truth in the 1950s but today, with the majority of women in paid work, and the blurring of gender roles, it seems that both partners are more likely to take on both expressive and instrumental roles
Functionalists tend to ignore the way women suffer from the sexual division of labour in the family. Even today, women still end up being the primary child carers in 90% of families, and suffer the burden of extra work that this responsibility carries compared to their male partners. Gender roles are socially constructed and usually involve the oppression of women. There are no biological reasons for the functionalist’s view of separation of roles into male breadwinner & female homemaker. These roles lead to the disadvantages being experienced by women.
This means it ignores the fact that children actively create their own personalities. An individual’s personality isn’t pre-determined at birth or something they have no control in. Functionalism incorrectly assumes an almost robotic adoption of society’s values via our parents; clearly there are many examples where this isn’t the case.
If you like this sort of thing, then you might like my A-Level Sociology Families and Households Revision Bundle:
The bundle contains the following:
The Functionalist perspective on the family is usually the very first topic taught within the the families and households module.
Haralambos and Holborn (2013) – Sociology Themes and Perspectives, Eighth Edition, Collins. ISBN-10: 0007597479
Chapman et al (2015) A Level Sociology Student Book One, Including AS Level [Fourth Edition], Collins. ISBN-10: 0007597479
Robb Webb et al (2015) AQA A Level Sociology Book 1, Napier Press. ISBN-10: 0954007913