Both Functionalist and Marxist Sociologists theorised that the nuclear family was central to most people’s experiences in modern industrial society. However, recent research has suggested that postmodern societies are characterised by a plurality, or diversity, of household and family types, and so the idea of a dominant or normal family type is now misleading.
The cereal packet image of the family
In the 1980s Feminist Sociologist Ann Oakley (1982) described the image of the typical or ‘conventional’ family. She said, ‘conventional families are nuclear families composed of legally married couples, voluntarily choosing the parenthood of one or more (but not too many) children. Leach (1967) called this the ‘cereal packet image of the family’ because this image is the prominent in advertising, especially with ‘family sized’ products such as boxes of cereal.
Deborah Chambers (2001) argues that in the 1950s, English speaking countries developed ideas about sexuality, intimate relationships, living arrangements, reproduction and socialisation of children that were all based on the white middle class nuclear family, the image of which was prominent in the media at that time, and a number of comedies derived their humour from showing families which did not fit this norm, such as the Adam’s Family.
Chambers argues that there have also been a number of media-induced moral panics concerning non-nuclear families – especially single parent families, and concludes that many people lived under the spell of the ideology of the nuclear family well beyond the 1950s, and many of us still live under it today, holding this up as the ‘ideal family type’.
However, a considerable body of Feminist inspired research has shown that the idealised image of the cereal packet family is something of a myth: firstly, once we factor in the extent of female dissatisfaction in traditional relationships, the rates of domestic abuse, and the number of empty shell marriages, the reality is not as ideal as it appears in the media, and secondly, even the 1950s there were a range of different family types in society, but these have been under-represented in the media.
As early as 1978 (the year before Margaret Thatcher was elected to power) Robert and Rhona Rapoport (1982) drew attention to the fact that that only 20% of families in Britain consisted of married couples with children in which there was a single breadwinner, and thus argued that the cereal packet family was a myth.
In 1989 the Rapoports argued that increasing family diversity was a global trend, a view supported by a study of family life in Europe which found that increasing divorce, decreasing marriage and an increase in household diversity were a Europe-wide phenomenon.
In 202 it is even harder to maintain the idea that the nuclear family is ‘normal’, let alone ‘ideal’, because It is clear that we live in an increasingly diverse society, and families and households are more diverse today than in any other period of British History.
The table below shows how family diversity has increased in the UK between 1961 and 2010. Unfortunately this is the most recent time the Office for National Statistics displayed the long-term 50 year trend, more recent stats only show the 10 year trend:
Unfortunately, in A level Sociology it is simply not good enough to be able to identify the fact that the number of single person households and single parent families are increasing at the expense of ‘nuclear family’ households, you need to be much more analytical – In other words you need to be able to discuss diversification in much more depth.
The Rapoport’s Five Types of Family Diversity
The Rapoports (1982) identified five distinct elements of family diversity in the UK. Read the definitions of the different types of diversity and complete the table below.
Organisational diversity refers to variations in family structure, household type, and differences in the division of labour within the home. For example, there are differences between conventional families, one parent families and dual-worker families, in which both partners work. Also included within this type of diversity are reconstituted families, which are the result of divorce and re-partnering or remarriage and can take on a number of different organisational forms.
The Rapoports also identified significant variations by ethnicity – In the case of South Asian families, both Hindu and Muslim, there was a tendency for the families to be more traditional and patriarchal, and extended families were also more likely. They also found that that African Caribbean households were much more likely to matrifocal (or centred around the mother rather than the father), a fact reflected in the much higher rates of single parent families amongst African Caribbean households.
The Rapoports also found differences between working class and middle class families in terms of how children were socialised (middle class families are much more pro-school for example) and in terms of support-networks – Working class families were more likely to be embedded within a modified extended family network (having aunts/ uncles/ grandparents living nearby, but not in the same house) whereas middle class families were much more likely to be isolated, reflecting the increased geographical mobility of wealthier families.
The above differences existed between working class and the middle class families in the 1950s, but if anything had lessened by the 1980s. However, by that time The New Right was arguing that the Welfare State had given rise to a new class – The Underclass, with more families being long term unemployed and higher numbers of lone parents on benefits.
Life course Diversity
There are also differences which result from the stage of the life cycle of the family. Newly married couples without children, for example, have a different family life to those whose children have achieved adult status. One point to try and keep in mind here is that individuals today go through more stages of the life-course than they would have done in the 1950s.
A cohort of individuals refers to those born in the same year (or band of years). Such individuals may well have a shared experience of historical events which could have influenced their family life. For example, couples entering into marriage in the 1950s would have had an expectation that marriage was for life and traditional gender roles were the norm, but by the 1980s, all of this had changed.
Trends in Family Diversity since the 1980s: More Diverse?
The Rapoports go some way towards conceptualising increasing family diversity, but in reality diversity trends are messier than this, and families and households are now hugely more diverse since the 1980s:
The two sociologists below believe that the Rapoport’s system of classification doesn’t accurately describe the diversity of modern relationships and family life. Allan and Crow and Beck-Gernsheim argue that increasing individualisation (more individual choice) has led to even more diverse families since the 1980s
Allan and Crow (2001): Continuing Diversification
‘In an important sense there is no such thing as ‘the family’. There are many different families; many different family relationships; and consequently many different family forms. Each family develops and changes over time as its personnel develop and change’ (Allan and Crow 2001)
Graham Allan and Graham Crow (2001) commented on a continuing trend towards the diversification of family types. They argue there is now ”far greater diversity in people’s domestic arrangements’ so that there is no longer a clear ‘family cycle’ through which most people pass.” That is, most people no longer pass through a routine series of stages in family life whereby they leave home, get married, move in with their spouse and have children who in turn leave home themselves. Instead, each individual follows a more unpredictable family course, complicated by cohabitation, divorce, remarriage, periods of living alone and so on.
This diversity is based on increased choice. Allan and Crow say that individuals and families are now more able to exercise choice and personal volition over domestic and familial arrangements: their options are no longer constrained by convention or economic need.
Allan and Crow identify the following demographic changes as contributing to increased family diversity:
- The divorce rate has risen. This has affected most countries in the Western world, not just Britain.
- Lone parent households have increased in number. This is partly due to increased divorce, but also because pregnancy is no longer automatically seen as requiring legitimation through marriage.
- Cohabitation outside marriage is increasingly common. In the early 1960s only 1/20 women lived with her husband before marriage, now 1/2 do.
- Marriage rates have declined. This is partly because people are marrying later, but lifetime marriage rates also appear to have declined.
- A big increase in the number of step families also appears to have increased family diversity.
Elizabeth Beck-Gernsheim: Individualisation, Diversity and Lifestyle Choice
‘It is no longer possible to pronounce in some binding way what family, marriage, parenthood, sexuality, or love mean, what they should or could be; rather these vary in substance, norms and morality from individual to individual and from relationship to relationship.’ (Beck-Gernsheim 2002)
Beck-Gernsheim takes the idea of diversification even further than Allan and Crow. She argues that relationships and family life are so diverse that there are no longer any clear norms about what a modern relationship should consist of, let alone what a modern family should look like. Two pieces of evidence she cites for this are as follows:
In terms of relationships, Beck-Gernsheim points out that people today call their relationships different things – there are fewer ‘married’ couples and more ‘partners’ or just ‘couples’ – in the past we had an idea of what marriage meant, today it less clear what being part of a ‘couple’ or ‘living with a ‘partner’ actually means. She also points out being ‘coupled up’ doesn’t even necessarily involve living together, as the increasing amount of ‘Living Apart Together’ (LAT) relationships testifies to.
Where families are concerned, Beck argues that the increase in divorce and higher rates of breakdown amongst cohabitating families has resulted in the rise of the ‘patchwork family’ in which adults go through life with a series of different partners, which greatly adds to the complexity of family life (as in Judith Stacy’s Divorce Extended Family). In such family settings, one person may regard particular family members as forming part of their family, while other members living in the same household may define their family as consisting of different people. For example, children may or may not regard half-brothers and step-sisters as a part of their family, they may lose contact with one parent after divorce, and yet retain contact with all grandparents.
Interestingly, Beck-Gernsheim argues that modern reproductive technologies are changing our ideas about family life altogether – children of donor families effectively have three parents, for example, while women can choose to freeze their eggs in their 30s, allowing them to have children in their 40s or 50s once they are more financially secure – leading to more ‘single parents by choice’.
According to Beck-Gernsheim, increasing individualisation (increasing amounts of individual choice) has resulted in such an array of relationships and family-forms that it is impossible to define what the family is or should be any more, and this also makes a return to the norm of the traditional nuclear family very unlikely.
Signposting and related posts
This material is mainly relevant to the families and households topic, usually taught as part of the first year of A-level sociology.
A good next post to read would be ‘explaining increasing family diversity in the U.K.’
Haralambos and Holborne: Sociology Themes and Perspectives
Robb Webb: First Year A Level Sociology text book.