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!
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.
One obvious difference between same-sex and opposite sex couples when it comes to children is that same-sex couples don’t have the biological requirements to create their own children between them, so they have to seek alternative options.
The NHS outlines various different pathways for same-sex parents to raise children (the same options as for opposite sex couples who can’t conceive!) including using sperm donors, co-parenting, adoption and surrogacy.
Adoption is an increasingly popular option, and the number of adoptions to same-sex couples has been increasing recently, while the number to opposite sex couples has been in decline.
This means there are increasing numbers of same-sex families, relative to opposite sex families with children.
Are there differences in the way same-sex and opposite-sex families parent their children?
Psychologist Rachel Farr recently conducted a Longitudinal Study with 100 adopted families, and found no differences in outcomes of middle-aged children between same-sex and opposite-sex families. Generally, all children were well adjusted and saw being adopted as positive, irrespective of the sexuality of their parents. (Source, study from 2019.)
By ‘outcomes’ they mean the chances of having good mental health, good educational results, not becoming a criminal etc.
This Fact Check article in The Conversation on the topic goes back further and summarises yet more research that supports the consensus that same-sex parents are as ‘good’ as opposite-sex parents. However it also reminds us that there is considerable discrimination against same-sex parents, and there are some people who will selectively publish research which seems to paint same-sex parenting in a bad light, and reminds us that we should always scrutinise such research.
This recent blog post by Marina Everri from 2016 explores the experience of being a same-sex parent in Italy, and argues that while the outcomes of children are the same, problems arise for same-sex parents and children because of discrimination from outside the family circle – in schools for example.
This much more in-depth article shows how same-sex couples in eight European countries suffer from discrimination when trying to adopt. Discrimination can be an off-putting factor which may prevent some same-sex couples from going through with adoption.
Finally, there isn’t much qualitative research on the experience of being in a same-sex family, but I did find this from Stonewall, but it’s from 2009-10!
The Sex Map of Britain is a very interesting recent documentary series which ‘meets people for whom sex, sexuality and having children is far from straightforward.
The series covers the following topics:
The reality of being a ‘cheap prostitute’ – selling sex for as little as £4.
Why some people choose a career in porn.
Asexuality – why some people just don’t want sex.
Transgender escorts and parenting urges.
The journey of freezing eggs and ‘alternatives’ to IVF.
And a trip behind the scenes of a sexual health clinic.
Unfortunately the episode on polyamory has disappeared.
Relevance to A-level sociology
This is a terrific series to get students to explore the wonderful diversity of relationships and sexuality in postmodern society, and taken together, this collection clearly illustrates the postmodern view of modern family life – that there’s no longer such a thing as a ‘normal’ family or relationship!
There are nine available episodes available on iplayer for the next 10 months, and, suitably for a documentary series which explores the diversity of family life in postmodern society, they are all nice and short, so perfect for postmodern students with postmodern attention spans (i.e. short ones).
Durkheim’s view of religion implied that a truly religious society could only have one religion in that society. In Durkheim’s analysis this was the situation in small-scale, Aboriginal societies, where every member of that society comes together at certain times in the year to engage in religious rituals. It was based on observations of such societies that Durkheim theorized that when worshiping religion, people were really worshiping society.
However, in more modern societies, especially postmodern societies, there is no one dominant religion: there are many religions, or a plurality of religions. Sociologists describe such a situation as religious pluralism.
According to Steve Bruce (2011) modernization and industrialization in Northern Europe and America brought with them social fragmentation, such that a plurality of different cultural and religious groups emerged. We see religious pluralism most obviously in the growth of sects and cults and in the increase in ethnic diversity of religion in societies.
Two process happen as a result of this: people find that their membership of their particular group or religion no longer binds them to society as a whole; and the state finds it difficult to formally support one ‘main religion’ without causing conflict.
Bruce thus argues that ‘strong religion’, which influences practically every areas of people’s lives: shaping their beliefs and practices cannot exist in a religiously plural society. Strong religion can only exist in isolated pockets, such as the Amish communities, but these have isolated themselves from society as a whole.
Religiously plural societies are thus characterized by ‘weak religion’ – which is a matter of personal choice and does not dominate every aspect of people’s lives. Weak religions accept that there is room for other religious belief systems and have little social impact.
Examples of weak religions include modern Protestantism, the ecumenical movement and New Ageism.
Arguments against increasing religious pluralism as evidence of secularization
It is possible that religion is just changing to fit a postmodern society rather than it being in decline. Why does a society need to have one dominant religion for us to be able to say that religion is important?
It might be that diverse religions which preach tolerance of other religions are the only functional religions for a diverse postmodern society.
There are societies which have more than one religion where religious beliefs are still strong: for example Northern Ireland and Israel.
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 2015 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 – Even Greater Diversification?
The two sets of thinkers below believe that the Rapaport’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.
Haralambos and Holborne: Sociology Themes and Perspectives
Robb Webb: First Year A Level Sociology text book.
How to get full marks for a 10 mark ‘item’ question in sociology A-level.
This question cam up as part of the families and households option in A level sociology paper 2 (topics in sociology), June 2017.
In the 1950s, most immigrants into the United Kingdom came from Commonwealth countries such as India and Jamaica. More recently, many immigrants have come from European countries such as Poland. May immigrants are young adults seeking work.
These migration patterns have affected household structures.
Applying material from Item C, analyse two ways in which migration patterns have affected household structures in the United Kingdom.
Answer (hints and tips)
Point one – has to be about the variation in Caribbean and Indian household structures… quite easy I think… Of course you could talk about both separately.
Point two – asks that that you talk about more recent structures, drawing on Polish immigration.
What kind of household structures could you discuss?
Number of people in the household – so single person, or multiple occupancy.
The relationships between the people in the household – married or not? Friends or families? Ages?
Gender roles in those households – domestic division of labour
Numbers of adults and children (e.g. single person households)
Matrifocal/ Patrifocal household
The relationships between people in one household and other households (maybe a useful way to demonstrated analysis)
So a potential answer might look like this:
Point one – focusing on Caribbean and Indian migration
Caribbean households – 60% single parent families
Link to male unemployment/ racism in society
Contrast to Indian households
Higher rate marriage/ lower rate divorce
But later generations – divorce more likely
Discuss Mixed race couples
Point two – focusing on European migration
Almost certainly less you can say about this! But as long as you’ve made the most of the previous point, you could easily get into the top mark band…
Younger age structure
More likely to have children and be married
Higher proportion of married families with children
Probably more shared-households – younger people without children sharing.
However, it does concern me that the AQA’s online specification explicitly directs teachers to really dated material, and most of the text books focus on this, while this exam question expects students to know about recent events relating to migration and the family which are neither on their online specification or in any of the major A level text books.
I think the AQA needs to relax it’s focus on that really dated material (the classic question on ‘Functionalism and the Family’ in the same paper is a good example of how students are expected to know in-depth this stuff from the 1950s) if it’s going to demand a more contemporary focus.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a contemporary focus, just all that dated material that was such a waste of time students learning (like Pahl and Volger FFS), just in case it came up. This is a real problem because it makes sociology lose credibility, undermining the discipline.
Critics might say this problem emerges from the fact that whoever sets the agenda for the AQA families and households syllabus is something of a timeserver who can’t be bothered to update the specification appropriately by cutting down all the dated material. They might cite as evidence for this the fact that the specification hasn’t really changed significantly in 30 years.
Full answer from the AQA
Below is an example of an abbreviated (by me) marked response to this question, which achieved a top band-mark, 10/10 in fact!
The example is taken from the 2017 Education with Theory and Methods Paper (paper and mark schemes available from the AQA website).
The Question with Item
The Mark Scheme (top band only)
Item C points out that most immigrants come to Britain from commonwealth countries such as Jamaica. Bertod did a study of Caribbean families which found a type of individualism: the norm that people had to right to be free within marriage even if they had a child with the other person. This meant many Caribbean fathers chose not to stay with the mother of their children, leading to an increase in lone parent families.
Thus it follows that the increase in Caribbean immigration has lead to an increase in single parent families which is up from 10% in the 1970s to 23% today.
Item C also says that immigrants come from India. A study by Ballard found that South East Asians have collective, traditional values and tight knit extended families which support traditional family values – women having many children and being in the expressive role, and men in the breadwinner role, with close ties to grandparents.
This should mean an increase in traditional extended families in the UK due to Indian immigration, however the statistics do not confirm this as the divorce rate has increased dramatically since the 1970s. This does not support the idea of increased traditional families as these value marriages.
However, functionalists argue that divorce can be healthy as it there is better quality relationships in surviving marriages and remarriages.
This is overkill, easily 10/10!
Apparently 4 students died instantly of boredom on seeing the question because of reference to yet more sociology from before their parents were born.
Feedback on the Examinations
Student responses and commentaries: Paper 1 7192/2 Topics in Sociology
Published: Autumn 2017
NB – this document is NOT available on the AQA website, but any teacher should have access to it via eaqa. I’m sharing it here in order to make the exam standards more accessible, and to support the AQA in their equality and meritocratic agendas, because there will be some poor students somewhere whose teachers aren’t organised enough to access this material for them.