This post explores the similarities and differences in marriage and civil partnership between same sex and opposite sex couples in England and Wales. It has been written to fit in with the A-level Sociology families and households specification.
The introduction of the Civil Partnerships Act in 2005 saw a huge number of male and female same sex couples becoming civil partners, with the yearly number of civil partnerships stabilising at just over 6000 a year in the late 2000s.
The introduction of same-sex marriage in 2014 saw a further drop, so that now there are just under 1000 civil partnerships a year, with male couples slightly more likely to form them than female couples.
It seems that marriage is taking over from civil partnerships.
The ONS reported in 2017 that ‘A total of 4,850 marriages were formed between same sex couples in 2014. Of these, 44% (2,129) were between male couples and 56% (2,721) were between female couples.’
The median duration of marriage for same-sex couples who divorced in 2018 was 3.9 years for men and 3.5 years for women. (ONS, Divorces in England and Wales 2018). 80% of divorces are to female couples!
NB there is currently very little data to go on for same sex divorces, as there are so few marriages!
This post outlines some of the ‘key facts’ students should know for the A-level sociology families and households topics.
The statistics below are taken from range of different topics covered as part of the families and households specification (AQA focus), and I find it useful to introduce students to them as part of the ‘introduction to families’ lesson.
The activity I use is to give students a series of cut up cards, some with the ‘fact’ and some with the ‘number’, students can then match them as a pair work activity, or you could do it as a stand up walk around whole class activity (one card per student).
The list of facts for students to puzzle out is as follows:
Insert image of card matching (cut up)
Once students have tried their best to puzzle out the correct answers, I give them a gapped answer sheet and get them to research the different sources of the data and comment on how valid they think each piece of data is, by thinking about HOW the data was collected, or how the figures were calculated.
Insert image of gapped answer sheet (link to teaching resources eventually!)
This blog post is effectively the extended answers to the above gapped hand-out.
What percentage of marriages end in divorce?
Almost 44% of marriages in 1987 had ended in divorce by the year 2018.
That 43.9% figure may sound alarming, but this is only true for marriages which took place in 1987, which is the ‘peak year’ (so far) for marriages ending in divorce.
If you look at marriages from slightly earlier years, then you get slightly lower figures. If you look at the divorce rate for the years after 1987, then the figures are also lower, and they could well stay that way because of the marriage rate declining since the late 1980s. Over time, as marriage has become more of a choice, this should lower the long-term divorce rate.
It follows that if we took an average divorce rate for several years surrounding 1987, we’d see a percentage lower than 43.9%.
So the data is valid, but only for two static years – 1987 to 2018. Any other selection of years will give you a different rate. Having said that, if you look at the lines in the graph above, they do seem to follow a predictable trend, so it’s unlikely that this figure is outright misleading! Just keep in mind it’s probably the very peak!
What percentage of households in the UK are cohabiting?
In 2018, almost 18% of family households were cohabiting compared to 67% married and 15% lone-parent.
The cohabiting family household has been one of the fastest growing household types in recent years
If you work it out per year, that’s about £8300 per year that parents are spending on their children on average, which sounds suspicious.
This might be an invalid figure because it includes housing costs, and it’s a bit dubious whether this is the actual cost, given that parents need a home to live in anyway. You can’t necessarily attribute the cost of an extra bedroom in a house to having a child as many childless couples live in houses with spare bedrooms.
It follows that a figure without housing costs might be more valid as that would be closer the money that’s spent exclusively on the child.
The report also makes it clear that the figure does not represent all families – it is more expensive for lone parent families to raise a child to age 18 – it costs them £185 000.
On average, how much more money a year does it cost to live a year if you are a single person living alone?
Single person households spend 92% of their disposable income, compared to only 83% for couples, meaning there is a 9% difference between the two.
The main idea of Political Lesbianism is that sexuality is a choice. It’s about rejecting heterosexuality and men, not necessarily about having sex with women.
It is one of the key ideas of Radical Feminism, although keep in mind that this is extreme, and not representative of all Radical Feminists!
According to Julie Bindel the debate over whether Feminists should ‘give up heterosexual sex and adopt Political Lesbianism as a practice started with the publication of a pamphlet in 1979 called ‘Love Your Enemy: the debate between heterosexual feminism and political lesbianism’, put together by the Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Group, and the main author being Shiela Jeffries.
Women needed to get rid of men from their beds and their heads to be truly free.
Male oppression is the only system of oppression in which the oppressor literally invades and colonises the interior of the other.
Penetrative sex (between men and women) is more than a symbol of oppression, its function and effect is the punishment and control of women.
Sexuality is not determined by genetics, it is not just biological, it is shaped by culture and it is a choice.
The pamphlet caused quite a debate within Feminism in the early 1980s, and it probably enhanced divisions within the movement. The video below explores some of the issues and conflicts surrounding Political Lesbianism
Criticisms of Political Lesbianism
Bea Campbell argued that it was more important to challenge men’s behaviour in heterosexual relationships than to insist that women give up heterosexual desire.
Lynne Segal also thinks we should celebrate heterosexuality.
Political Lesbianism seems to be based on a fear of men, rather than a love of women and/ or diversity!
Further reading on Political Lesbianism
Shiela Jeffries the main author of LYE has recently written a book, The Lesbian Revolution, which takes an in-depth historical look at the events of the time.
Drawing on marked exemplars from the AQA exam board this post unpicks what you need to do to get and A* in the the AQA’s topics in sociology paper (7192/2) – for section A only, families and households option
This post draws on marked examples from the AQA exam board’s A-level sociology papers 7192/32: Topics in Sociology to demonstrate what you need to do to get an A* grade in sociology A-level.
NB – this post only refers to section A: the families and households option, your option in section A might be different, and you will need to repeat this level of performance in section B in order to A* this paper!
However, let’s play it safe and say that the easiest way to ‘guarantee’ your A* is to just sneak into the top mark bands for each of the questions. If you did this in section A, you would get:
Q04 – 8/10
Q05 – 8/10
Q06 – 17/20
= Total marks of 66/80, if you repeat this performance for the same question styles in section B, COMFORTABLY into the A* category!
The remainder of this post explains how to get top band marks in each of the 3 style of questions on paper 3, drawing on specific examples from a the AQA’s specimen papers and some model marked scripts from last year’s 2017 A-level sociology examination series.
For more details on how these exams are assessed, please see the AQA’s web site.
Strategies to get an A* in A Level sociology (focusing on paper 7192/2, families and households option)
Question 04: the 10 mark, no item, question: outline two ways/ reasons/ criticisms, no item
The example below, from the 2017 paper 2 achieved 8/10.
How do we explain the long term decline in UK Poverty rate, and its more recent increase?
The UK has seen significant falls in poverty over the last 20 years, HOWEVER, this progress is now at risk of reversing as poverty rates have been increasing in recent years. This blog posts summarizes the 20 year trend in UK Poverty according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s 2017 Poverty Report. Specifically it looks at:
The overall 20 year trend in UK poverty
poverty among pensioners and children
Three drivers of the reduction in poverty rates
Three threats to the continued reduction in poverty rates
NB I’m using the same information from the report, but I’ve changed the order in which it’s reported and summarized it down further. Personally I think my version is much more immediately accessible to your ‘non-expert’: IMO the ‘JRF have a tendency to ‘over-report’ reams of nuanced data, and the overall picture just gets lost. The detail’s important if you’re a policy wonk, but probably going to get lost on the average, interested member of the general public.
Before reading this post you might like to check out my ‘what is poverty?‘ post which covers the basic definition of some of the terms used below.
The overall 20 year trend in UK poverty….the fall and rise of UK poverty rates
20 years ago, in 1996, nearly a quarter (24%) of the UK’s population lived in poverty. By 2004, this had fallen to one in five (20%) of the population. However, by 2016, the proportion had risen slightly to 22%.
*Relative poverty is when a family has an income of less than 60% of median income for their family type, after housing costs.
Children and pensioners living in poverty
As the chart above clearly shows, the biggest success stories in the long term reduction in poverty over the last 20 years are the numbers of pensioners who have been taken out of poverty and (to a lesser extent) the number of children.. As the chart above shows:
In 1995, 28% of pensioners lived in poverty, falling to 13% in 2012, but rising to 16% by 2016.
In 1995, a third of children lived in poverty, falling to 27% in 2012, but rising to 30% in 2016
However, during that time the proportion of working age couples without children in poverty actually grew slightly, from 16% to 18%.
Factors correlated with falling poverty rates
The report notes three main factors which are mainly responsible for this long term overall decline in poverty:
Rising employment, linked with higher wages due to the minimum wage, and better education.
Increased support through benefits, especially the increase in the state pension age, but also out of work benefits for working age people with children
Housing benefit and increased home ownership containing the impact of rising rents.
Factors explaining the long term decrease of UK Poverty in more depth
It seems that the main drivers behind the long-term decrease in poverty in the UK are the ‘positive’ economic factors such as improvements in the employment rate, pay and conditions, rather than increases to benefits.
Below I select what appear to be the five most import factors from the report which explain the long term decrease in poverty.
The increase in the state pension
The most significant reduction in poverty has been achieved with pensioners, and according to the JRF report, the main reason for this was a one off increase in the state pension at the beginning of the century:
NB – there is a lot of variation in pensioner income, which I may explore in a future post…
The employment rate has increase from around 71% in 1996 to around 75% in 2016…
NB – while you are statistically more likely to be in poverty if you’re not in-work, being employed it itself is not sufficient to avoid being in poverty. Both the introduction of the minimum wage, and changes to in work benefits for lone parents have been essential to making sure that a higher proportion of people in employment are also not officially in poverty. While work today is more likely to lift you out of poverty than in 1996, it remains the case that a large percentage of those in poverty are in-work (typically in part-time jobs).
Earnings are up for people with all levels of qualifications…
Obviously higher earnings are more likely to lift people out of poverty, HOWEVER, at the bottom end of the income earning scale, and especially for those with children and in part-time jobs, the increasing cost of living, especially rent (but also childcare and even food and utilities) has negated much of the above increase in wages, hence why government support in the form of child tax credits and housing benefit remains important.
The number of people with degrees has nearly trebled in this period: from around 12% of the UK population to over 30%
Those with degrees earn approximately twice the amount of those with no qualifications, so it would seem that New Labour’s focus on ‘education, education, education‘, and their push to get more people into higher education has had a positive impact in poverty reduction. However, with the introduction of tuition fees and with increasing competition for highly skilled jobs coming from abroad, it’s not clear that this trend (of more and more people getting degrees) is set to continue.
The introduction of the national minimum wage has resulted in a 46% relative pay increase for the poorest 10%, compared to a 40% median national increase
Both the introduction of the minimum wage and its subsequent increases seem to have been one of the most important factors in tackling in-work poverty. However, even with the minimum wage, a possible future barrier to further poverty reduction lies in the growth of precarious jobs leading to ‘underemployment’ – where people get too few hours to earn a decent living. For more on this, see my summary of the RSA’s report on ‘Future Work in the UK‘.
The increase in out of work benefits for people with children
Basically, there has a been a very slight long-term increase in out of work benefits for people with children, who are now slightly better off than 20 years ago, while poor people without children have seen no change, or are slightly worse off.
I guess this leads to an overall reduction in the poverty rate simply because there are more people per family household rather than just couple or single person household.
You can see from the above chart, that lone parents claiming JSA and child benefits were briefly lifted to 60% of median income (just on the poverty line) – sufficient to take them out of poverty, however, you can also see that benefits are again being cut back, so we can probably expect poverty rates to increase again in the future!
And one factor which doesn’t seem to explain the overall reduction in poverty… changes to in-work benefits…
With the exception of single parents who are better off over a twenty year period, every other household type seems to be worse off! Thus I can’t see how this variable would explain the long term decrease in UK poverty.
Potential barriers to further reductions in poverty
All three of the main drivers of poverty reduction mentioned above are now under question:
The continued rise in employment is no longer reducing poverty.
State support for low-income families is falling in real terms, and negates the gains made by increasing employment and wages.
Rising rents, less help for low-income renters and falling home ownership leave more people struggling to meet the cost of housing.
Question 2 on the AS sociology paper 2 exam (research methods with topics in sociology) will ask you to briefly explain something using one example. Below are a few examples of how you might go about answering such questions, using the families and households topic as an example…
Using one example briefly explain what is meant by the term Patriarchy (2)
Patriarchy is a system of male domination and control of women. A good example of this is where social norms and values suggest women should be at home looking after the kids and men work, this makes women dependent on men for money, and thus easier to control.
Using one example explain what is meant by the term ‘childhood is socially constructed’ (2)
The idea that the norms and values and social roles associated with childhood are not determined by the biological age of a child, but are influenced by society, and thus ideas associated with childhood vary over time – FOR EXAMPLE in Britain today ‘children’ aged 15 are prevented from working full time by law, but in the Victorian era it was acceptable for children to work.
Using one example explain what is meant by the ‘commercialisation of housework’ (2)
New technologies mean that there are now products people can buy which reduces the amount of domestic labour people have to do at home – e.g. hoovers, washing machines, microwaves and microwave meals reduce the amount of time spend cleaning, washing and cooking.
Functionalist sociologists tended to define the family as consisting of two parents in a committed relationship living together with their children. Postmodern and other sociologists have much broader definitions.
Sociologists do not agree on one standard definition of ‘the family’.
Functionalist sociologists traditionally used narrow definitions of the family, in which the family unit had to consist of a “man and a woman in a committed sexual relationship living together with their children“.
More contemporary Postmodern sociologists prefer much broader definitions of the family which extend the concept to include anyone an individual thinks of as being ‘part of the family’, such as friends or even pets.
From a postmodern perspective there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ definition of the family, but you do need to know how different sociologists define the family to really understand their perspective on the family, and to be able to evaluate the different perspectives.
The rest of this introductory post explores how the concept of ‘the family’ has been used by different sociologists, and aims to get you thinking about what the family is.
Functionalist Sociologist George Peter Murdock used the following definition of the family as a starting point in his classic cross national study of families in more than 250 societies.
‘A social group characterised by common residence, economic cooperation and reproduction. It includes adults of both sexes, at least two of whom maintain a socially approved sexual relationship, and one or more children, own or adopted, of the sexually cohabiting adults’ (Murdock, 1949).
Today, many Sociologists criticise the classic functionalist definition of the family as being too narrow because (both today and historically) too many groups of people who regard themselves as a family would not be included in this definition, such as reconstituted or step-families and same sex families.
A broader definition is provided by The Oxford English Dictionary which defines ‘the family’ as ‘a group consisting of one or two parents and their children’. (1)
The above definition includes step-families, single parent families and doesn’t even mention sex or sexual orientation of the parents, so includes same-sex families too.
Families and Households
We often think of families as living in one household, however the Oxford definition above says nothing at all about households, so in the above definition it’s feasible that a family spans multiple households, which, from the perspective of families themselves is quite normal.
For example, a couple in their 70s with one adult daughter who have moved out and is living on her own would probably all regard themselves as one family.
Similarly with families and households across the generations: grandparents are usually regarded as part of the broader or extended family, for example, and if grandparents and then parents each have two children, from the perspective of the older generation their family will extend across several households.
The problem with accepting these subjective definitions is that we quickly lose track of how many families there are, especially when we factor in divorce and step-families, the concept of family starts to become very complex, hence why for statistical purposes it might be easier to define the family at a household level, which is what the ONS does in its annual research.
The Office for National Statistics (2) defines a family as:
“A married, civil-partnered or cohabiting couple with or without children, or a lone parent with at least one child, who lives at the same address; children may be dependent or non-dependent.”
One advantage of the above is that we have an objective definition of what counts as a family and so we we can compare the number of family-households over time, which is one of the aims of the ONS.
However a weakness is that it limits the definition of the family so that it is something different to subject definitions. For example, in the above definition the couple in their 70s with one childless daughter who has moved out to live alone isn’t a family.
Households are broader than families
A household is simply a group of people (or single person) who share a residence in common and share such things as meals, bills, facilities or chores, or one person living alone.
The main household types in the UK include:
family households (as defined above)
single person households
Shared households (such as student households).
Different types of family
One way around the problem of defining a family is to distinguish carefully between different ‘family arrangements’ when we discuss them. It is also generally good practice to define your concepts tightly in the early stages of conducting research, or when writing essays on the concept.
There is nothing wrong with limiting your research or analysis to just one specific type of family, you just need to make sure you are clear about limiting your discussion. (It’s often necessary to focus more tightly just for the sake of time!)
Some of the most common family types in modern Britain include.
The Nuclear Family – two parents with biological children living in one household.
The reconstituted family – two partners living in one household sharing parental duties for one or more children, but only one of them is the biological parent.
The single parent family – one adult with one or more children living in one household
The extended family – where relatives such as uncles/ aunts or grandparents reside permanently in the same household as those making up the nuclear family.
Postmodern definitions of the family
Because of the diversity within family life in contemporary Britain, post-modern thinkers suggest that it is better to use a broader definition of ‘thefamily’, which includes a very broad range of family types – one suggested definition of the family is ‘a group of people who are related by either blood or marriage/ similar form of committed relationship’.
The Personal Life Perspective‘s definition of the family is inspired by postmodernism, arguing that we should accept the unique definition of the family as each individual sees it which may mean we have different definitions of what the family is even within the same family household.
For example a step-father may view his family as the current family he is living with and his ex-wife’s family, but his step-daughter who is living with him may not regard his ‘other family’ as part of her family, and she may regard her pony as part of her family, but her dad may not.
From the Personal Life Perspective we will end up including friends, pets and dead relatives as part of some people’s families.
The strength of the above is that we get a full picture of the complexity of people’s understandings of the family, but it doesn’t leave us much possibility of doing anything other than describe this complexity.
Case study: the Rainbow Family of Light
Have a look at the case study below, do you think this group of people is a ‘family’?
The Rainbow Family was created out of the Vortex gathering in Oregon from August 28 to September 3, 1970. Inspired in large part by the first Woodstock Festival.
Those who attend Rainbow Gatherings usually share an interest in intentional communities, ecology and new age spirituality. Attendees refer to one another as “brother”, “sister”, or the gender neutral term, “sibling.” Attendance is open to all interested parties and decisions are reached through group meetings leading to some form of group consensus.
The organisation is a loose, international affiliation of individuals who have a stated goal of trying to achieve peace and love on earth. There are no official leaders or structure, no official spokespersons, and no formalised membership. Strictly speaking, the only goals are set by each individual, as no individual can claim to represent all Rainbows in word or deed.
Rainbow Family video
Apparently all is not well with the Rainbow family at the moment:
Question: is the family rainbow of light a family?
Think carefully about this – if you do then it means that practically any group of friends with close emotional ties should be called a family, but is this really what me mean when we use the term ‘family’? Or should sociologists limit themselves to studying families in the more traditional sense of the word?
Defining the family… why it matters…
You can only really get your head around perspectives on the family if you understand how different perspectives define the family differently!
Ultimately, how you define the family will determine how you conclude any essay within the families and households module!
The Personal Life Perspective: dogs and dead relatives are part of the family too!
It is increasingly common for people to form close, emotional relationships with their friends, pets and other ‘fictive kin’, and to regard these people (or animals) as part of their family.
People can have close ‘family like’ relationships which provide an emotional and even a financial support network without being in a ‘normal’ family, and if we wish to understand personal life today, we need to focus on the close personal connections which individuals have rather than families in the traditional sense.
The personal life perspective on the family is essentially an Interactionist perspective and criticises structural perspectives such as Functionalism, Marxism and Feminism for assuming the nuclear family is the dominant type of family and taking that as the base unit for analysis.
Rather than studying ‘the nuclear family’ in the traditional sense, we study individuals and take the time to understand their own personal perspective on their own family.
If we do this, we will find multiple definitions and understandings of the family with some people seeing pets, friends, or dead relatives as more important in their personal lives than members of their actual family in the traditional sense of the word.
However, this doesn’t necessarily mean people are free to construct whatever family they see fit, they are still constrained by social norms.
Carol Smart is the main thinker associated with this perspective.
A summary of the Personal Life Perspective
Criticisms of Structural Perspectives
The Personal Life Perspective makes two main criticisms of structural perspectives on the family such as Functionalism and Marxism
They tend to assume 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.
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.’
Personal Life, not necessarily the family!
People can have close, emotional, and meaningful relationships without being embedded in anything like a ‘normal’ idea of a family, thus why we should be looking at personal life from the perspective of individuals rather than focusing on families as the base unit of analysis.
For example, people may have close connections (like we would normally associate with husband-wife, mother-daughter) from all or any of the following:
Fictive Kin are people who are regarded as family even though they are not related by blood, marriage or adoption.
HINT: It might be useful to remember the Personal Life Perspective as the one about ‘pets and dead relatives’!
Families are complex yet still ‘constrained’
For those people who do form families, the PLP perspective recognises that family structures are complex and that there are several different ways roles within family life may be divided up making for a huge variety in family diversity.
Moreover, different people within the same family may have different views of WHO is in that family. For example, one person might think a dead relative is still part of it, everyone else might disagree; one divorced partner in a stepfamily may regard their family as divorce-extended, the other partner whose first relationship it is might have a different conception.
However, families are still constrained by at least three factors:
Personal family history
Structural factors such as class, gender and ethnicity.
These constraints mean that people aren’t just free to make up and defined their families anyway they see fit, there are ‘normative demands’ on them made by objective reality, so this isn’t a purely postmodern take on family life.
Carol Smart: ‘Personal Life: New Directions in Sociological Thinking’
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.
Supporting evidence for the Personal Life Perspective
Fictive Kin are often regarded as part of the family
Fictive Kin are people who are regarded as family even though they are not related by blood, marriage or adoption.
According to a 2013 survey of 6500 adults in the Netherlands (1) 35% of older persons aged 61-79 were most likely to have fictive kin, as did 23% of middle-aged people, aged 41-60 and 16% of younger people, aged 18-40 had fictive kin
The paper-and-pencil questionnaire included the following question: “Who do you consider to be part of ‘your family’?” Alternatives included: partner, children, parents, siblings, nieces and nephews, grandparents, grandchildren, uncles and aunts, cousins, other relatives, parents-in-law, siblings-in-law, others-in-law, and, finally, “others (a friend, neighbor, etc.).”
The final category was how ‘Fictive Kin’ was operationalized.
This study has some level of reliability as a previous 1992 Study (2) found that 40% of older people identify fictive kin as family.
Pets are often regarded as part of the family
According to a survey of 1000 households and a further 193 in-depth interviews carried out between May 2001 and December 2003 in Swansea, South Wales (3) 46/193 people spontaneously mentioned pets as part of their family.
According to Blue Cross Pet Census 95% of respondents said they view their pets like family, over 70% said they have bought their pet something nice to show them they love them, although I think this may be a case of a biased sample of hardcore pet-lovers when we look at another (2022) survey by the World Animal Foundation 52% of adults in the UK had a pet in 2022, and half of those think they make great companions, which suggests the figure regarding their pets as family is much less than 95%!
This (2023) UK petition to treat pets like children certainly suggests there is support for pets to be treated like part of the family. It is campaigning to get the law changed around how pets are treated during divorce: currently they are treated like property, treating them like children would mean their welfare has to be taken in to account during a relationship breakdown, which currently isn’t the case under British law.
Evidence of Complex family maps…
Eliza Garwood (4) carried out biographical narrative interviews with twenty-two adult children raised by LGBTQ parents.
She documents case studies of how some respondents were born to two apparently heterosexual parents, and spent their early childhoods in that relationship, but then one parent came out and/ or transitioned, broke up with the other parent and established themselves in a queer relationship, with the child being parented by two LGBTQ parents in their later childhood.
She found that many of these (now adult) children have spent considerable time and effort actively construct their kinship-stories as adults, and their sense of family is thus very complex, and often rooted in a sense of injustice about the discrimination than LGBTQ people face.
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.
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.
It recognises that people are active in constructing relationships. You can use this to criticise the New Right’s view of the nuclear family: the nuclear family may be in decline, but from the PLP it doesn’t matter because there’s all sorts of other relationships that can provide emotional support.
Taking the personal life perspective can be accused to taking too broad a view, all we can really do is describe or map out relationships.
Traditional married and cohabiting nuclear families probably provide more financial support to children than friends and more emotional support than pets, so let’s not exaggerate the importance of certain types of personal relationship.
It makes choosing a nationally representative sample of ‘families’ very difficult: there is so much diversity we may not be able to make generalisations from any sample.
A recent (2022) Survey on Declining Friendship USA has found that friendship is in decline in America: people report having fewer friends than in the 1990s, and that they rely on them less for emotional support than was the case 20 years ago. This suggests that friendship might not be replacing the family, rather nothing is!
women do housework and childcare for free and this benefits capitalism.
Marxist Feminists argue that the exploitative relations of capitalism are what causes exploitative patriarchal relations within the family.
Individual men may benefit from the unpaid domestic labour and childcare which mainly women do, but it is the capitalist system within is the main cause of women being in the subordinate housewife and mother roles.
It is ultimately capitalism which needs to be brought down in order for patriarchal relations within the family to cease.
Women’s free domestic labour benefits capitalism
A main focus for marxist feminists in the 1970s was ‘housework’ which was seen as the intersection of class and gender based modes of exploitation.
Housework was not regarded as real work, and thus unpaid, because of the structure of the capitalist system. It was primarily women who did this work for free, never pausing to think that they might even be paid for it. While male breadwinners benefited directly from the free labour of their female partners, the main beneficiary was the capitalist economy: women provided for the domestic needs of men so they could keep serving the needs of the system through doing paid work.
To Quote Margaret Benston:
‘The amount of unpaid labour performed by women is very large and very profitable to those who own the means of production. To pay women for their work, even at minimum wage scales, would involve a massive redistribution of wealth. At present, the support of the family is a hidden tax on the wage earner – his wage buys the labour power of two people’ (Margaret Benston, 1972).
In other words, all of the chores associated with the traditional, expressive role, such as domestic labour, child care and emotion work are necessary to ‘keep the family going’ and so women’s unpaid work ultimately ends up benefiting the capitalist class, because they only have to pay the male breadwinner a wage. The woman attends to the husband’s needs and ‘keeps him going’ as a worker for free.
A related point here is made by Fran Ansley who sees the emotional support provided by men as a safety valve for the frustrations produced in the husband by working in a capitalist system:
‘When wives play their traditional role as takers of shit, they often absorb their husband’s legitimate anger and frustration at their own powerlessness and oppression.’
(NB This analysis is essentially a more critical view of Parson’s ‘warm bath theory’ – the theory of the stabilisation of adult personalities – in Marxist-Feminist terms this is not ‘different but equal’ roles, it is a case of different an unequal – and this inequality benefits capitalism)
Also, because the husband has to pay for his wife and children he cannot easily withdraw his labour power even if he is exploited. This reduces his bargaining power in relation to his employer and makes it more likely that he will put up with a low wage rather than risk being sacked by striking for a higher wage.
‘As an economic unit the nuclear family is a valuable stabilising force in capitalist society. Since the husband-father’s earnings pay for the production which is done in the home, his ability to withhold labour is much reduced’ (Margaret Benston, 1972).
The reproduction of labour power
Capitalism also benefits from women being the primary child carers. As with domestic work childcare is done mainly by women for free, and from a marxist-feminist perspective this is women bringing up the next generation of workers for the capitalist system.
The traditional nuclear family not only physically reproduces cheap labour for the the ruling class, it also teaches the ideas that the Capitalist class require for their future workers to be passive.
Diane Feeley (1972) argues that the family is an authoritarian unit dominated by the husband in particular and adults in general. The family has an ‘authoritarian ideology which teaches passivity, not rebellion and children learn to submit to parental authority thereby learning to accept their place in the hierarchy of power and control in capitalist society.
Ideologies about domestic work and childcare being naturally women’s work are mainly responsible for keeping this system in place.
Back in the 1970s at least women generally didn’t question their roles as housewives and mothers.
Evaluations of the Marxist Feminist Perspective on The Family
Marxist-Feminism has too narrow a focus on the role of economics in ‘causing’ patriarchal relations at home. This is a problem when women are in subordinate domestic roles in many pre-capitalist societies, suggesting patriarchy is a more general problem.
Marxist Feminist analysis doesn’t seem to hold up to social changes which have taken place since the 1970s:
There are many more job opportunities for women in 2023 and no gender pay gap for younger workers, suggesting the end of the breadwinner role for men.
This gives women a lot more freedom to be the main or equal income earners and the majority of households are now dual-earner households meaning Marxist-feminist analysis no longer applies.
Many more women today live alone and don’t have children, this analysis doesn’t apply to them.
social policies such as the shared parental leave act (2015) and more free child care for children as young as nine months (2024) make it easier for mothers to avoid the full-time domestic and housewife role.
The only real support for Marxist feminism today lies in the fact that when women become mothers they are more likely to take time off work than fathers and they do more housework (still today), but most women are in paid work most of their working lives, so even this is pretty weak evidence.
There might still be a case that the lives of working class women and single mothers are relatively worse off because of capitalism: maybe this theory selectively applies to families with lower incomes; maybe single parents (85% of whom are women) have higher poverty rates because capitalism doesn’t value their free childcare sufficiently.
However, you certainly can’t argue that the root cause of women’s exploitation at home is caused by capitalism because capitalism (as neoliberalism) has intensified in Britain since the 1970s but women’s lives in general have improved.
Research supporting Marxist Feminism
Being a father seems to push men into the breadwinner role and women into the caring role.
Becoming a young mother results in more women leaving work, but has the opposite effect on young men.
For 25 to 34 year olds the respective employment rates are:
86% for non-fathers compared to 92% for fathers
89% for non-mothers to 69% for mothers.
So childless young women are MORE likely to be in employment than childless young men, but this changes drastically when those young women have children. Young women, it seems, are far more likely than men to leave employment and become the primary child carers.
There was some variation: those with degrees were twice as likely to return to full time work (so 88% after 3 years) and those working for the public sector or large organisations with over 50 workers were also more likely to return to work full time.
We need more equal working relationships to have more equal domestic relationships!
Liberal Feminists argue there is nothing inherently wrong with the traditional nuclear family or the public-private divide between work and politics on the one hand private family life life on the other.
While liberal feminists are keen to see greater equality in the private, domestic sphere they believe that feminists should mainly focus on campaigning for social polices which promote equality in the workplace and other areas of the public sphere because greater equality within the family is something that can be achieved through empowering women in politics and work.
The more political and economic freedom women have, they more power they have in domestic life to demand that men pull their weight or to simply leave unequal relationships if they so choose and go it alone, or find a better partner.
This fits in the with liberalist idea that family life is private: political campaigns focus on public life and then then largely leave it up to women to make what choices are best for them in their private, family lives. Liberal feminist campaigns focus on social polices and legal frameworks which give women the freedom to make those choices.
Jennifer Somerville: Feminism and the Family
Jennifer Somerville (2000) (1) suggests proposals to improve family life for women that involve modest policy reforms rather than revolutionary change. She can thus be characterised as a liberal feminist, although she herself does not use this term.
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 to 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 (in which 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.
Somerville argues that many young women feel some sense of grievance about inequalities in their domestic lives but do not feel entirely sympathetic towards the feminist movement more generally, and so there is little support for some of the more radical political agendas of radical and marxist feminists.
Liberal Feminist Polices for Improving family life
Feminists should focus on policies which will encourage greater equality in work which should help women demand and cajole men into doing their fair share of housework and childcare.
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.
Three types of social policy which can help working parents include:
encouraging employers to have more flexible working hours, allowing mothers and fathers more freedom to choose the days they work and the times they start and finish work.
Policies which encourage equal sharing of maternity and paternity leave, such as the recent shared parental leave act (2015)
Policies which provide more free childcare for younger children, such a the government recently brining in care for children as young as 9 months (from 2024).
Liberal Feminists also support the monitoring of the promotion and pay of women in higher level professional careers because this is where the gender pay gap is largest.
Evaluation of the Liberal Feminist Perspective on the Family
Support for Liberal Feminism
There is more support for gradual changes such as making small adjustments to social policy compared to more radical solutions suggested by radical feminists, thus liberal feminist strategies are more practical and have more chance of succeeding.
There does seem to be a correlation between women’s empowerment in public and working life and greater gender equality at home. More specifically, some recent research (link forthcoming) has found that more flexible working arrangements lead to men doing a more fair share of the housework.
Support for traditional gender roles is declining: a relatively recent edition of the British Social Attitudes Survey measured support for traditional gender roles and found that in 2017 only 9% of people surveyed believed women should be the primary child carers and housewives, down from 42% (!) in 1984.
Dual earner households are the norm in 2022
50% of couples consisted of both men and women working full time
The man worked full time and the woman worked full time in 44% of couples
The woman worked full time and the man worked part time in only 3% couples.
However In 2012 the percentage of female full-time, male part-time couples was 2.6%, so the main change has been a shift from male-full time to female part-time couples towards both partners working full-time. What we are NOT seeing is a shift towards females in the main breadwinner role.
Criticisms of Liberal Feminism
The shift to working from home during the Pandemic, and more generally has resulted in women doing a greater share of the domestic work, while flexible working hours at work (where men and women still go out to paid work but can pick their start and end times) results in domestic work at home being shared more equally.
This kind of supports Liberal Feminism because it suggests when men and women retreat more into the domestic sphere, more inequality is the result, but if they spend more time in the public sphere (at work) with more flexibility, then more equality at home is the result.
Radical Feminists argue that liberal feminism fails to recognize the extent that women are still unequal to men in domestic life. Despite progress towards gender equality in the workplace it is mainly mothers that lose out compared to fathers when children come along which criticises the Liberal Feminist view that focussing on the public sphere is sufficient to bring about equality in domestic life.
Radical Feminists also criticise liberal feminists for focusing mainly on heterosexual relationships and limiting their analysis to s*x differences between biological males and females.
A Liberal Feminist Perspective on the Family – A Summary
Causes of inequality in relationships – A combination of two things – (1) Mainstream working culture which requires long and inflexible working hours which are still based on the idea of the main breadwinner, (2) Men refusing to pull their weight in relationships.
Solutions to Inequality – Increase female empowerment in the public sphere through reformist social policies designed to make working hours more flexible, shared parental leave and more free child care.
Criticisms – 100 years of gradual reform and women still do more housework! It also only looks at heterosexual relationships.
Workingmums.co.uk – A site which works with policy makers and employers to encourage more flexible working hours
Liberal Feminism is one of three main perspectives on the family, within the A-level sociology families and households topic. For a briefer summary of this perspective on the family, along with Marxist and Radical and Feminism, please click here.