Statistics on Same Sex Marriage and Civil Partnerships

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.

This table from the the Government Equality Office outlines some of the legal differences between marriage and Civil Partnerships for opposite and same-sex couples.

Trends in Civil Partnerships 2005-2018

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.’

Sources: ONS Civil Partnerships in England and Wales 2018, and 2017.

Married, Civil Partnered and Cohabiting Same Sex Households

The number of same-sex couples married couple households has increased substantially between 2015-2019.

In 2019 approximately 50% of same-sex couples were either married or in a civil partnership, with around 50% cohabiting.

Source.

LGBTQ by marital status

Almost 70% of LGBTQ people identify as single. Interestingly around 12% are married to someone of the opposite sex.

Only 5-6% are divorced, but then again with such high rates of singledom, this maybe is to be expected!

Source.

Same-Sex Marriage in Global Perspective

This is an interesting article by the PEW global research center which explores briefly the 20 or so countries in which same sex couples can get married…

Civil Partnership Dissolutions

At first glance, these seem to have rise to quite a high number – in 2018 there were almost as many dissolutions as there were newly formed civil partnerships!

NB Women are more likely to dissolve than men, even though they are less likely to form a civil partnership in the first place. In fact, 80

Source: ONS Civil Partnerships in England and Wales 2018.

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!

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Changes to childhood since Victorian Times

How has childhood in the UK changed since the 19th Century, and have these changes been positive?

There have been several changes to the lives of children since the early 19th century, and we can break these down as follows:

  • Work – Policies which regulated and restricted child labour, leading to the eventual exclusion of children from paid work
  • Education – The introduction of compulsory education and the increase in both funding of education and the raising of the school leaving age.
  • The Medicalisation of childbirth and early childcare – Rather than high infant mortality rates, the NHS now provides comprehensive maternity and early childcare to mothers and children.
  • Legislation has emerged to exclude children from a whole range of potentially harmful and dangerous acts
  • Children now have more money spent on them than ever – a range of specialist products and services have emerged and increased which are specifically aimed at children and child development. Link in money here.
  • Parents now spend more time with their children, actively engaged with ‘parenting’.
  • Child Welfare – The introduction of child protection and welfare legislation, and its expansion into every aspect of child services through recent Safeguarding policies.
  • The recent growth of the idea of ‘rights of the child’ has given children more of a voice in society.
Mind Map of eight changes to childhood since the 19th century, for A-level sociology, families and households option (AQA)

Most people see these changes as representing a ‘March of Progress’ – they see such changes as gradually improving the lives of children by giving them more protection for the stresses of adult life. It seems that we have moved towards a ‘child centred society’.

However, there are sociologists who point to the downsides of some changes, especially in the last 50 years.

This post mainly adopts a March of Progress perspective, with the critical perspectives dealt with in my other posts on ‘Toxic Childhood’ and ‘Paranoid Parenting’. It has been written primarily for students studying the Families and Households option for A-level Sociology.

Childhood in Victorian Times

During the early 19th Century, many working-class children could be found working in factories, mines, and mills. They often worked long-hours and in unsafe conditions, which had negative consequences for their health, and could sometimes even result in children being injured or dying at work.

At home, children were also often required to take on adult-work, doing domestic chores and caring for sick relatives.

Social attitudes towards children started to change in the middle of the 19th century, and childhood gradually came to be seen more as a distinct phase of life, separate from adulthood, with children needing protecting  from the hardships of adult life, especially work and provided with more guidance and nurturing through education.

These attitudes were reflected in the introduction of several social policies related to work and education, and the establishment of institutions dedicated to child welfare gradually changed the status of children

The changes below have happened over a very long period of time – from the 1830s, with the first factor acts restricting child labour, right up to the present day, with the emergence of the ‘rights of the child’, spearheaded by the United Nations.

Changes to childhood since Victorian Times: A March of Progress?

Work

There were several ‘factories acts’ throughout the 19th century, which gradually improved the rights of (typically male) workers by limiting working hours, and many of these acts had clauses which banned factories from employing people under certain ages.

The 1833 Factories Act was the first act to restrict child labour – it made it illegal for textile factories to employ children under the age of 9, and required factories to provide any children aged 9-13 with at least 12 hours of education a week.

The 1867 Factories Act extended this idea to all factories – this act made it illegal for any factors to employ children under the age of 8 and provide children aged 8-13 with at least 10 hours of education a week.

The 1878 Factories Act placed a total ban on the employment of children under the age of 10, fitting in nicely with the introduction of education policies.

Today, children can only work full-time from the age of 16, and then they must do training with that employment. Full adult working rights only apply from the age of 18.

Children aged 13-15 can work, but there are restrictions on the number of hours and the types of ‘industry’ they can work in. Babysitting is one of the most common jobs for this age group.

Education

The 1870 Education Act introduced Education for all children aged 5-12, although this was voluntary at the time.

In 1880 it was made compulsory for all children to attend school aged 5-12, with the responsibility for attendance falling on the Local Education Authorities.

The next century saw the gradual increasing of the school leaving age and increase in funding for education:

  • 1918 – The school leaving age raised to 14
  • 1944 – school leaving age raised to 15 (also the year of the Tripartite system and massive increase in funding to build new secondary modern schools)
  • 1973 – The school leaving age increased to 16.
  • 2013 – Children were required to remain in education or work with training until 18.

Today the UK government spends almost £100 billion a year on education, and around 500 000 people are employed in the child-education sector.

Children are expected to attend school for 13 years, and their attendance and progress is monitored intensely (some may say over-monitored) during that time, with extra support being provided depending on students’ ‘individual learning needs’.

The scope of education has also increased – the curriculum has broadened to include a wide range of academic and, later on, vocational subjects, as well as there being a focus on personal well-being and development.

The Medicalisation of childbirth and early childcare

Rather than high infant and child mortality rates as was the case in the Victorian era, the NHS now provides comprehensive maternity and early childcare to mothers and children.

The Stats below Public Spending on Children 2000-2020 show how a lot of the recent increase comes from more ‘community spending’ – in light blue.

Legislation excluding children from harmful and dangerous activities

There are legally enforced age restrictions on many activities:

  • Children aged 10 have full responsibility for their own actions and can be prosecuted and convicted for a crime from this age.
  • Children under the age of 14 cannot work, but at age 14 they can do ‘light work’
  • Children can apply for the armed forces at 15 years and 9 months, but they can’t serve until they are 16.
  • 16 years of age is really where children start to get more rights – you can serve with the armed forces, drive a moped, get a job (with training) and change your name at 16.
  • At age of 18, you have reached ‘the age of entitlement’ – you are an adult.

For more details you might like to visit the ‘at what age can I’? timeline.

Children now have more money spent on them than ever

This could well be the most significant change in social attitudes to childhood, specifically in relation to the family.

Children use to be perceived as people who needed to bring money into the family home, today they are perceived as people who should have money spent on them.

According to one recent survey, the average family spends half their salary on their children.

Expenditure by parents on their first newborn child (on things such as push chairs) increased by almost 20% between 2013 and 2019.

A range of specialist products and services have emerged and increased which are specifically aimed at children and child development.

Parents now spend more time with their children

Research from 2014 found that fathers spent seven times longer with their children compared to 40 years earlier in 1974, although the increase had gone from 5 minutes to still only 35 minutes.

Child Welfare

The introduction of child protection and welfare legislation, and its expansion into every aspect of child-services through recent Safeguarding policies.

The ‘rights of the child’

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child outlines several rights children have including:

  • The right to be heard
  • The right to an identity
  • The right to not be exploited
  • The right to an education.

There are several more, as outlined in this child friendly version of the document…

A Child Centred Society

Changes such as those outlined above seem to suggest that our society has become more child centered over the last century or so, with children occupying a more central role than ever, with more money and time being spend on them than ever, and with children being the ‘primary concern’ of many public services and often the sole thing that gives meaning to the lives of many parents.

According to Cunningham (2006) the child centered society has three main features (which is another way of summarising what’s above)

  1. Childhood is regarded as the opposite of adulthood – children in particular are viewed as being in need of protection from the adult world.
  2. Child and adult worlds are separated – they have different social spaces – playground and school for children, work and pubs for adults.
  3. Childhood is increasingly associated with rights.

If we look at total public expenditure on children, there certainly seems to be evidence that we live in a child centered society! (Source below)

Criticisms of the March of Progress View of childhood

The common sense view is to see the above changes as ‘progressive’. Most people would argue that now children are more protected that their lives are better, but is this actually the case? The ‘March of Progress’ view argues that yes, children’s lives have improved and they are now much better off than in the Victorian Era and the Middle Ages. They point to all the evidence on the previous page as just self-evidently indicating an improvement to children’s’ lives.

Conflict theorists, however, argue against the view that children’s lives have gradually been getting better – they say that in some ways children’s lives are worse than they used to be. There are three main criticisms made of the march of progress view

1. Recent technological changes have resulted in significant harms to children – what Sociologist Sue Palmer refers to as Toxic Childhood.

2. Some sociologists argue that children today are too controlled. Sociologists such as Frank Furedi argue that children today are overprotected, or too controlled – We live in the age of ‘Paranoid Parenting’.

3. There are significant inequalities between children, so if there has been progress for some, there certainly has not been equal progress.

A further criticisms lies in the idea that childhood may now be disappearing – for more details check out this post: The Disappearance of Childhood.

Sources

The National Archives

Child Labour: The British Library

UK Child and Labour Laws: a History

Child Employment

Public Spending on Children 2000-2020

Statistics on Family Life in the United Kingdom

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.

Source: The Office for National Statistics – Marriages and Divorces in England and Wales.

How valid is this divorce data?

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

Source: ONS – Families and Households in the UK 2018

What is the average age a woman has her first child in the UK?

The average age of first-time mothers in the UK was 28.8 years in 2017.

Source: ONS.

How many babies does the average woman have?

The Total Fertility Rate in the United Kingdom in 2018 was 1.8 – an average of 1.8 babies per woman.

Source: ONS – Births in England and Wales, 2018.

How much does it cost to raise a child to the age of 18?  

The overall cost of a child up to age 18 (including rent and childcare) is £151,000 for couples.

Source: Child Poverty Action Group: The Cost of a Child 2019.

How valid is this data?

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.

Source: ONS – cost of living alone.

In 2018 the Life Expectancy for females in the UK was almost 83 years.

Source: ONS – National Life Tables

What was total net migration to the UK in the last year?

Net migration to the UK in 2018 (latest figures) was approximately 300 000

Source: ONS – Migration Statistics Quarterly

What percentage of long-term immigrants to the UK are from the EU?

About 50 000 net migrants are from the EU, so approximately 15%

Source: ONS – Migration Statistics Quarterly

Questions for Reflection:

Do any of the above sources lack validity?

Explain your answer in the comments below!

Political Lesbianism

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.

You can download a full copy of this radical feminist pamphlet here. It’s commonly known as the ‘LYE’ pamphlet, or ‘Love your Enemy’

Some of the key ideas of ‘Love your Enemy’

  • 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

How to get an A* in A-level Sociology (Paper 2: Families and Households section only)

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!

According to the AQA’s 2017 A-level grade boundaries you need an average of about 60 raw marks out of a total of 80 get an A* in paper 2. This means you can ‘drop’ 20 marks and still get into the A* category.

A grade sociology

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.

Q05: Applying material from item A ‘Analyse Something’

This is my summary of the the AQA’s guidance on the two types of 10 mark question (the second type is question 06 below).

To summarise the key points from the top band of the mark scheme for this type of question, you need:

  • Good knowledge and understanding of relevant material
  • Two reasons/ ways/ effects (whatever the action word is)
  • Two developed applications from the item
  • analysis and/ or evaluation of these effects.

So far, so abstract: the question below is a full mark answer taken from the AQA’s 2017 A-level paper 7192/2.

Question 06: the 20 mark ‘evaluate’ something using the item essay question

This question will ask you to evaluate something using an item.

To get into the top mark band, you basically need to demonstrate excellent knowledge and understanding, analysis and evaluation, AND use the item, and conclude!

Below is a link to a response taken from the AQA’s 2016 specimen material which achieved 17/20 – so just into the top band!

Sources 

  • The AQA’s 2016 A level specimen paper and commentaries.
  • 2017: A-level SOCIOLOGY: Feedback on the Examinations Student responses and commentaries: Paper 2 7192/2

UK Poverty Trends 1996 – 2017

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 Rates UK 1996 to 2016.png

*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:

  1. Rising employment, linked with higher wages due to the minimum wage, and better education.
  2. Increased support through benefits, especially the increase in the state pension age, but also out of work benefits for working age people with children
  3. 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:

trend pensioner poverty UK 2018.png

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…

Employment rates UK 2017.png

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…

Increase wages UK 2017

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%

Increase degrees UK 2016

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

Increase earnings UK 2016

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 

 

Out of work benefits.png

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…

in work benefits.png

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:

  1. The continued rise in employment is no longer reducing poverty.
  2. State support for low-income families is falling in real terms, and negates the gains made by increasing employment and wages.
  3. Rising rents, less help for low-income renters and falling home ownership leave more people struggling to meet the cost of housing.

Sources

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation: UK Poverty 2017

AS Sociology – how to Answer ‘using one example, briefly explain’ questions

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.

What is the Family?

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.

There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ definition of the family, but you do need to know how 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.

It has been written as an introduction the Families and Households module for A-level sociology, AQA focus.

The Functionalist definition of the family

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).

Defining the family

Today, many Sociologists criticise the above 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 the above definition, such as reconstituted or step-families and same sex families.

For example, The Oxford English Dictionary 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.

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 when writing and essay or before conducting research.

There is nothing wrong with limiting your research or analysis to just one specific type of family below, 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!)

Different types of family

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 ‘the family’, which includes a 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

Because of the problems of defining the family it is often easier to analyse families in terms of households (NB – The module you’re all studying is called families and households, we just tend to abbreviate it to the ‘families’ module)

A household is much easier to define than a family – A household is simply a group of people who share a residence in common and share such things as meals, bills, facilities or chores, or one person living alone. Of course, families can spread themselves across many households!

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’?

definition 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 organization 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 formalized membership. Strictly speaking, the only goals are set by each individual, as no individual can claim to represent all Rainbows in word or deed.

You might also like this video…

I think it shows one of the activities these people get up to during their gatherings, a good old sing song!

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?

If you want to explain why you voted in more depth, drop in a comment at the end!

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!

Sources

(1) The Oxford English Dictionary definition of the family.

The Personal Life Perspective on the Family

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

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

The Personal Life Perspective: Key Ideas

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

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

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

Carol Smart Sociology of Personal Life

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

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

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

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

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

Evaluation of the Personal Life Perspective

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

Related Links

Late Modern Perspectives on The Family (what Smart criticises)

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

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

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

Further Reading

Vanessa May Sociology of Personal Life

Marxist Feminist Perspectives on Family Life

Marxists such as Engels and Zaretsky acknowledge that women are exploited in marriage and family life, but they emphasise the relationship between capitalism and the family, rather than the family’s effects on women. Marxist feminists use Marxist concepts, but they see the exploitation of women as they key feature of family life.

marxist feminism
Marxist Feminism

The reproduction of labour power

‘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 one person in the family– the male breadwinner a wage. The woman attends to the husbands needs and ‘keeps him going’ as a worker for free, and women also do most of the child care for free, thus reproducing the next generation of workers 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)

Finally, 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).

Ideological conditioning

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.

Evaluations of the Marxist Feminist Perspective on The Family

David Morgan argues that the traditional nuclear family is becoming less common and so this theory is less applicable today

They also ignore the fact that women have made progress in family life – life is better within families today for women, as Liberal and Difference Feminists point out.

Related Posts

Feminist perspectives on the family (which covers all three types of Feminism)

The Liberal Feminist Perspective on the Family

The Radical Feminist perspective on the family

Sources used

The material above is adapted from Haralambos and Holborn: Sociology Themes and Perspectives.