The Social Construction of Childhood

The ideas we have about childhood are created by society rather than determined by biological age.

Sociologists say that ‘childhood is socially constructed’. This means the ideas we have about childhood are created by society, rather than being determined by the biological age of a ‘child’.

Some of the aspects of childhood which are influenced by society include:

  • The length of childhood and the moment a child becomes an adult
  • The status of children in society – their rights and responsibilities, what legal protections/ restrictions we place on them
  • The general ideas we have about children: for example whether we think they are innocent and in need of protection, or resilient and in need of freedom to explore and develop by themselves.

This post explores some of the evidence for the view that ‘childhood is socially constructed’.

is childhood socially constructed? (mind map)

What is Childhood?

Childhood, ‘the state of being a child’ is often defined in contrast to adulthood.

For example, the Cambridge English dictionary defines a child’ as ‘a boy or girl from time of birth until he or she is an adult’.

More usefully (IMO) The Oxford English dictionary defines a child as a young human being below the age of puberty, or below the age of a legal majority.

Taken together these two definitions show us that childhood can be either biologically determined, ending when someone reaches their biological age of puberty, or it can be socially determined, ending when society says someone is an adult.

In Modern Britain, society determines when childhood ends and that age is currently set at 18, when an individual reaches the age of ‘legal entitlement’.

However, children do not just suddenly become adults at the age of 18. In Britain there is also a very lengthy transition from childhood, through adolescence, into adulthood. Children gradually pick up certain ‘legal entitlements’ as they progress through their teenage years.

For example, children can work from the age of 14, the age of sexual consent is at 16, and the age at which they can drive is 17.

The fact that society determines the age at which childhood ends is part of the reason why sociologists argue that ‘childhood is socially constructed’ – ‘socially constructed’ simply means created by society (rather than by biology).

Ideas associated with childhood

There are a lot of ideas associated with childhood, and how it differs from adulthood. In Modern Britain we tend to think of children as being dependent, naive, innocent, vulnerable, and in need of protection from adults.

We tend to see children as having insufficient experience and knowledge to be able to make good decisions, and we also tend to see them as not being responsible for their actions.

The separation of childhood and adulthood

There seems to be near universal agreement that there are some fundamental differences between adults and children. For example people in most societies seem to agree that

1. Children are physically and psychologically immature compared to adults
2. Children are dependent on adults for a range of biological and emotional needs – Children need a lengthy process of socialisation which takes several years.
3. In contrast to adults, children are not competent to run their own lives and cannot be held responsible for their actions.

In contrast to the period of childhood, one of the defining characteristics of adulthood is that adults are biologically mature, are competent to run their own lives and are fully responsible for their actions.

However, despite broad agreement on the above, what people mean by childhood and the position children occupy is not fixed but differs across times, places and cultures. There is considerable variation in what people in different societies think about the place of children in society.

For this reason, Sociologists say that childhood is socially constructed. This means that childhood is something created and defined by society.

The social construction of childhood in modern British society

Part of the social construction of childhood in modern Britain is that we choose to have a high degree of separation between the spheres of childhood and adulthood. Add in details to the headings below.

1. There are child specific places where only children and ‘trusted adults’ are supposed to go, and thus children are relatively sheltered from adult life.
2. There are several laws preventing children from doing certain things which adults are allowed to do.
3. There are products specifically for children –which adults are not supposed to play with (although some of them do).

All of the above separations between adults and children have nothing to do with the biological differences between adults and children.

Children do not need to have ‘special places’ just for them, they do not need special laws protecting them, and neither do they need specific toys designed for them. We as a society have decided that these things are desirable for children, and thus we ‘construct childhood’ as a being very different to adulthood.

soft play: an example of a child only space.
Soft Play: A Child Only Space!

The Social Construction of Childhood – A Comparative Approach

A good way to illustrate the social construction of childhood is to take a comparative approach. We can look at how children are seen and treated in other times and places other than our own. Four fairly well-known examples of how childhood can vary in other countries include:

  • Child labour
  • Child soldiers
  • Child marriage
  • Religious enslavement

Child Labour

In some cultures children are seen as an ‘economic asset’ and expected to engage in paid work. In Less developed countries children are often seen as a source of cheap/free labour on the farm or in sweat shops where wages can boost family income.

22% of children aged 5 to 17 in the least developed countries are involved in some sort of labour. The percentage rises to 25% in much of Sub-Saharan, West, East, South and Central Africa. 

Many adults in those countries don’t believe children should be in full time education until age 16 like in Western European Countries.

bar chart showing percentage of children aged 5 to 17 in child labour. 2022

Child soldiers

In conflict, typically young teenage boys may be recruited to fight, taking on very serious adult responsibilities several years younger than in ‘western’ societies.

Tens of thousands and children have been recruited as child soldiers, mainly in Western Africa and parts of the MIddle East. The United Nations estimates that almost 8000 children were newly recruited in 2019. 

The countries estimated to have the most child soldiers are currently The Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Syria and Yemen. It is mostly non-state groups which recruit children into their ranks. 

Obviously the responsibilities that go along with being a soldier are severe, including risking one’s life. Those doing the recruiting don’t regard children as being in need of protection like people in the West do.

Child Marriage

In the Least Developed Countries 11% of girls are married by the time they are 15, and 39% by the time they are 18.

39% of girls don’t have the gradual transition from childhood through youth to adulthood like most girls in Western European cultures do. Adulthood status has started by the age 18 for all of these now fully-fledged women.

In some cases young teenage girls are coerced into marriage without their consent, taking on the duties of a wife or mother younger than 18. This is well-documented in India and Ethiopia, for example.

Bar chart showing percentage of young women married by 15 and 18 years of age.

Religious enslavement

In West Africa, thousands of girls and women have been enslaved by a practice called ‘trokosi’.

Girls as young as seven are given away by their family to pay for the sins of family members. They get forcibly shipped to a shrine, possibly in a foreign country, stripped of their identity, and forced to work as ‘servants of God’.

NB this isn’t to suggest that any of these conceptions are ‘equal’ to our conceptions of childhood in the west. The point is there are plenty of cultures where adults DO NOT think children are ‘in need of protection’ and so on. There are hundreds of millions of adults who believe that childhood should end earlier than 16-18.

Philippe Aries – A Radical View on The Social Construction of Childhood

The historian Philippe Aries has an extreme view on childhood as a social construction. He argues that in the Middle Ages (the 10th to the 13th century) ‘the idea of childhood did not exist’ – children were not seen as essentially different to adults like they are today.

Aries uses the following evidence to support his view…

  • Children were expected to work at a much earlier age.
  • The law often made no distinction between children and adults.

Works of art from the period often just depict children as small adults – they wear the same clothes and appear to work and play together.

In addition to the above Edward Shorter (1975) argues about parental attitudes to children in the Middle ages were very different from today.

  • High infant mortality rates encouraged indifference and neglect, especially towards infants.
  • Parents often neglected to give new born babies names – referring to them as ‘it’ and it was not uncommon to eventually give a new baby a name of a dead sibling.

Aries argues that it is only from the 13th century onwards that modern notions of childhood – the idea that childhood is a distinct phase of life from adulthood – begin to emerge. Essentially Aries is arguing that childhood as we understand it today is a relatively recent ‘invention’.

A Level Sociology Families and Households Revision Bundle

If you like this sort of thing, then you might like my A-Level Sociology Families and Households Revision Bundle:

Families Revision Bundle Cover

The bundle contains the following:

  1. 50 pages of revision notes covering all of the sub-topics within families and households
  2. mind maps in pdf and png format – 9 in total, covering perspectives on the family
  3. short answer exam practice questions and exemplar answers – 3 examples of the 10 mark, ‘outline and explain’ question.
  4.  9 essays/ essay plans spanning all the topics within the families and households topic.

Signposting and Related Posts

The social construction of childhood is one of the major topics taught as part of the A-level sociology families and households module (AQA specification).

Related posts include…

The March of Progress View of Childhood

The Social Construction of Childhood (from the Open University)

The Social Construction of Childhood (from the Junior University)


Reuters (2021) Child Soldiers
Unicef: Child Labour.
Unicef: Child Marriage
Soft Play Image Source
Children’s Toys Image Source

Trends in Family and Household Diversity in the UK

The diversity of families and households in the UK has been slowly increasing since 2012. Types of families on the rise include cohabiting households, reconstituted families, single-parent families, and ‘kidult’ households where adults live with their parents. There’s been a slight decrease in traditional ‘cereal packet’ families. Multigenerational households, however, saw a minor decrease, making up only 1% of households in 2022. Single-person households and lone-parent families also increased marginally yet represent significant proportions of UK households.

Families and households in the UK have become more diverse since 2012, although the rate of change is relatively slow paced. The types of family and households which have increased since the 1950s include:

  • cohabiting rather than married households
  • reconstituted or step families
  • lone parent families
  • single person households
  • Kidult households, where adult children live with their parents.

The statistics below focus more on the trends in the last decade.

A slight decrease in ‘cereal packet’ families

  • The proportion of opposite-sex non-married cohabiting family households increased in the last decades, from 15.7% of all family households in the UK to 18.4% of all households in the UK.
  • There was a corresponding decrease in opposite-sex married family households: from 67% of all households to 65.2% of all households (2).
bar chart showing slight decrease in married family households
The proportion of ‘cereal packet families’ is slowly declining.
  • An important analysis point here is that the rate of decline is not particularly fast or significant.
  • Opposite-sex married and cohabitating families together make up 81% of all family households.
  • In other words around 80% of households with children are still heterosexual two parent households!

Trends in Reconstituted Families

  • In 2011 there were 544,000 step families with dependent children in England and Wales.
  • This means that 11% of couple families with dependent children were step families.
  • The Number of step families has increased since the 1950s.
  • However, the number of step families has declined recently dropping from 631,000 in 2001 to just 544,000 in 2011.
  • If there is only one biological parent in the step-family, that parent is the mother rather than the father in 90% of cases.
  • NB it is more difficult to get up to date stats on step-families! However according to this Guardian article from 2021 an estimated 1 in 3 families are blended families. NB this is probably including families with non dependent children.

Trends in Lone Parent Households

  • There were 2.9 million lone-parent families in the UK in 2022, which is 15% of all families.
  • This is down slightly from 2012 when there were 3.0 million lone-parent families, representing 17% of all families
  • 84% of lone-parent families were lone-mother families in 2022.
  • See source (2) below.

Separated Families

  • A separated family is defined as ‘one parent with care of a child 16 or under, or child aged under 20 if they are in full time Further Education, and with a non-resident parent’.
  • In 2020 there were an estimated 2.3 million separated families in Britain, with an estimated 3.6 million children.
  • 89% of parents with care in 2020 were female and under the age 50, and 86% of the non-resident parents male and 80% were under 50.
  • Methodological note: Lone parent and separated families are not quite. the same thing!

Trends in Single Person Households

  • 29.6% of all households in the UK were single person households in 2022.
  • This is equivalent to 8.3 million people or 13% of people who live in households.
  • This is up slightly from 2012 when 29% of all households were single person households.
  • According to Euromonitor International, the number of people living alone globally is skyrocketing, rising from about 153 million in 1996 to 277 million in 2011 – an increase of around 80% in 15 years.

Trends in ‘Kidult’ Households

The number of adults living with their parents rose by over 14% between 2011 and 2021 to 4.9 million adults.

Young adult males are more likely to live with their parents than young adult females.

In 2022 31% of males aged 20-34 lived with their parents compared to only 22% of females aged 20 to 34. (Source).

bar chart showing number of adults living with their parents UK

Overall, around 1/3 of adult men and 1/5th of adult women in the UK now live with their parents.

Trends in Multigenerational Households

  • Only 1% of households were multigenerational in the UK in 2022.
  • This is down slightly from 2012 when the figure was 1.1%.
Signposting and related posts

You can find a fuller range of stats in this post: Families in the UK: Interesting Statistics!

The next logical post after this one is:Explaining the increase in family diversity – part 1 of 3

For more posts on this topic area more generally please see my page on families and households, one of the options within the first year of A-level sociology (AAQA).


(1) Gov.UK (accessed June 2023) Separated Families Statistics April 2014 to March 2020.

(2) ONS: Families and Households in the UK 2022 (accessed June 2023)

The Postmodern Perspective on the Family

More individual freedom and choice means more family and life course diversity.

Postmodernists argue that recent social changes such as increasing social fragmentation, greater diversity and technological changes have made family more a matter of personal choice and as a result families have become more unstable and more diverse.

In postmodern society there is no longer one typical type of family such as the nuclear family, rather there is huge diversity of family types and it is no longer possible to make general theories about the role of the family in society like Functionalists and Marxists have done in the past.

Postmodernity, Social Change and the Family

During the later part of modernity (around 1850-1950) society was clearly structured along social class lines with clear gender norms and the nuclear family formed part of (what at least appeared to be) a stable social structure.

Since the 1950s we have seen a shift to a postmodern society which is more global, fragmented (fractured), culturally diverse, consumerist, media saturated, uncertain and in which individuals have more freedom of choice.

The changes associated with postmodernity since the 1950s have changed the nature of the family: now that people have more choices, families are less stable and more diverse.

Postmodernity and The Family mind map

How has postmodernity changed the family?

  • The rise of consumer culture and individual choice: people have come to expect choice over what goods they buy, and the same applies to relationships: people choose when or whether to go get into a relationship, whether to get married, and when or whether they break up.
  • Technological changes and media saturation – ties into the above in the form of online dating and hookup sites – which set up a new norm of relationships being like shopping: if you can’t find someone ‘just right’ then either don’t bother or find someone that will do for now and ditch them when someone who does tick all your boxes comes along! This might explain the rise of serial monogamy.
  • Changes to work: there are no more jobs for life in the factory and this has led to a decline in the male breadwinner role. People have to spend longer training for careers, and change jobs more often during their working lives. Work is more pressured today, and there is less time for relationships which means more single people and more relationship breakdowns.
  • Changing gender norms: gender identity is more of a choice today which means we have more LGBTQ chosen families and also more gender equality within families, which leads to more diversity
  • The decline of religion – there is less social pressure to get married and stay married, meaning higher rates of divorce, potentially more reconstituted families.
  • Globalisation – more immigration means more ethnically mixed marriage, more relationships across borders, even more diversity.
  • Rapid social change, risk and uncertainty: instability in society affects relationships: if one partner loses a job or has to move for a new job, it might trigger a breakup, also awareness of high rates of divorce and the challenges of relationships might put people off getting involved in the first place.

To summarise: the shift to postmodern society has meant more individual choice which means more family and household diversity in society naturally means more types of family, for example:

  • More people staying single.
  • More short-term serial monogamy type relationships.
  • More cohabitation rather than marriage.
  • more people regarding their friends and other fictive kin as part of their families (see the Personal Life Perspective for more details).
  • more ethnic diversity within families.
  • changing gender norms mean an increase in more LGBTQ chosen families.
  • Higher rates of divorce and more single parent households and stepfamilies.

Furthermore there is no longer one dominant family type (such as the nuclear family). This means it is no longer possible to make generalisations about the role of the (nuclear) family society in the same way that modernist theories such as Functionalism did.

The rest of this post now considers two specific post-modern thinkers about the family – Judith Stacey and Tamara Hareven.

Stacey (1998) “The Divorce-Extended Family”

Judith Stacey argues that women have more freedom than ever before to shape their family arrangement to meet their needs and free themselves from patriarchal oppression. Through case studies conducted in Silicon Valley, California she found that women rather than men are the driving force behind changes in the family.

She discovered that many women rejected the traditional housewife role and had chosen extremely varied life paths (some choosing to return to education, becoming career women, divorcing and remarrying). Stacey identified a new type of family “the divorce-extended family” – members are connected by divorce rather than marriage, for example ex in-laws, or former husband’s new partners.

book cover: judith stacey family

Hareven (1978) “Life Course Analysis”

Tamara Hareven advocates the approach of life course analysis, that is that sociologists should be concerned with focusing on individual family members and the choices that they make throughout life regarding family arrangements.

This approach recognises that there is flexibility and variation in people’s lives, for example the choices and decisions they make and when they make them. For example, when they decide to raise children, choosing sexuality or moving into sheltered accommodation in old age.

Supporting evidence for the postmodern perspective on the family

Increasing family diversity

The 2022 Children’s Commissioner’s Family Review certainly supports the postmodern view that families are becoming more diverse over time. The review reports that family structure has gradually changed over the last 20 years: 

  • There are fewer married couples. 
  • There are more couples cohabiting.  
  • There are fewer ‘traditional’ nuclear family units today. 
  • 44% of children born at the start of the century, were not in a nuclear family for their full childhood, compared to 21% of children born in 1970.  
  • Over 80,000 children are in care, and many more in less formal arrangements, including kinship care. 

Stacey Dooley Sleeps Over is a recent documentary series exploring the diversity of family life in the UK. Most of the families are not nuclear families, but even those that are have non-standard lives, so even within the nuclear family set up, there is diversity!  

Marginalised Families is a website where people in diverse family structures can share their stories. It is designed to give more voice to non-nuclear families and provides some interesting case studies in family diversity.

More people are choosing to stay single than ever (5), but they are not isolated or lonely. In fact single people are more social than people in nuclear families and tend to have a broader conception of the family: in which they include friends, neighbours and ex-partners, thus challenging traditional definitions of the family.

(5) The Conversation (2017) More people than ever before are single and that’s a good thing. See also Bella de Paulo for the benefits of being single r

Low levels of belief in marriage

According to a 2022 YouGov Survey – does marriage matter 63% of UK adults think marriage is an outdated institution, although this is up from 68% in 2019.

Only 22% of the UK population thinks it matters that people are married before they have children: YouGov survey (2023) does marriage and children matter?

Criticisms of Postmodern Views on the Family

Late-Modernists such as Anthony Giddens suggest that even though people have more freedom, there is still a structure which shapes people’s decisions about the family.

Postmodernists over emphasise the amount of choice people have when it comes to relationships. However in truth, most people want to be in a stable long term relationship, but the social pressures of late modern life make this impossible for many to sustain. Thus people don’t ‘choose’ to get divorced or stay single as such, life just sort of pushes them into these ‘decisions’.

Contemporary Feminists disagree with Postmodernism, pointing out that in most cases traditional gender roles which disadvantage women remain the norm.

Signposting and Related Posts 

This post has been written primarily for students studying the families and households option in their first year of A-level sociology.

Related posts include:

The Personal Life Perspective on the Family.

The Late Modern Perspective on the Family.

Both of the above criticise the Postmodern perspective for over-emphasising the degree of personal choice individuals have, while still recognising that social changes have indeed made family life more chaotic!

If you like this sort of thing, you might also like these revision videos on YouTube.

Please click here to return to the homepage –

Families Topic 2 – Marriage, Divorce and Cohabitation – Short Answer Questions


Identify two trends (changes) in the pattern of marriage despite the fact that the overall number of marriages have declined (4)

  • Fewer people are marrying

  • There are more remarriages

  • People are marrying later

  • Couples are less likely to marry in church

Suggest three social changes which explain why there has been a decline in the marriage rate (6)

  • There is less pressure to marry – people believe that the relationship is more important than legal status

  • Secularisation

  • Declining shame attached to cohabitation and remaining single and having children outside of marriage

  • Changing position of women – with better job prospects women are no longer financially dependent on men and are thus able to choose not to marry

  • Increasing fear of divorce (linked to risk society/ risk consciousness/ late-modernism)

Suggest three reasons for the overall rise in the divorce rate since 1969 (6)

  • Changes in the divorce law – equalising the grounds of divorce between the sexes; widening the grounds for divorce, making divorce cheaper (Social Policy)

  • Declining stigma and changing attitudes – divorce is becoming more socially acceptable (Postmodernism)

  • Secularisation – the traditional opposition of churches carries less weight (Postmodernism)

  • Individualisation leads to rising expectations of marriage – When the marriage doesn’t live up to expectations, divorce is more likely (Late-Modernism)

  • The changing position of women women are now no longer dependent on men financially so don’t need to stay married for economic reasons (Feminism)

Suggest two reasons for the recent decrease in divorce rates (4)

  • Fewer people are getting married, so there are fewer people who can divorce

  • Because people are getting married later, they are more likely to stay together

  • People can’t afford to get a divorce and set up two new homes

  • Increasing immigration – Immigrants are more likely to hold traditional values and thus less likely to get divroced

Suggest two alternatives to Divorce (4)

  • Desertion

  • Legal separation

  • Empty shell marriages

Identify two consequences of an increasing divorce rate (4)

  • Increase in single parent households after divorce

  • Increase in single person households after divorce

  • Potenital harm to children

  • Increase in reconstituted families

Explaining the Changing Patterns of Marriage Mind Map

This is one way of teaching/ revising this sub-topic within the marriage and divorce topic of the Families and Households Module. You might need to click on it to enlarge it!

Explaining the changing patterns of Marriage in the UK

Sociological Perspectives on Marriage and Divorce

Feminism, The New Right. Post and Late Modernism.

There has been a long term decline in marriage and increase in divorce in the UK since the 1970s to the 2020s. Different sociological perspectives emphasise different consequences of these social changes:

  • Feminists generally see these trends as positive, reflecting the greater empowerment of women.
  • The New Right and Functionalists view the decline in marriage and increase in divorce as bad because they represent the breakdown of the social order and increase in potential social problems.
  • Postmodernists don’t see these trends as a problem, just as part of the shift to a postmodern society in which people have more choice and freedom.
  • Late modernists believe that people don’t simply choose to not get married or get divorced. Structural changes have steered them towards these decisions which are painful, disruptive and they need to manage them.
mind map summarising sociological perspectives on marriage and divorce.

What replaces married couples?

  • Probably the most fundamental thing is that people’s attitudes towards marriage have changed. People no longer see marriage as a tradition or sacred duty, they see it as a choice.
  • There is greater family and household diversity as a result.
  • Despite the decline of marriage, most people still ‘couple up’ – cohabitation has increased.
  • Cohabiting couples are more likely to break up, so relationships have become more unstable. A related factor here is that serial monogamy, rather than out and out promiscuity throughout one’s life appears to be the new norm.
  • High levels of divorce create more single parent households and more single person households, as well as more reconstituted families.
  • Finally, it is important not to exaggerate the decline of marriage. Most households are still married couple households.


Feminists would generally see the decline of marriage as a good thing, because it is a patriarchal institution. Women are more likely to initiate divorces, which suggests that marriage works less well for women than for men.

Both the decline in marriage and the increase divorce reflect the increasing empowerment and financial independence of women. When women have more money and power more of them choose to NOT marry in the first place. Women unhappy in their marriages can choose a divorce more easily today.

However, Radical Feminists would point out that the increase in divorce has not necessarily benefited women. Children go to live with the mother in 85% cases following a divorce. Single parent families (mostly female) suffer higher levels of poverty and stigma.

The New Right/ Functionalists

Both the New Right and Functionalists would interpret these trends in a negative way, as indicating a decline in morality, and a breakdown of social structure and order.

The family is supposed to be the fundamental building block of society, and it is difficult to see what will replace it. Without the family we risk less effective primary socialisation and more problem children as well as more anomie for adults.


The decline of marriage and increase in divorce reflect the fact that we are part of a consumer society where individual choice is central to life. Postmodernists think the end of the nuclear family ideology is good. They reject the idea that the traditional married nuclear family is better than other family forms, so these trends are not a significant problem for either the individual or society.

Late modernism

People still value marriage but changes in the social structure make it harder to start and to maintain stable relationships. Greater gender equality means it’s harder to please both partners, and the fact that both people have to do paid work doesn’t help with the communication required to keep a relationship going, or help with people getting together in the first place.

People now delay getting married not only because of needing to establish a career first, but also because of the increased cost of mortgages and weddings. People may also choose to cohabit rather than marry because of the fear of divorce.

New institutions also emerge to help us cope with the insecurities of modern relationships – marriage guidance and pre-nuptial agreements are two of the most obvious.

In short, marriage is not about to disappear as an institution, but it’s not an easy path to pursue either.

See here for more on the late modern view of the family and personal life.

Signposting and Related Posts 

This material is relevant to the families and households module, usually taught in year one of A-level sociology.

Explaining the changing patterns of marriage.

Essay Plan – Examine the Reasons for the Long Term Increase in the Divorce Rate.

Test Yourself

The New Right View of the Family

The New Right believe the traditional nuclear family is the ideal type of family. They support social policies which encourage nuclear families – they are pro marriage and against benefits for single mothers.

The New Right believe that the traditional nuclear family is best type of family, where both partners are married. The believe this is the most stable environment in which to raise children who will conform to the values of society.

The New Right see married families are better than cohabiting families because the former provide are less likely to break up. They are against single parent families and the Welfare State which they believe encourages higher levels of single parenthood.

The New Right View of the Family

In the 1980s New Right thinkers argued that government policy was undermining the family so policy changes were needed. Their thinking dominated policy development from 1979 to 1997.

Like Functionalists, the New Right hold the view that there is only one correct or normal family type. This is the traditional or conventional nuclear family. Again like Functionalists, the New Right sees this family as ‘natural’ and based on fundamental biological differences between men and women. In their view this family is the cornerstone of society; a place of contentment, refuge and harmony.

The New Right argue that the decline of the traditional family and the growth of family diversity are the cause of many social problems such as higher crime rates and declining moral standards generally.

The New Right believe that it is important for children to have a stable home, with married mother and father, and that ideally the wife should be able to stay at home to look after the children.

They believe that the introduction of the welfare state led to a culture where people depend on hand-outs from the state and that these encourage single parenting, which in turn, they argue leads to deviancy and a decline in morality.

New Right thinking encouraged the conservative government to launch the Back to Basics campaign 1993 to encourage a return to traditional family values. This was criticised for being unsuccessful, and hypocritical due some Conservative MPs being found to be having affairs or being divorced.

A more recent example of a social policy which the New Right would probably agree with is the The Troubled Families Programme – in which mainly underclass and lone-parent families were targeted with interventions to try and reduce such things as youth offending.

Evidence for ‘non-nuclear families’ being a problem

The main source of the evidence below is the Daily Mail Article below (1), supplement with comments (I won’t call it ‘data’) from the right wing think tank CIVITAS. (2 below).

  • 52% of children born to cohabiting couples see their parents break up before their fifth birthday compared to only 6% of children born to married couples (1)
  • Children from broken homes are almost five times more likely to develop emotional problems.
  • Young people whose mother and father split up are three times as likely to become aggressive or badly behaved.
  • Lone-parent families are more than twice as likely to live in poverty as two-parent families.
  • Children from broken homes are nine times more likely to become young offenders.

NB: the political bias of CIVITAS means their research may not be objective and value free.

Criticisms of the New Right view of the family

The New Right relies on correlations between family types and social problems to conclude that children from families which have broken up suffer more social problems than children who remain in two parent families.

However, correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causation. It might not be lone parent families that ’cause’ children to have problems. It could be the higher levels of poverty suffered by lone parents, for example.

Similarly wealthier middle class couples are more able to afford the costs of getting married compared to poorer lower class couples, so any higher rates of breakdown among cohabiting. couples may be due to financial pressures as they have less money.

So we should be careful that the New Right view is a biased, middle class view. These are the people who themselves live in stable married nuclear families and this is the type of family they support.

Feminists argue that higher levels of relationship breakdowns and divorce are not necessarily bad. The fact that divorce is easier today is potentially good. This is because it is better for both a woman and a child to be on their own as a single parent family rather than being trapped in unhappy or abusive relationships.

Feminists further argue that gender roles are socially determined rather than being fixed by biology. The traditional gender roles which the New Right tend to support are oppressive to women.

The New Right stereotypes single parents and wages a moral panic against them. Most single parents are not welfare scroungers – most want to work but find it difficult to find jobs that are flexible enough so they can balance work and child care. They need appropriate social policies in place to enable them. todo this, rather than the pro-marriage policies the New Right support.

The New Right have exaggerated the decline of the Nuclear family. Most adults still marry and have children. Most children are reared by their two natural parents. Most marriages continue until death. Divorce has increased, but most divorcees remarry.

Signposting and Related Posts

The New Right Perspective on the family is a key part of the families and households module within A-level sociology.

The Feminist View of The Family – criticises the New Right view.

The Late Modern View of The Family – criticises the New Right view.

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(1) The Daily Mail (2008) : Broken Home Children are ‘Five Times More Likely to Suffer Mental Troubles’, based on a Department for Health funded Study which sampled 8000 children aged between 5 and 16 in 2004,


*That’s how flakey ‘research’ fro CIVITAS is, probably best NOT to trust it! Link provided here for historical context and entertainment purposes only!

Late modern perspectives on the family

The pure relationship and the negotiated family become the new family norms. Choice but within structure.

Late-Modernists such as Anthony Giddens and Ulrich Beck recognise that people have more choice in terms of their relationships and family arrangements,  but do not believe that people are as free as postmodernists suggest. There are still underlying patterns, and shared experiences of relationships that are a consequence of our living in a ‘late-modern’ society – rather than families just being diverse and random.

For example, people are less likely to get married because of structural changes: gender equality means that both partners have to work and spend longer building their careers, which means the average person has less time to spend making a relationship work, which means a decline in marriage, and an increase in divorce.

Ulrich Beck also argues that fewer people getting married is because of an increase in ‘risk consciousness’ – people see that nearly half of all marriages end in divorce and so they are less willing to take the risk and get married.

This is not simply a matter of freedom of choice – people are ‘reflexive’ – they look at society, see the risk of marriage, and then choose not to get married – their personal decisions are informed by what they see going in society.

Beck also talks of individualisation – a new social norm is that our individual desires are more important than social commitments, and this makes marriage less likely.

Giddens builds on this and says that the typical relationship today is the Pure Relationship – one which lasts only as long as both partners are happy with it, not because of tradition or a sense of commitment. This makes cohabitation and serial monogamy rather than the long term commitment of a marriage more likely.

Giddens’ and Beck’s perspectives on the family are briefly summarised below.

Anthony Giddens: Choice and Equality

Giddens argues that in recent decades the family and marriage have been transformed by greater choice and a more equal relationship between men and women.  Giddens argues that relationships are now characterised by three general characteristics:

  1. The basis of marriage and family has changed into one in which the couple are free to define the relationship themselves rather than simply acting out roles that have been defined in advance by law or tradition. For example, couples today can chose to cohabit rather than marry.
  2. The typical relationship is the ‘pure relationship’….It exists solely to meet the partners’ needs and is likely to continue only so long as it succeeds. Couples stay together because of love, happiness of sexual attraction rather than tradition a sense of duty or for the sake of the children.
  3. Relationships become part of the process of self-discovery or self-identity trying different relationships become part of establishing who we are part of our journey of self discovery.

However Giddens notes that with more choice, personal relationships inevitably become less stable and can be ended more or less at will by any partner! Joy! For example most teenagers (57%) think that their relationships will only last 1 year and only 2% of relationships at 18 will progress to marriage’

Ulrich Beck: The ‘Risk Society’ and The Negotiated Family

Ulrich Beck puts forward a similar view to that of Anthony Giddens. Beck argues that we now live in a ‘risk society’ where tradition has less influence and people have more choice. As a result we are more aware of risk (we have developed a ‘risk consciousness’) because having choice means we spend more time calculating the risks and rewards of different courses of action available.

Today’s risk society contrasts with the modern society of the past with its stable nuclear family and traditional gender roles. Beck argues that even though the traditional patriarchal family was unequal and oppressive, it did provide a stable and predictable basis for the family by defining each member’s role and responsibly. However the patriarchal family has been undermined by two trends.

  1. Greater Gender Equality – which has challenged male domination in all spheres of life.  Women now expect equality both at work and in marriage.
  2. Greater individualism – where people’s actions are influenced more by calculations of their own self-interest that by a sense of obligation to others.

These trends have led to the rise of the negotiated family. Negotiated families do not conform to the traditional family norm, but vary according to the wishes and expectations of their members, who decided what is best for them by discussion. They enter the relationship on an equal basis.

However, the negotiated family may be more equal, but it is less stable, because it is characterised by greater equality.

Evaluating Late Modern Perspectives on the Family

There is a lot of sociological evidence that supports the view that there is still a social structure which shapes families, that people don’t have 100% freedom to make choices about families, and a lot of evidence that families require a lot of negotiation to work.

The dual earner household is the norm

There has been an increase in dual earner households. Between 2003 to 2013 the proportion of families with dependent children in which both parents worked full time rose from 26% to 31%, a significant increase in just 12 years. (1).

In 2022 95% of fathers were in work and 75% of mothers (either full or part time), both percentages have increased since the year 2002, especially working mothers, up 10% points in 20 years. This really does mean the dual-earner household has become the norm….

graph showing dual earner households from 2002 to 2022

Older people not wanting to get married….

60% of Britons aged 18-35 say they want to get married, but this figure has declined to just 11% for those aged over 55 (2). This implies that people start off wanting to get married, but that 30 to 40 years of life experience batters them into deciding that marriage is a bad idea, against their youthful optimism. This isn’t the same as simply ‘choosing to not get married’, something happens to change people’s attitudes over the life course…

bar charts showing proportions of people who want to get married in the UK in 2022: 60% of 18-34 year olds want to get married, but only 11% of 55s and over.

Young people feel social pressure to get married

Young people don’t themselves value traditional family structures such as marriage, but still feel under social pressure to get married according to a Relate Milestone Survey of 2000 people carried out in 2022.

Only 27% of Gen Z and 38% of millennials say that marriage is important to them, but 83% of Gen Z and 77% say the feel social pressure to reach life milestones such as getting married, having children and buying a house, with marriage being the number one milestone they feel under pressure to achieve.

This shows some support for both the Late Modern and Personal Life view that while people have diverse views of family life, they are not completely free of social norms when they make choices about their own personal relationships.

Negotiated families

A good example that supports the Late Modern perspective on relationships is this article in Psychology Today: How Much Time do you need to dedicate to your relationship? Part of the advice is to have a periodic check-in with each other about where the relationship is going – which means ‘negotiating’ the relationship!

NB that is just one article, there are SEVERAL like this on all sorts of websites.

The Scottish Government (3) has an advice site for how to involve young people more in decision making (based on U.N. guidelines). Part of this is advice to families, which suggests parents are spending time thinking about how to negotiate relationships with with children.

This Co-Parenting Guide is an interesting example of helping people to negotiate change in a relationship. It offers advice on how to include in-laws in children’s lives after a divorce. This kind of ‘expert advice’ online is very late modern.

Signposting and Related Posts 

This material is primarily relevant to the families and households module within A-level sociology, it is closely related to The Postmodern Perspective on The Family.


(1) 2018: The Modern Families Index UK

(2) YouGov (2022) Do Britons Still Want to Get Married?

(3) Scottish Government: Decision making and Young People’s Participation

Feminist Perspectives on the Family

A summary of liberal, marxist and radical feminist views on the traditional nuclear family

Almost all feminists agree that gender is socially constructed. This means that gender roles are learnt rather than determined by biology, and the family is the primary institution which socialises individuals into these gender roles.

The proof for gender being constructed (rather than biologically determined) is found in the sometimes radically different behaviour we see between women from different societies: i.e. different societies construct being a “women” in different ways (and the same can be said for differences between men in different societies as well).

Overview of Feminist Perspectives on the Family

This post summarises Feminist perspectives on the family covering:

  • An overview of Feminism in general
  • Liberal Feminism
  • Marxist Feminism
  • Radical Feminism

All sections include what different Feminists think about the role of the family in causing gender equality, their ideas about solutions to inequalities and criticisms.

Feminist theory of the family mind map

The content below is primarily designed to help students revise for the AQA A level sociology paper 2, families and households option. 

Feminism and the Family

Feminists have been central in criticising gender roles associated with the traditional nuclear family, especially since the 1950s.  They have argued the nuclear family has traditionally performed two key functions which oppressed women:

  1. socialising girls to accept subservient roles within the family, whilst socialising boys to believe they were superior – this happens through children witnessing then recreating the parental relationship.
  2. socialising women into accepting the “housewife” role as normal, which limited women to the domestic sphere and made them financially dependent on men.

Essentially, feminists viewed the function of the family as a breeding ground where patriarchal values were learned by individuals, which in turn created a patriarchal society.

For the purposes of teaching A-level sociology Feminism is usually to be split (simplified) into three distinct branches: Liberal Feminists, Marxist Feminists and Radical Feminists. They differ significantly over the extent to which they believe that the family is still patriarchal and in what the underlying causes of the existence of patriarchy might be. Remember – all the theories below are discussing the “nuclear” family.

Marxist Feminism

(See also –A Marxist Feminist Perspective on the Family for more depth.)

Marxist feminists argue the main cause of women’s oppression in the family is not men, but capitalism. They argue that women’s oppression performs several functions for Capitalism.

  1. Women reproduce the labour force – women do most of the childcare within the nuclear family, part of which involves socialising them to accept the authority of their parents, which gets them used to the idea of being obedient to hierarchical authority more generally, which is what their future capitalist employers need. They are thus socialising the next generation of workers, and they do this for free because their domestic labour is unpaid.
  2. Women absorb anger – Think back to Parson’s warm bath theory in which women help men destress after a hard day at work and thus help keep industrial capitalism going. The Marxist-Feminist interpretation of this is that women are just absorbing the anger of the proletariat, preventing this anger from being directed towards the Bourgeois, and thus preventing revolution and the downfall of capitalism.
  3. Women are a ‘reserve army of cheap labour’ – the fact that women’s ‘normal’ role in the nuclear family restrictions them from working, but they are nonetheless there in the background, in reserve. This prevents men from striking to demand higher wages because the Bourgeois could potentially take on female employees at lower wages if male employees start to play up.

Key thinker – Fran Ansley (1972)

Ansley argues women absorb the anger that would otherwise be directed at capitalism. Ansley argues women’s male partners are inevitably frustrated by the exploitation they experience at work and women are the victims of this, including domestic violence.  

Ansley famously referred to women as ‘the takers of shit‘ within the nuclear family under capitalism.      

Key thinker: Laurie Penny

Laurie Penny argues that neoliberal capitalism has encouraged women to seek self-empowerment and freedom through consumerism (by buying high heals and overt expressions of sexuality, for example).

The problem is that only a relatively few women earn enough to be able to ‘consume their way’ to liberation and so this isn’t a solution for the majority of women.

In reality many women work very long hours in unpaid domestic roles or low paid unskilled jobs, and it is mainly the exploitation of women which sustains both patriarchy and capitalism.

Feminists should be campaigning for better working conditions for women, and if women realised their power and just stopped working they could bring capitalism down, but this kind of activism is not very sexy or exciting and women remain ‘distracted’ with consuming their way to liberation.

You can read more about Laurie Penny’s views in this interview.

Solutions to Gender Inequalities within the family

For Marxist Feminists, the solutions to gender inequality are economic: we need to tackle capitalism to tackle patriarchy.

Two specific solutions include campaigning for better pay and conditions in jobs where mainly women work, such as cleaning and caring jobs.

Another solution is paying women for housework and childcare, thus putting an economic value on what is still largely women’s domestic work.

Evaluations of Marxist Feminism

  • One criticisms is that women’s oppression was clearly in evidence before capitalism – if anything, women are probably more oppressed in pre-capitalist, tribal societies compared to within capitalist societies.
  • If you look at the United Nation’s Gender Equality Index (2) there appears to be a correlation between capitalist development and women’s liberation – suggesting that capitalism has the opposite effect from that suggested by Marxist Feminists. This correlation isn’t perfect, but you can clearly see wealthy European countries such as Finland at the top and poorer sub-saharan African countries near the bottom.
  • The idea that women act as a reserve army of labour is less and less relevant every year: the employment rate for men in the UK in December 2022 was 79% for men and 72% of women, only a 7% gap.
  • However if we look at part time employment rates there is still more potential for women to do more work as women are more likely to employed than men: 38% of women worked part-time, compared to only 18% of men (1)

Radical Feminist Views of the Family

(See also – A Radical Feminist Perspective on the Family for more depth)

Radical feminists argue that all relationships between men and women are based on patriarchy, essentially men are the cause of women’s exploitation and oppression. For radical feminists, the nuclear family is where this system of oppression starts, it is the foundation on which patriarchy is based and thus should be abolished.

Against Liberal Feminism, they argue that paid work has not been ‘liberating’. Women’s lives within the family have not simply become better because they now have improved job opportunities and pay which is more equal to men’s.

Instead women have acquired the ‘dual burden’ of paid work and unpaid housework and the family remains patriarchal: men benefit from women’s paid earnings and their domestic labour. Some Radical Feminists go further arguing that women suffer from the ‘triple shift’ where they have to do paid work, domestic work and ‘emotion work’ – being expected to take on the emotional burden of caring for children.

Radical Feminists also argue that, for many women, there is a ‘dark side of family life’ –  According to the Crime Survey for England and Wales domestic violence accounts for a sixth of all violent crime and nearly 1 in 5 adults will experience domestic violence at some point in their lives, with women being more than twice as likely to experience it than men.

Kate Millett: On the sociology of Patriarchy

Key thiker –Kate Millet (see below) was one of the leading American Second Wave Feminists in the 1960s and 70s and is one of the best known radical feminists.

“Patriarchy’s chief institution is the family. It is both a mirror of and a connection with the larger society; a patriarchal unit within a patriarchal whole. Mediating between the individual and the social structure, the family effects control and conformity where political and other authorities are insufficient. As the fundamental instrument and the foundation unit of patriarchal society the family and its roles are prototypical. Serving as an agent of the larger society, the family not only encourages its own members to adjust and conform, but acts as a unit in the government of the patriarchal state which rules its citizens through its family heads.

Traditionally, patriarchy granted the father nearly total ownership over wife or wives and children, including the powers of physical abuse and often even those of murder and sale. Classically, as head of the family the father is both begetter and owner in a system in which kinship is property. Yet in strict patriarchy, kinship is acknowledged only through association with the male line.

In contemporary patriarchies the male’s priority has recently been modified through the granting of divorce protection, citizenship, and property to women. Their chattel status continues in their loss of name, their obligation to adopt the husband’s domicile, and the general legal assumption that marriage involves an exchange of the female’s domestic service and (sexual) consortium in return for financial support.

The chief contribution of the family in patriarchy is the socialisation of the young (largely through the example and admonition of their parents) into patriarchal ideology’s prescribed attitudes toward the categories of role, temperament, and status. Although slight differences of definition depend here upon the parents’ grasp of cultural values, the general effect of uniformity is achieved, to be further reinforced through peers, schools, media, and other learning sources, formal and informal. While we may niggle over the balance of authority between the personalities of various households, one must remember that the entire culture supports masculine authority in all areas of life and – outside of the home – permits the female none at all.

Although there is no biological reason why the two central functions of the family (socialisation and reproduction) need be inseparable from or even take place within it, revolutionary or utopian efforts to remove these functions from the family have been so frustrated, so beset by difficulties, that most experiments so far have involved a gradual return to tradition. This is strong evidence of how basic a form patriarchy is within all societies, and of how pervasive its effects upon family members.”

Solutions to gender inequality

Radical Feminists advocate for the abolition of the traditional, patriarchal nuclear family and the establishment of alternative family structures and sexual relations.

The various alternatives suggested by Radical Feminists include separatism – women only communes, and matrifocal households. Some extreme radical feminists also practise political lesbianism and political celibacy as they view heterosexual female relationships with men as “sleeping with the enemy.”

Radical feminists also argue for more support for female victims of domestic violence to help women out of abusive relationships.

Evaluations of Radical Feminism

  • There is still evidence of the dual burden and triple shift on women. Women do twice as much childcare than men and spend 64% more time doing domestic chores.
  • The ME TOO campaign and the Harvey Weinstein scandal both show that harassment and sexual abuse of women remain common.
  • Ignores the progress that women have made in many areas e.g. work, controlling fertility, divorce.
  • Too unrealistic – due to heterosexual attraction separatism is unlikely.
  • Ignores domestic/emotional abuse suffered by men who often don’t report it.

Liberal Feminism

(See also – A liberal Feminist Perspective on the Family for more depth)

Liberal Feminists do not emphasise the role of the family in perpetuating gender inequality in society as much as Marxist or Radical Feminists.

According to liberal Feminists gender inequalities are primarily caused by inequalities in the public sphere rather than inequalities in the home. Prior to 1972 the main problem was the lack of equal pay in work between men and women, and today two problems include:

  • stereotypical subject domains in education steering women into lower paid jobs such as health and social care.
  • unequal maternity and paternity pay encouraging the woman to take more time of work than the man following the birth of a new child.
  • lack of free child care preventing women from returning to work earlier.

Solutions to Inequality

Liberal Feminists tend to focus on achieving greater equality of opportunity in the public sphere: focussing on achieving equal access to education, equal pay, ending gender differences in subject and career choice won primarily through legal changes.

In Liberal Feminist theory if women have an equal chance as men to pursue careers outside of the family, they are free to choose NOT to be housewives and mothers.

We have made enormous progress towards equality in the public sphere in recent decades, and all that remains is ‘tweaking’ in certain areas, such as improving equality in higher managerial positions: there are still very few women employed at the senior executive levels.

Two social policies liberal feminists would support include the 2015 shared parental leave act in which the mother and father can share the mother’s maternity leave between them and the forthcoming 2024 act which proivdes free childcare for children down to 9 months of age.

Key Thinker: Jenny Somerville

A key thinker who can be characterised as a liberal feminist is Jennifer Somerville (2000) who provides a less radical critique of the family than Marxist or Radical Feminists and suggests proposals to improve family life for women that involve modest policy reforms rather than revolutionary change.

Jennifer Somerville

Somerville argues that many young women do not feel entirely sympathetic towards feminism yet still feel some sense of grievance.

To Somerville, many feminists have failed to acknowledge progress for women such as the greater freedom to go into paid work, and the greater degree of choice over whether they marry or cohabit, when and whether to have children, and whether to take part in a heterosexual or same-sex relationship or to simply live on their own.

The increased choice for women and the rise of the dual-earner household (both partners in work) has helped create greater equality within relationships. Somerville argues that ‘some modern men are voluntarily committed to sharing in those routine necessities of family survival, or they can be persuaded, cajoled, guilt-tripped or bullied’. Despite this, however, ‘women are angry, resentful and above all disappointed in men.’ Many men do not take on their full share of responsibilities and often these men can be ‘shown the door’.

Somerville raises the possibility that women might do without male partners, especially as so many prove inadequate, and instead get their sense of fulfilment from their children. Unlike Germain Greer, however, Somerville does not believe that living in a household without an adult male is the answer – the high figures for remarriage suggest that heterosexual attraction and the need for intimacy and companionship mean that heterosexual families will not disappear.

However, it remains the case that the inability of men to ‘pull their weight’ in relationships means that high rates of relationship breakdowns will continue to be the norm which will lead to more complex familial relationships as women end one relationship and attempt to rebuild the next with a new (typically male) partner.

What Feminists thus need to do is to focus on policies which will encourage greater equality within relationships and to help women cope with the practicalities of daily life. One set of policies which Somerville thinks particularly important are those aimed at helping working parents. The working hours and culture associated with many jobs are incompatible with family life. Many jobs are based on the idea of a male breadwinner who relies on a non-working wife to take care of the children.

Somerville argues that in order to achieve true equality within relationships we need increased flexibility in paid employment.

For a more in-depth exploration of Somerville’s work you can read her book, published in the year 2000: Feminism and the Family: Politics and Society in the UK and the USA.

Evaluation of the Liberal Feminist Perspective on the Family

  • Sommerville recognises that significant progress has been made in both public and private life for women.
  • It is more appealing to a wider range of women than radical ideas.
  • It is more practical – the system is more likely to accept small policy changes, while it would resist revolutionary change.
  • Difference Feminists argue that Liberal Feminism is an ethnocentric view – it reflects the experiences of mainly white, middle class women.
  • Her work is based on a secondary analysis of previous works and is thus not backed up by empirical evidence.
  • Radical Feminists such as Delphy, Leonard and Greer (see further below) argue that she fails to deal with the Patriarchal structures and culture in contemporary family life.
  • Despite policy changes which have made work more equal, slight gender inequalities remain in the UK!
A Level Sociology Families and Households Revision Bundle

If you like this sort of thing, then you might like my AS Sociology Families and Households Revision Bundle

Families Revision Bundle Cover

The bundle contains the following:

  1. 50 pages of revision notes covering all of the sub-topics within families and households
  2. mind maps in pdf and png format – 9 in total, covering perspectives on the family
  3. short answer exam practice questions and exemplar answers – 3 examples of the 10 mark, ‘outline and explain’ question.
  4.  9 essays/ essay plans spanning all the topics within the families and households topic.
Related Posts/ Find out More

Please click here to return to the homepage –

Sources Used to Write this Post 
  • Haralambos and Holborn (2013) – Sociology Themes and Perspectives, Eighth Edition, Collins. ISBN-10: 0007597479
  • Chapman et al (2015) A Level Sociology Student Book One, Including AS Level [Fourth Edition], Collins. ISBN-10: 0007597479
  • Robb Webb et al (2015) AQA A Level Sociology Book 1, Napier Press. ISBN-10: 0954007913
  • (1) House of Commons library: Women in the UK Economy.
  • (2) The Gender Equality Index.
  • (3) The Guardian: The End of Lockdown and Domestic Chores.

(1) This division goes back to Alison Jaggar’s (1983) Feminist Politics and Human Nature where she defined four theories related to feminism: liberal feminism, Marxism, radical feminism, and socialist feminism

The Marxist Perspective on The Family

Engels believed the nuclear family emerged with capitalism and private property, contemporary Marxists argue the family performs ideological functions.

Marxists argue that the nuclear family performs ideological functions for Capitalism – the family acts as a unit of consumption and teaches passive acceptance of hierarchy. It is also the institution through which the wealthy pass down their private property to their children, thus reproducing class inequality.

The Marxist Perspective on the Family an Overview:

  • We start with an overview of the Marxist perspective in general
  • Engel’s theory of the emergence of the nuclear family
  • The family as an ideological apparatus
  • The family as a unit of consumption
  • Criticisms of the Marxist view of the family.

This post has been written primarily for students studying the families and household option as part of A-level sociology.

Marxist perspective family mind map

Before reading this post, you might like to look at this summary of the key ideas of Marxism.

Overview of the Marxist Perspective

Marxism is a ‘structural conflict’ perspective. They see society as structured along class lines with institutions generally working in the interests of the small elite class who have economic power (the ‘Bourgeoisie’) and the much larger working class (the ‘Proletariat’). The Bourgeoise gain their wealth from exploiting the proletariat. There is thus a conflict of interests between the Bourgeoise and the Proletariat.

However, this conflict of interests rarely boils over into revolution because institutions such as the family perform the function of ‘ideological control’, or convincing the masses that the present unequal system is inevitable, natural and good.

Something else Marxists suggest about the family (like the Functional Fit theory) is that the family type generally changes with society – more specifically, the nuclear family emerges not because of the needs of industrialisation, but because of the needs of the capitalist system.

Engels – The Emergence of the Nuclear Family

According to Engels, the monogamous nuclear family only emerged with Capitalism. Before Capitalism, traditional, tribal societies were classless and they practised a form of ‘primitive communism’ in which there was no private property. In such societies, property was collectively owned, and the family structure reflected this – there were no families as such, but tribal groups existed in a kind of ‘promiscuous horde’ in which there were no restrictions on sexual relationships.

Marxist perspective nuclear family
Hunter-gatherer societies – promiscuous hordes?

However, with the emergence of Capitalism in the 18th Century, society and the family changed. Capitalism is based on a system of private ownership – The bourgeois use their own personal wealth to personally invest in businesses in order to make a profit, they don’t invest for the benefit of everyone else.

Marxism Family

Eventually the Bourgeois started to look for ways to pass on their wealth to the next generation, rather than having it shared out amongst the masses, and this is where the monogamous nuclear family comes from. It is the best way of guaranteeing that you are passing on your property to your son, because in a monogamous relationship you have a clear idea of who your own children are.

Ultimately what this arrangement does is to reproduce inequality – The children of the rich grow up into wealth, while the children of the poor remain poor. Thus the nuclear family benefits the Bourgeois more than the proletariat.

Criticisms of Engels

Gender inequality clearly preceded Capitalism….. The vast majority of tribes in Africa and Asia are patriarchal, with women being barred from owning property, having no political power, and having to do most of the child care and hard physical labour.

Wealthy Capitalist economies such as the UK and USA have seen the fastest improvements in gender equality over the last 100 years. Capitalism, increasing wealth and gender equality within a nation seem to be correlated.

The family as an Ideological Apparatus

The modern nuclear family functions to promote values that ensure the reproduction and maintenance of capitalism. The family is described as an ideological apparatus – this means it socialises people to think in a way that justifies inequality and encourages people to accept the capitalist system as fair, natural and unchangeable.

One way in which this happens is that there is a hierarchy in most families which teaches children to accept there will always be someone in “authority” who they must obey, which then mirrors the hierarchy of boss-worker in paid employment in later life.

The modern nuclear family – a hierarchical structure which supports capitalism?

The Family as a Unit of Consumption

Capitalists/business owners want to keep workers’ wages down so they can make a profit, but to do so they must also be able to sell the workers goods i.e. they must create demand for their products. The family builds demand for goods in a number of ways

1) Families must keep up with the material goods/services acquired by their neighbours and peers e.g. family holidays, cars – this is known “Keeping up with the Joneses”. There are significant amounts of advertising and TV programmes influencing parents in this way.

2) The media and companies target children in their advertising who then persuade their parents through pester power to buy more expensive items. This is particularly bad in the UK where there few legal restrictions on adverts aimed at children; in Sweden advertising aimed at children under 12 is illegal.

Are nuclear families just a ‘unit of consumption’ which keeps capitalism going?

Overall Criticisms of Marxism

  • It’s too deterministic – it assumes people passively accept socialisation and family life, and that the future is pre-determined. There are plenty of families who reject the consumerist lifestyle and many families bring their children up to be independent thinkers.
  • The Marxist perspective ignores family diversity in capitalist society, the nuclear family is no longer the main type of family. In fact, family breakdown may be better for Capitalism – as divorce is expensive and more money has to be spent on maintaining family relationships and later on forming new families.
  • Feminists argue that the Marxist focus on social class inequalities downplays the role of patriarchy, which is the real source of female oppression. Feminists would point out that sex inequalities exist within all families, irrespective of social class background.
  • Marxism ignores the benefits of nuclear family e.g. both parents support the children. The New Right point out that this is the most functional type of environment in which to raise children, and the nuclear family is found in most societies around the world, suggesting it is something people choose.

A Level Sociology Families and Households Revision Bundle

If you like this sort of thing, then you might like my Sociology Families and Households Revision Bundle

Families Revision Bundle Cover

The bundle contains the following:

  1. 50 pages of revision notes covering all of the sub-topics within families and households
  2. mind maps in pdf and png format – 9 in total, covering perspectives on the family
  3. short answer exam practice questions and exemplar answers – 3 examples of the 10 mark, ‘outline and explain’ question.
  4.  9 essays/ essay plans spanning all the topics within the families and households topic.
Signposting and Related Posts 

The Marxist perspective on the family is normally taught after the Functionalist perspective on the Family, and is normally the second of five perspectives on the family within the families and households module in A-level sociology.

Essay plan on the Marxist perspective on the family

Marxist Feminist Perspectives on the Family

Feminist Perspectives on the Family

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