Some commentators argue that the extent of ever increasing family diversity has been exaggerated.
Robert Chester – The Neo-Conventional Family
Robert Chester (1985) recognises that there has been some increased family diversity in recent years. However, unlike the new right, he does not regard this as very significant, nor does he see it in a negative light. Chester argues the only important change is a move from the dominance of the traditional or conventional nuclear family, to what he describes as the ‘neo conventional’ family.
The Conventional Family – (declining) The Traditional nuclear family with ‘segregated conjugal roles’ – Male breadwinner and female homemaker.
The Neo-Conventional Family (the new norm) – a dual-earner family in which both spouses go out to work – similar to the symmetrical family of Young and Wilmott
Chester argues that most people are not choosing to live in alternatives to the nuclear family (such as lone parent families) on a long term basis and the nuclear family remains the ideal to which most people aspire. He argues that many people living alone have been or one day will be part of the nuclear family. Chester identifies a number of patterns that support his view:
- Most children are still reared for most of their lives by their two natural parents
- Most marriages still continue until death.
- Cohabitation has increased, but for most couples it is a temporary phase before marrying.
- Some ethnic groups are very likely to live in nuclear family households – Pakistani and Bangladeshi especially.
Pat Thane – A Historical Perspective on the ‘myth of the nuclear family’
This is a slightly different criticism to Chester – rather than criticising the idea that the nuclear family is in decline, Pat Thane challenges the idea that the nuclear family was ever the ‘norm’ in the first place.
Family diversity was the norm up until world war two, then there was a brief period of thirty years from the 1940s -to the 1970s where nearly everyone got married and lived in nuclear families, and now we are returning to greater family diversity.
If we look at Marriage and Divorce – the decades after the end of the Second World War were an abnormal period, with much higher marriage rates than usual. Previously, in the 1930s for example, 15 percent of women and 9 percent of men did not marry. Similar numbers had long been normal.
If we look at lone parenthood – In the early 18th century, 24 percent of marriages were ended by the death of a partner within ten years. As a result, a mixture of lone-parents, step-parents and step-children were commonplace in Britain.
Signposting and related posts
This material is relevant to the families and households module, usually taught in the first year of A-Level Sociology.
The preceding two posts to this one are:
Explaining the increase in family diversity part 1/3 – detailed class notes covering changing patterns of marriage and divorce, postmodernisation and economic factors.
Explaining the increase in family diversity part 2/3 – detailed class notes covering Feminism, social policies and late modernism
Pat Thane (2010) Happy Families? History and Family Policy.
Graph from the ONS families and households publication, 2022.