Sociology of Family

Sociology is the study of society and human behaviour, and one of the first social institutions many of us are born into is the family.

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Table of contents

    What do we mean by "family"? How do different families function? What do families look like in modern times? Sociologists are fascinated by questions such as these and have researched and analysed the family very closely.

    We will go over the basic ideas, concepts, and theories of the family in sociology. Check out the separate explanations on each of these topics for more in-depth information!

    Definition of family in sociology

    Defining family can be difficult as we tend to base our idea of the family on our own experiences and expectations of our families (or lack thereof). Therefore, Allan and Crow argued that sociologists must first specify what they mean by "family" when researching and writing about the topic.

    A general definition of family is that it is a union of a couple and their dependent children living in the same household.

    However, this definition doesn't cover the increasing family diversity that exists in the world now.

    Types of family in sociology

    There are many structures and compositions of family in modern Western society. Some of the most common family forms in the UK are:

    • Nuclear families

    • Same-sex families

    • Dual-worker families

    • Extended families

    • Beanpole families

    • Lone-parent families

    • Reconstituted families

    Sociology of Families, Illustration of a same sex couple with a baby in their hands, StudySmarterSame-sex families are more and more common in the UK, pixabay.com

    Alternatives to the family

    Family diversity has increased, but so has the number of alternatives to the family at the same time. It is no longer compulsory nor desirable for everyone to "start a family" once they reach a certain point - people have more options now.

    Household:

    Individuals can also be classified as living in "households". A household refers to either one person who lives alone or a group of people who live under the same address, spend time together and share responsibilities. Families usually live in the same household, but people who are not related by blood or marriage can also create a household (for example, university students sharing a flat).

    • An individual usually lives in different types of families and households during their course of life.

    • Over the past few decades, there has been an increase in the number of one-person households in the UK. There are more older people (mostly women) living alone after their partners pass away, as well as increasing numbers of younger people living in one-person households. The choice to live alone might result from several factors, from divorce to being single.

    Friends:

    Some sociologists (mainly the sociologists of the personal life perspective) argue that friends have replaced family members in many people’s lives as the primary supporters and nurturers.

    Looked-after children:

    Some children don’t live with their families due to being mistreated or neglected. Most of these children are taken care of by foster carers, while some of them live in children’s homes or in secure units.

    Residential care:

    Some older people live in residential care or in nursing homes, where professional caretakers look after them rather than their family members.

    Communes:

    A commune is a group of people who share accommodation, profession and wealth. Communes were especially popular in the 1960s and 1970s USA.

    A Kibbutz is a Jewish agricultural settlement where people live in communes, sharing accommodation and childcare responsibilities.

    In 1979, China introduced a policy which restricted couples to having only one child. If they had more than that, they could face serious fines and punishment. The policy was ended in 2016; now, families can request to have more than one child.

    Changing family relationships

    Family relationships have always shifted throughout history. Let's look at some modern trends.

    • The fertility rate has been declining in Western countries in the past decades due to several factors, including the declining stigma around contraception and abortion and women’s increasing participation in paid labour.
    • Previously, many children were unable to attend school due to poverty. Many of them worked either in real or in household employment. Since the 1918 Education Act, it is now mandatory for all children to attend school until the age of 14.
    • Sociologists argue that children are seen as important members of contemporary society and have more individual freedom than before. Childrearing is no longer restricted and dominated by economic factors, and parent-children relationships tend to be much more child-centred now.

    Sociology of Families, Little Girl in a Forest Playing with Bubbles, StudySmarterSociologists argue that children today have more individual freedom than in past centuries, pixabay.com

    • Due to increasing geographical mobility, people tend to be less connected to their extended families than before. At the same time, longer life expectancy has resulted in more households consisting of two, three or even more generations.
    • A relatively new phenomenon is the generation of boomerang children. These are young adults who leave home to study or work and then return during a financial, housing or employment crisis.

    Family diversity

    The Rapoports (1982) distinguished between 5 types of family diversity:

    • Organisational diversity

    • Cultural diversity

    • Social class diversity

    • Life-course diversity

    • Cohort diversity

    Sociologists have noted that there are certain patterns of family formation and family life regarding specific to social class and ethnicity in the UK. For example, women of African-Caribbean heritage often work in full-time employment even with children, while Asian mothers tend to become full-time homemakers when they have children.

    Some sociologists claim that working-class households are more male-dominated than the more egalitarian and equal middle-class households. However, others have criticised this statement, pointing to research that shows that working-class fathers are more involved with childrearing than middle and upper-class fathers.

    The different sociological concepts of family

    Various sociological approaches all have their own views on the family and its functions. Let's study the perspectives of functionalism, Marxism, and feminism.

    The functionalist view of the family

    Functionalists believe that the nuclear family is the building block of society because of the functions it carries out. G. P. Murdock (1949) defined the four main functions the nuclear family fulfils in society as follows:

    • Sexual function

    • Reproductive function

    • Economic function

    • Educational function

    Talcott Parsons (1956) argued that the nuclear family has lost some of its functions. For instance, the economic and educational functions are taken care of by other social institutions. However, this does not mean that the nuclear family is unimportant.

    Parsons believes that personalities are not born but made during the primary socialisation or upbringing of children when they are taught social norms and values. This primary socialisation happens in the family, so according to Parsons, the most significant role of the nuclear family in society is to form human personalities.

    Functionalists such as Parson are often criticised for idealising and only considering the white middle-class family, ignoring dysfunctional families and ethnic diversity.

    The Marxist view of the family

    Marxists are critical of the ideal of the nuclear family. They argue that the nuclear family serves the capitalist system rather than the individuals in it. Families reinforce social inequalities by socialising their children according to the ‘values and rules’ of their social class, not preparing them for any kind of social mobility.

    Eli Zaretsky (1976) claimed that the nuclear family serves capitalism in three key ways:

    • It serves an economic function by making women do unpaid domestic labour such as housework and childrearing, enabling men to focus on their paid labour outside of the home.

    • It ensures the reproduction of social classes by prioritising having children.

    • It fulfils a consumer role that benefits the bourgeoisie and the whole capitalist system.

    Zaretsky believed that only a society without social classes (socialism) could end the separation of private and public spheres and ensure that all individuals find personal fulfilment in society.

    Marxists are sometimes criticised for ignoring that many people are fulfilled in the traditional nuclear family form.

    The feminist view of the family

    Feminist sociologists are usually critical of the traditional family form.

    Ann Oakley was one of the first to raise attention to the ways traditional gender roles, created through the patriarchal nuclear family, contribute to the oppression of women in society. She pointed out that as early as childhood, girls and boys are taught different things to prepare them for different roles (homemaker and breadwinner) they will have to perform later in life. She also talked a lot about the repetitive and boring nature of domestic work which left many, if not most, women unfulfilled.

    Researchers Christine Delphy and Diana Leonard also studied housework and found that husbands systematically exploit their wives by leaving all the unpaid domestic labour to them. As they are often financially dependent on their husbands, women cannot challenge the status quo. In some families, women also suffer from domestic abuse, making them even more powerless.

    As a result, Delphy and Leonard argue that families contribute to maintaining male domination and patriarchal control in society.

    Conjugal roles and the symmetrical family

    Conjugal roles are the domestic roles and responsibilities of married or cohabiting partners. Elizabeth Bott identified two types of households: one with segregated conjugal roles and the other with joint conjugal roles.

    Segregated conjugal roles meant that the tasks and responsibilities of the husband and wife were distinctly different. Usually, this meant that the wife was the homemaker and carer for the children, while the husband had a job outside of the home and was the breadwinner. In joint conjugal role households, the domestic duties and tasks are shared relatively equally between the partners.

    The symmetrical family:

    Young and Willmott (1973) created the term ‘symmetrical family’ referring to a dual-earner family in which the partners share the roles and responsibilities both in and outside of the household. These types of families are much more equal than traditional nuclear families. The move to a more symmetrical family structure was accelerated by numerous factors:

    • The feminist movement

    • Women’s increased participation in education and paid employment

    • The decline of traditional gender roles

    • The growing interest in home life

    • The declining stigma around contraception

    • Changing attitudes towards fatherhood and the emergence of the "new man"

    Sociology of Families, Closeup photograph of someone taking their latex gloves off in the sink, StudySmarterIn a symmetrical family, housework is divided equally between partners, pixabay.com

    Marriage in a global context

    In the West, marriage is based on monogamy, which means being married to one person at a time. If someone’s partner dies or gets a divorce, they are legally allowed to get married again. This is called serial monogamy. Marrying someone while already being married to another person is called bigamy and is a criminal offence in the Western world.

    Different forms of marriage:

    • Polygamy

    • Polygyny

    • Polyandry

    • Arranged marriage

    • Forced marriage

    Statistics show that there has been a decline in the number of marriages in the Western world, and people tend to get married later than before.

    Since 2005, same-sex partners have been able to enter civil partnerships, which granted them the same rights as marriage except for the title. Since the 2014 Marriage Act, same-sex couples can now marry as well.

    More and more people now decide to cohabit without getting married, and there has been an increase in children born out of marriage.

    Divorce

    There has been a rise in the number of divorces in the West. Sociologists have collected many factors playing a role in the changing divorce rates:

    • Changes in the law

    • Changes in social attitudes and declining stigma around divorce

    • Secularisation

    • The feminist movement

    • Changes in the presentation of marriage and divorce in the media

    Consequences of divorce:

    • Changes to family structure

    • Relationship breakdown and emotional distress

    • Financial hardship

    • Remarriage

    Problems of the modern family in sociology

    Some sociologists have claimed that the three most important social issues regarding children and families are:

    • Issues around parenting (especially the case of teenage mothers).

    • Issues around the relationship between parents and teenagers.

    • Issues around the care for older people.

    Postmodernist scholars, like Ulrich Beck, argued that people nowadays have unrealistic ideals for what a partner should be like and what a family should look like, which makes it more and more difficult to settle down.

    People are also more isolated from their extended families as globalisation enables geographical mobility for more people. Some sociologists claim that the lack of family networks makes family life more difficult for individuals and often leads to marital breakdowns or creates dysfunctional families, where domestic and child abuse can happen.

    Women's status and role in families are still often exploitative, despite the positive changes that have happened in the past decades. Recent surveys have shown that even in a family where both partners think that the domestic duties are shared equally, women do more of the housework than men (even when they are both in full-time employment outside of the home).

    Sociology of Families - Key takeaways

    • Defining family can be difficult as we all tend to base the definition on our own experiences with our own families. There are many types of families and alternatives to traditional families in contemporary society.
    • Family relationships have changed throughout history, including relationships between spouses, extended family members, and parents and their children.
    • There are 5 types of family diversity: organisational diversity, cultural diversity, social class diversity, life course diversity, and cohort diversity.

    • Sociologists of different theories have differing views on the family and its functions.

    • Marriage rates have been declining while divorce rates are rising in almost all Western countries. Modern families face many challenges, both old and new.

    Sociology of Family Sociology of Family
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    Frequently Asked Questions about Sociology of Family

    What is the definition of family in sociology?

    A general definition of family is that it is a union of a couple and their dependent children living in the same household. However, this definition doesn't cover the increasing family diversity that exists in the world now. 

    What are the three types of families in sociology?

    Sociologists differentiate between many different types of families, such as nuclear families, same-sex families, dual-worker families, beanpole families and so on.

    What are the four main functions of the family in society?

    According to G.P. Murdock, the four main functions of the family are sexual function, reproductive function, economic function and educational function.

    What are the social factors affecting family?

    Sociologists have noticed certain patterns in family formation and family life depending on the social class, ethnicity, gender- and age composition of the family and the sexual orientation of the family members.

    Why is sociology of the family important?

    Sociology is the study of society and human behaviour, and one of the first social institutions many of us are born into is the family.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Kibbutzim is a Jewish agricultural settlement where people live in communes, sharing accommodation and the responsibility of childcare.

    The fertility rate has been declining in Western countries in the past decades due to several factors, including the declining stigma around contraception and abortion and women’s increasing participation in paid labour.

    Parent-children relationships were much more child-centred in earlier centuries than now.

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