Tuesday, 7 February 2017

COLLEGE ESSAYS (Sociology) Explain the main ways in which the concept of the family has changed over time and across cultures and examine the changing and diverse nature of the family in modern society.

In human context, the family is a group of people affiliated by consanguinity, affinity or co-residence.

Families can be sites of conflict, tension and arguments, yet may also be sources of love, caring, support, affection, commitment and a sense of belonging as well as involving relations of responsibility, obligations and duties. (Marsh & Keating, 2006)

There are many different 'types' of family. The most common is the nuclear family (conjugal) which consists of the mother, the father and the children. The other most common family type is the extended family which consists of the same as the nuclear family and is also made up of other relatives such as grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles.

In many cultures, particularly in Southern Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East the extended family is the most common structure.

Traditionally, family was broken down by gender. Father was the breadwinner and mother assumed a role of bringing up the children and the general running of the household. (Marsh & Keating, 2006). However, more recently families have become much more diverse. There are same-sex unions in which there are two fathers or two mothers and the children are either adopted or surrogates. Also, women are more likely to have jobs as much as men and it is common for the father to remain at home with the children and for mother to be the breadwinner. Further up the social scale, children are commonly raised by an au-pair or nanny as both parents have careers which they are seemingly unable to put on hold. In South Asia, families include three generations in the household and are organised through a network of males. By contrast, African-CAribbean families are centred on the role of the woman. (Fulcher & Scott 2003).

Same sex unions have always been a hot topic. In 1996 gay couples had acquired registration rights in the Scandinavia however, it was in the Netherlands that legalisation was first passed to allow same-sex marriages. 2001 saw the first two same-sex marriages in Amsterdam. (Independent, 2001)

Most information written historically on the family discusses issues related to the Western world or industrialised countries and therefore does not give a balanced view.

The structure of a family not only depends upon the time period but also the part of the world. Laurence Stone, in a classic study, has charted three phases of the family in Western Europe between 1500 and 1800. The first was 'Open Lineage' and involved a lack of close relations and a lack of privacy, but exclusive kin (a person's relatives). The second was 'Restricted Patriarchy” where there were increased loyalties to the state and church and less to kin and community. The final stage of 'Closed Domesticated' families highlights privacy, bonds between children and parents and 'affective individualism'. It was 'an open ended, low keyed, unemotional, authoritarian institution' (Macionis & Plummer 2008)

In many families today the parents are not married. They are often considered as “common law” partners (common law is an unwritten law based on custom and former court decisions – Oxford
Dictionary 2007) or cohabiting (living together as man and wife). Some marital norms promote endogamy in which the persons wed are from the same social category. This limits the marriage prospects to others of the same age, race, religion or social class. On the opposite side of the scale we have exogamy in which people are expected to marry someone of the same caste (as in endogamy) but in from a different village. Endogamy is promoted in order to pass along their standing to their offspring and maintaining traditional social patterns. Exogamy on the other hand helps to forge useful alliances and promotes cultural diffusion.

In 2001 only 23% of British households consisted of a couple, married or unmarried, living with dependent children, as compared with 35% in 1971. (Social Trends 2002: 40)

It could be argued that family life is in decline and that this decline is responsible for the ills of today's society. However, an alternative view is that families have simply become more varied. It could be argued that the 'traditional family' was constrictive and damaging to all concerned!

In the 1970s, the New Right tried to revive traditional notions of the family centred on marriage and the domestic division of labour between a bread-winning husband and a housewife responsible for childcare. A definition of the family in these terms excludes; single parent families, unmarried couples and heterosexual or homosexual couples. In 1993, Diana Gittins argued that instead of referring to 'the family' we should refer to 'families'. This way we could recognise the various forms taken by the family and avoid privileging any one of them.

In today's society, the family is more of a concept. It is the people we live with and care about. The more traditional idea of 'family is slightly more outdated and perhaps didn't even exist.


Fulcher, J & Scott, J Sociology Second Editon, 2003, Oxford University Press Inc, New York

Gittins, D, 1993, The Family in Question: Changing Households and Familiar Ideologies. Second Edition, Macmillan, London.

Macionis, J & Plummer, K. Sociology, a global introduction fourth edition 2008 Pearson Education Limited, Essex.

Oxford English Dictionary, 2007, Oxford University Press Inc, New York

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