Sociology Home Page

All Sociology Modules

Sociology Links

Government and Politics Home page

AS Government and Politics

A2 Government and Politics

Government and Politics Links

Page last edited: 09/11/2017

Introducing Families and Households

 

To stay up to date via Twitter use the following # for A Level Families and Households resources kindly set up by Ken Browne  #SOCFAM

Click here and here for  large selections of  recent items from ONS and scroll through for items which are relevant to the study of Families and Households and Demography . See for example here and here  NEW August 2017

 Click here for the latest ONS publication on Marriage, Cohabitation, Divorce and Singlehood  NEW July 2017

 

 

 Click here for latest Divorce in England and Wales  Statistics from ONS NEW Link June  2017

 

 

Click here  for Families and Households 2017 from ONS  New November  2017

 

 

 

Click here for Radio 4 Thinking Allowed: Items on Being Single and Modern Romance NEW October 2015

 

Click here for Radio 4 Analysis : Meet the Family NEW September 2015

 

Click here for  recent survey data on Living Apart Together NEW September 2015

 

Click here for new ESRC research on Fatherhood NEW June 2015

 

Click here for discussion of new ESRC research on Fatherhood NEW June 2015

 

Assignments: Sample Exercises from Ken Browne's AS Sociology Textbook

 

Links to  sections of chapter  on Families and Households from Chris Livesey's recent textbook.  One; Two; Three; Four   NEW September 2017

Click here for a recent Guardian article on grandparents

 

Click here for Cohabitation trends and patterns in the UK By Ann Berrington and Juliet Stone [ESRC Centre for Population Change] NEW February 2015

 

 

 

 

The ONS produced some very useful You Tube podcasts on family- related issues between 2011 and 2015 and these were made available   on an ONS archived site. However the ONS has recently redesigned its archive site and I can now  find only the final two podcasts in the following list. I shall try to find new links to the others ...but don't hold your breath! You can access the page of archived podcasts here  and specific podcasts can be found via the following links. Cohabitation Trends ; Civil Partnerships Population Trends    Families and Households in the 2011 Census  Divorce  Young People living with their parents  Population Change and Ageing .

 

 

Defining "the" Family and Families

Some Preliminaries: Kinship, Households and Marriage

Sociologists recognise that it is no simple matter to define what we mean by a Family. and in order to analyse some of the controversies surrounding the definition of "The Family" it is first useful to define the terms Kinship, Marriage and Household.

    1. Polyandry where a woman has more than one husband as may occur, for example in Tibet. It should be noted that polyandry occurs more rarely  than polygyny and that most polyandry is fraternal  where individual women marry one or more  brothers. Click here for some video clips on Polyandry. [ You may also  Click here for a very detailed technical article on Polyandry although such detailed knowledge of Polyandry is certainly not required for AS Sociology students.]  
    2. Polygyny where a man has more than one wife as in some Muslim societies. Obviously , families based upon Polyandry and Polygyny are significantly different from Western style families. It should be noted that in societies where polygyny is practised it is practised almost entirely by relatively rich men who can afford to support more than one wife and that the vast majority of married men and women practise monogamous marriage.

 Additional information on different types of  Marriage will be provided slightly later in the course.

Bearing in mind the above information on Kinship, Households and Marriage we can now begin to analyse various approaches to the definition of the family and of families.

  1. We could define the family as containing all related Kin: that is: as all individuals who are related by blood, marriage and adoption. However this definition of the family would exclude couples with or without children who are cohabiting rather than married since clearly the couple are not related by blood, marriage or adoption and it would also include very distant relatives whom we might not necessarily think of as family members .
  2. We could accept G. P. Murdock's definition of the family [see below] although for a variety of reasons  this would almost certainly be unwise.
  3. G. P. Murdock's theories of the family do highlight the distinctions between the nuclear family and the extended family.
  •  The Nuclear family is defined as a heterosexual couple and their children , natural or adopted, usually living together in the same household. Nowadays they may also produce children via the use of new reproductive technologies.
  • The classic extended family is a nuclear family plus one or more additional relations living in the same household. These families may be horizontally extended to include , say siblings of the adult members of the nuclear family or vertically to include grandparents or grandchildren.
  • The modified extended family is a family in which members of a nuclear family retain connections with other relatives who live apart from members of the nuclear family.
  • It is argued that where marriage is based on polygyny or polyandry special types of extended families are created containing additional wives or husbands.
  • We should note in relation to the nuclear family that the heterosexual couples may be married or cohabiting.
  • We should note that some families are defined as reconstituted families
  • Some gay and lesbian couples may live with their children from previous heterosexual relationships or they may adopt children or they may produce children via the use of new reproductive technologies

   4. As we shall see below increasing numbers of individuals live in lone parent families containing a lone parent [usually but not always a mother] and her/his children.

   5. Some individuals live as childless couples, heterosexual gay or lesbian, , married, cohabiting or in civil partnerships .

   6. Some individuals share households as friendship groups

   7. Some individuals live alone.

Which of the above mentioned personal relationships may reasonably be defined as Families?  

In his 1949 study entitled Social Structure GP Murdock offered a definition of the family which has subsequently been the subject of considerable debate For G P Murdock  the family is " a social group characterised by common residence, economic co-operation and reproduction. It includes adults of both sexes, at least two of whom maintain a socially approved sexual relationship, and one or more children, own or adopted of the sexually cohabiting adults". Murdock also distinguished between nuclear families [parents and dependent children] and extended families[ comprising parents children and other relatives] and went on to claim on the basis of his study of 250 societies of various types that "the nuclear family is a universal social grouping. Either as the sole prevailing form of the family, or as the basic unit from which more complex forms are compounded it exists as a distinct and strongly functional group in every known society."

[Families based on Polygyny or Polyandry also tend to be defined as forms of extended families although one might wonder whether they might be better defined as different types of nuclear family of as families which are neither nuclear nor extended.]

According to Murdock the family performs the following functions for societies: the sexual, reproductive, economic and educational functions. These functions are seen as " essential for social life  since without the sexual and reproductive functions there would be no members of society; without the economic function, involving, for example,  the provision of food, life would cease and without education, a term Murdock uses for socialisation, there would be no culture. Murdock argues that the sexual and reproductive functions of the nuclear family are functional both for its members and for societies as a whole [for in its absence, free, unbridled sex drives could generate considerable problems] and he also praises the traditional sexual division of labour within nuclear families.

Thus Murdock believes that the nuclear family is  "a universal social grouping" because it offers the most effective mechanisms for the fulfilment of essential functions necessary for the survival of societies: i.e. the above mentioned sexual, reproductive, educational and economic functions. Also in the functionalist approach the nuclear family is considered to operate in some sense in accordance with human nature: thus it is assumed to be natural for heterosexual adults to form permanent or near permanent relationships with one sexual partner and that that men and women have different physical and psychological characteristics which mean that economic functions can be effectively shared within nuclear families. Women need economic support during pregnancy; they are assumed to have strong maternal instincts which suit them especially for the care of young children while men are more suited to breadwinning roles either as hunters, farmers or industrial workers.

In summary functionalists argue that  the nuclear family is universal because it is functional for society and because it operates in accordance with the natural characteristics of males and females. By implication it seems that other family forms are inferior.  

It is important to note the implications of Murdock's definition of the family  because although  a  variety of family forms can be accommodated within the terms of the definition some personal relationships which other sociologists have subsequently defined as family forms are excluded from Murdock's definition. Thus whether marriage is based upon monogamy [including serial monogamy], polygyny or polyandry and whether or not extended kin are present and whether children are biological or adopted  all of the resultant groupings would be considered as families in terms of Murdock's definition. Also Murdock's definition refers to " a socially approved sexual relationship"  which means that although in 1950s western societies cohabitation was not broadly socially approved if social attitudes were to change[ as they perhaps have done in recent years cohabiting heterosexual couples could be defined as families in terms of Murdock's definition. However under the terms of Murdock's definition lone parent families, heterosexual couples without children , gay and lesbian couples with or without children  and strong friendship groups would not be defined as families.

It should for example be noted that the definition of a family currently adopted by the Office of National Statistics [ONS] differs significantly from G. P. Murdock's definition. According to the ONS " A family is a married, civil partnered or cohabiting couple with or without children or  a lone parent with at least one child. Children may by dependent or independent."  [It should be noted that this definition is used by the ONS as the basis for the analysis of the composition of individual households and that the existence of extended families is also recognised but the vast majority of extended family members live in separate households and so are classified in their own right. For example assume that  members of an extended family live in three separate households: one household contains a heterosexual couple and two dependent children; one household contains two heterosexual grandparents; and another household contains an older independent child of the heterosexual couple who is living alone.  In terms of the ONS definition there is a nuclear family household, a childless couple family household and a lone person household although all of these individuals are clearly part of one extended family].

 

Edmund Leach  [1967]argued that the traditional image of the nuclear family might be described as " a cereal packet family" in that it was the type of family image favoured by advertisers to sell a wide range of products often designed with the nuclear family in mind. Leach clearly had in mind family size cereal packets but there are also family cars, domestic appliances designed for family use , family holiday breaks and so on. Implicit also in the cereal packet image of the family was that family life was endlessly and inevitably happy and that males and females would conform to traditional gender roles. 

It is useful to note that Leach was writing in 1967 when nuclear families and traditional gender roles were more common. It is true that advertisers continue to make some use of this approach but they are also likely to recognise that society has changed at least to some extent and that as well as targeting the consumer spending of nuclear families they must also target the consumer spending of other groupings and , for example the spending of well paid single professionals who are not especially interested , perhaps, in the size of cereal packets.

 

 Murdock's theory [and functionalist theories in general] have also been subjected to important general criticisms.

  1. It is argued that the nuclear family is not a universal social institution.
  2. In the case of advanced industrial societies it is argued that  lone parent families, heterosexual couples without children , gay and lesbian couples with or without children  and strong friendship groups can reasonably be defined as families. Very useful detailed information on the analysis of black, lone parent matrifocal families is provided in the Haralambos and Holborn textbook and the arguments presented there can be applied similarly to lone parent families in general and to gay and lesbian families. [This issue will be considered in more detail in subsequent documents.]
  3. It is claimed that because other types of family arrangement exist both in advanced industrial and elsewhere in the world it is illogical to assume that the operation of the nuclear family derives from the requirements of human nature . Instead cross-cultural variations in family forms suggest that family forms are socially constructed rather than determined by some universal human nature which is invariant as between different societies.[ Remember the broad distinctions between explanations based upon "human nature" and sociological explanations based upon culture and social structure which were mentioned discussed in introductory discussions of the nature of Sociology.]
  4. The sexual, reproductive, educational and economic functions performed by in nuclear families can also be performed efficiently in other family forms  in other societies. Here you should consult your textbooks and make detailed notes on "The Unnatural Family" by Felicity Edbolm[1982]. If you are downloading this document you may add these notes in the following Box if you wish.

 

The Unnatural Family [Felicity Edbolm 1982]

 

 

 

 

 

 

   4. Family functions may be fulfilled and perhaps in organisation such as Kibbutzim and Communes which in some respects are presented as alternatives to families. Check your textbooks for information on Kibbutzim and Communes

   5.It is argued that Murdock and later functionalists have overstated the effectiveness of the nuclear family and neglected its possible disadvantages. According to its critics the nuclear family may , in several respects, be dysfunctional.  

The Functionalist Perspective on the Family and criticisms of it will be considered in more detail in a subsequent document.

 

 Household Diversity and Family Diversity

 Household diversity has increased for the following reasons.[ In each case it will be necessary to analyse later in the course why these developments have occurred.]

  1. More heterosexual couples choose to cohabit rather than marry although cohabitation may be a prelude to subsequent marriage.
  2.  More heterosexual couples, whether married or cohabiting, may choose to remain childless.
  3.  More heterosexual couples make use of new reproductive technologies to produce children,
  4. More Gay and Lesbian  couples may choose to cohabit or to register their relationships as civil partnerships and it is possible also that new legislation may soon be introduced to enable Gay and Lesbian couples to marry. [Click here for a short ONS Podcast on Civil Partnerships.] These couples  may be childless  ; they may live with their children from previous heterosexual relationships; they may produce children via new reproductive technologies. .[Click here for a recent BBC item on the issue of Gay marriages and the Church and click here for Guardian coverage of controversies at the 2012 Conservative Party Conference over the issue of Gay Marriage.]
  5. Increases in the rate of divorce and the growth of never married, non-cohabiting parents have led to an increase in the number of lone parent families.
  6. Increased divorce and remarriage results in the growth of reconstituted families containing new partners' children  from previous relationships perhaps as well as their own biological children.
  7. Extended families continue to exist : in some cases extended kin live within the same household but more often members of vertically extended and/or horizontally extended families live in different households in what are sometimes called modified extended families.
  8. Increasing access to Higher Education and/or later marriage means that increasing numbers of young adults live alone or with friends in shared households. Some sociologists have argued that these friendship groups amount to primary groups which may involve sexual relationships and/or very strong platonic friendships so that the group in effect takes on some of the functions associated with families.
  9. Also some adults who live alone may very well form committed relationships with partners who live separately. Such people might be said to be "living alone together" and some would describe such relationships as families.

Definitions of Families and Family Diversity [Some of the points in this section can be considered in more detail once students have studied other elements of the specification]

In the 1950s and early 1960s the dominant perspective within Sociology was Functionalism and the Functionalist-inspired anthropologist G. P. Murdock claimed on the basis of a study of 250 disparate societies that the nuclear family [an adult heterosexual couple and their children, natural or adopted]  which existed either in isolation or as part of a wider kinship network was "a universal social institution" which fulfilled effectively the sexual, reproductive, educational and economic functions essential for the continued existence of societies. Also, slightly later, the Functionalist sociologist Talcott Parsons argued that , for a variety of reasons, the nuclear family fitted especially well with the demands of industr1al societies and that it fulfilled the vital functions of the socialisation of the young and the stabilisation of adult personalities.

Functionalist sociologists focussed increasingly on the nuclear family as the dominant and most effective family form [although they did also recognise the importance of extended kin] and, in terms of Murdock's definition of the family heterosexual but childless couples, gay and lesbian couples with or without children, lone parent families and unrelated friendships groups would not have been defined as families.

In industrial societies such as the UK in the 1950s the nuclear family was the most prevalent family form although strong links to extended kin remained especially in working class areas and also among aristocratic and wealthy upper class families.. However it was also the case that  a particular type of nuclear family was presented in popular culture and in advertisements in the mass media as in some sense as the ideal nuclear family . In this idealised nuclear family parents would be married rather than cohabiting; their personal relationships were based upon a combination of romantic love and great friendship; they would produce  about two of their own natural children although a limited number of nuclear families would also adopt children ; males were assumed to have physical and psychological characteristics suitable for employment roles while women were assumed to have very powerful maternal instincts  so that it was entirely appropriate that husbands would be the sole family income earner while wives would stay at home and take the primary responsibilities for housework and childcare. Nuclear family life would be harmonious, increasingly symmetrical and definitely non-violent; divorce, consequently , would be rare  and both divorcees lone single parents would be socially stigmatised.

As mentioned this particularly optimistic view of the nuclear family was promoted strongly in the mass media but also via the socialisation process as it operated in the family, the education system and the church so that it could be seen as the dominant family ideology of the time . Consequently many young people were socialised to accept that marriage and procreation within the nuclear family were simply the natural things to do and that they were the routes to happiness and fulfilment which, of course, in many cases, they were and remain. Meanwhile the negative stigmatisation of gays and lesbians, single parents, divorcees and even single people above a certain age discouraged support for personal life styles outside of the nuclear family.

For many  this idealised nuclear family [with some extended kin connections] was the preferred family form and  other types of personal living arrangements were seen either as inferior family forms or as undesirable to such an extent that they should not be defined as families at all. These views have persisted among some people with a traditionalist frame of mind and have been  supported by sociologists and practising politicians influenced by New Right theories which were especially popular in the Conservative Party in the Thatcher/Major  era of 1979-1997 although it should be noted that leader David Cameron  has attempted to moderate Conservative Party attitudes to the family and to questions of family diversity. Be that as it may it remains true that for some people the idealised nuclear family is by far the preferred family form: marriage is preferable to cohabitation; lone parenthood is linked to delinquency, crime and welfare dependency and gay and lesbian relationships are undesirable and cannot be seen as families because in this traditionalist view the main purpose of the family is the procreation and rearing of children . Consequently by traditionalists a relatively narrow definition of the family is adopted excluding some or all non-nuclear, unmarried options.

However it has also been argued [most notably by Feminists but also be Marxists and Postmodernists...of which more later] that the idealised nuclear never conformed to the reality and that women in nuclear families were likely to be frustrated, exploited and subject to random physical attacks from their male partners. It has been claimed that it is for these reasons that increasing numbers of individuals have opted for singlehood, for cohabitation rather than marriage and for  childlessness rather than for life in the nuclear family based upon marriage. Others , having opted initially for  marriage and the nuclear family , have divorced; more parents have opted to raise their children as single parents  rather than to enter marital or cohabiting relationships which they think are likely to fail and due to changes in the law and in social attitudes more gay and lesbian people have become more open about their sexuality and opted for cohabitation or single sex partnerships. Divorce and remarriage have led to the growth of reconstituted families and the use of new reproductive technology and the growth of households containing friendship groups have all led to the further household diversity.

For New Right theorists this growth of household diversity amounts to a crisis of family life but others argue that increasing household diversity derives broadly from the increasing capacities  of individuals to use their increased freedom [brought about for example by greater employment opportunities for women and more generally relaxed attitudes to cohabitation, lone parenthood and single sex relationships ] to reject the traditional nuclear family in favour of alternative personal relationships which are likely to be more personally fulfilling and socially effective and that , crucially, there is absolutely no reason why theses different types of personal relationships should not be defined as families .

In the non -traditionalist view families may be based on marriage or cohabitation; they may contain heterosexual or single sex couples; they may or may not contain children; the children may have been borne into previous relationships and now combined into a reconstituted family or they may be adopted or they may be produced via new reproductive technologies; and some  families are lone parent families. All of these varieties are defined as "families" in Social Trends and other ONS publications. [Thus for example an ONS publication for January 2012 states " A family is a married, civil partnered or cohabiting couple with or without children or a lone parent with at least one child. Children may be dependent or independent."] We may add that many families can be seen as extended families having links with wider kin and that some sociologists see friendship groups as primary groups having many of the characteristics of families.

It is clear that there can be no one single correct definition of what is and what is not a family because all definitions of the family involve value judgements which cannot be proved factually correct or incorrect. There are disputes between Functionalist and New Right theorists on the one hand and Feminists, Marxists and Postmodernists on the other with the former arguing in support of the nuclear family as the preferred family form and that some other personal living arrangements cannot strictly speaking be regarded as families and the latter being much more prepared to recognise a diversity of family forms.

These differences of opinion  within Sociology are mirrored within society more generally and it is important to note that these differences of definition and perception may have  major implications for peoples' actual lives. It is possible that in the past individuals in non-nuclear family relationships may have defined themselves as families but encountered difficulties from individuals who were not prepared to accept their definition of themselves as families because they favoured a more restrictive definition of the family although it seems possible that many more people would accept nowadays that families exist in a diverse variety of forms than would have done so in the 1950s.

 One recent survey in the USA suggested that Americans were much more likely to define a relationship as a family if the relationship contained children Would you agree?  And click here for a BBC  report of recent UK poll data on attitudes to the family and families.

Family diversity: A Summary

 

Family type

Main Characteristics

 

Nuclear Families

 

2 generations : parents and children [own or adopted] usually living in the same household; parents may or may not be married; either parents or children may be living away from the family household temporarily; relationship between parents may be patriarchal/asymmetrical or symmetrical; both, neither or one of the parents may be in paid employment

Extended Families

 

Include all kin including and beyond the nuclear family. Distinctions are made between  classic extended families where family members either share the same household or live close by and modified extended families where members live far apart but keep  in touch by phone etc. Distinctions are made also between vertically extended families and horizontally extended families

 

Lone Parent Families

 

There are different causes for the existence of lone parent families: divorce /separation of married partners, the ending of a cohabiting relationship, death of a partner, single lone parenthood [i.e. never married, never cohabiting parents.] Lone parents are more likely to be female than male .Lone parenthood is usually temporary and  many absent parents,  [usually fathers] may still take some responsibility for the care of the child/children

 

Reconstituted [or blended or step] Families

One or both partners has been married previously [or has children from a cohabiting relationship] ; children from previous relationship[s] live in the reconstituted family. possibly with children produced by the newly formed couple.

Gay and Lesbian Families;

 

Same sex couples living together with children. They may be cohabiting or may have registered the  relationship as a Civil Partnership and there is a possibility also that legislation may soon be introduced to allow marriage between same  sex couples. Gay and/or lesbian partners may bring children from previous heterosexual relationships or may adopt or may produce children with the help of new reproductive technologies. Gay and Lesbian couples with children are nowadays defined as families as for example in Social Trends publications.

 

Childless Heterosexual Couples= Childless Families

Childless heterosexual couples whether married or cohabiting are nowadays  usually defined as families, as for example in Social Trends publications.

Childless Gay and Lesbian  Couples= Childless Families

Childless Gay and Lesbian l couples whether married or cohabiting are nowadays  usually defined as families, as for example in Social Trends publications.

Families and the impact of new reproductive technologies

 

Couples may be married or cohabiting but could also be lone parents. A female may be fertilised by a male other than her partner; may carry the baby herself or the fertilised egg may be implanted in another woman.. even occasionally in the woman's mother. The question is raised whether the biological parents should be seen as part of the family and, in some cases who the biological mother actually is. Couples  or lone parents who have produced children via new reproduction technologies are defined as families.

 

Multi-Family Households

Contain more than one family: the families may be of differing types as defined above

One Person Households: Individuals Living Alone

Young individuals living alone might still see themselves and be seen by their parents as part of a nuclear family even though they are not living in a nuclear family. They might also be living alone together [LATS] and hence in a relationship which approximates a family relationship but without common residence.

Households with Two or More Unrelated Adults

According to some sociologists some households with two or more unrelated adults actually contain primary groups which take on some of the important functions of families.

 

Statistical Appendix

The following statistics illustrate trends in Family and Household Diversity. Such  statistics usually appear later in textbooks when Household and Family Diversity is analysed in more detail. and teachers and students may prefer to use them later in the AS Sociology course.

 The broad relationships between "families" and households can be clarified by consideration of the different kinds of households and the different types of family forms which exist in the UK. Such data are used most often to assess possible  historical changes in the relative numerical importance of the nuclear family within UK society.

It is important to note that the exact conclusions on this issue vary depending upon whether we consider data on nuclear families as a percentage of all households or data on the proportion of individuals living in households of different types. The following data are taken from several recent editions of  Social Trends..

 Some Further Links  [Several of these links appeared also at the beginning of this document.]

 

 

 

Table 1

Households: by type of household and family [Families are defined here by marriage, cohabitation or civil partnership [in 2009] and where there are children in the household child/parent relationships. Thus married and cohabiting heterosexual couples with or without children and single sex cohabiting couples and those in civil partnerships [in 2009] with or without children are all defined as families for purposes of this statistical exercise.]

The data are the percentages of all households occupied by differing categories of occupants.

Click here for  recent survey data on Living Apart Together NEW September 2015

 

Great Britain

%

%

%

%

%

%

%

%

%

UK Number of households  in thousands2015 UK percentage of Households 2015 

 

1961

1971

1981

1991

2001

2003

2004

2009

2010

 2015 2015

One Person

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

29

7729  

Under state pension age

4

6

8

11

14

15

14

14

?

4101  

Over state pension age

7

12

14

16

15

14

15

14

?

3627  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

Two or more unrelated adults

5

4

5

3

3

3

3

3

3

861  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

One family households

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

18109  

Couple

 74

 70

65

 61

 58

 56

 57

56 

 55

15269 56.6

No children

26

27

26

28

29

28

29

29

28

7652  

1-2 dependent children

30

26

25

20

19

18

18

18

18

4911  

3 or more dependent children

8

9

6

5

4

4

4

3

3

936  

Non-dependent children only

10

8

8

8

6

6

6

6

6

1770  

Lone Parent

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2840  

Dependent children

2

3

5

6

6

5

7

7

7

1830  

Non-dependent children only

4

4

4

4

3

3

3

3

3

1010  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

Multi-family households

3

1

1

1

1

1

1

1

1

295  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

All households[=100%][millions]

 

 

 

 

24.1

24.5

24.1

25.2

25.3

26994  

Social Trends 2002,2004,2005,2010,2011 .See Families and Households 2013 and 2014 for updates

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

 

The statistics in table 1 may be used to suggest that the relative significance of the nuclear family [defined as a family of two generations i.e. parents and children living in the same household] is declining. Thus in  1961 48 percent of households were lived in by nuclear families but by 2003  28 percent of households were lived in by nuclear families and the percentage of households lived by single people living alone, childless couples and single parent families had increased markedly.

Also, although the data are not presented here you will find that an increasing number of couples are cohabiting rather than married although for many couples cohabitation is a prelude to marriage.

Table 2

People in Households: by type of household in which they live.

Data  on Families and Households must be interpreted with care and we get a different picture from table (2) which shows that in 1961,64% of people were living in nuclear families and this declined to 47%    in 2003. Again the figure declines but the numerical importance of the nuclear family is smaller when we consider number of nuclear family households than when we consider number of individuals living in nuclear families.

The data are the percentages of individuals living different types of household

[I have updated these data to 2015 but whereas the earlier data refer to Great Britain the  2015 data refer to the UK and are in terms of total numbers of individuals rather than percentages of individuals. I shall convert these data to percentage terms in next table.  

Great Britain

 %

%

%

 %

Number of individuals  UK [000s] UK % of Individuals

 

1961

1971

1981

1991

2001

2003

2004

2009

2010

2015  

One Person Households

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

Living alone

4

6

8

11

12

13

13

12

12.3

7,729  

One Family Households

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

52,5i6  

Couple

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

44,988  

No children

18

19

20

23

24

25

25

25

24.7

15,689  

Dependent children

52

52

47

41

39

39

37

36

36.5

23,293  

Non-dependent children only

12

10

10

11

9

8

8

9

9.0

5,997  

Lone Parent

3

4

6

10

10

12

12

12

12.0

7,528  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

Other households

12

9

9

4

5

5

4

6

5.7

   

 2 or more unrelated adults

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2,286  
Multi-family households                   1,537  
                       

Persons not in private households [millions]

 

0.9

0.8

0.8

 

 

 

 

 

   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

Total population [ millions ]]

51.4

54.4

54.8

56.2

57.2

57.2

58.1

59.2

 

64,067  

Social trends 2002,2004,2010,2011 and see Families and Households 2013 and 2014 and 2015 for updates

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

 

A simplified numerical example can illustrate the significance of the differing approaches to the measurement of the relative importance of the nuclear family.  Assume that in 1981 the only households in existence are 4 nuclear families each with two children and 2 people living alone and that by 2011 we have 5 nuclear families each with 4 people and 5 people living alone. I have partly constructed a table based upon the above numbers and the student should complete the table  and analyse the conclusions .

 

Households by type of Household and Family

People in Households by type of Household and Family

 

1981 [number]

1981%2

2011 number]

2011 [%]

1981 [number]

1981 [%]

2011 [number]

2011 [%]

Nuclear Families

4

66.666

5

?

16

88.9

20

?

Single Person Households

2

33.333

5

?

2

11.1

5

?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We may also look again at the 2015 data to clarify the above statistical point. As already mentioned these data appear in supplementary tables accompanying the 2015 ONS Families and Households Publication but refer to the UK rather than Great Britain and appear in terms of actual numbers rather than percentages. However I have also converted the ONS data to percentages terms.

 

  Number of Households % of Households Number of Individuals % of Individuals
One Person Household 7,729 29% 7,729 12%
Under 65 4,101   4,101  
65 and over 3,627   3,627  
2 or more unrelated adults 861   2,286  
One Family Households 18,109   52,516  
Couple 15,269 56,6 44,988 70.9
No children 7,652   15.598  
1-2 dependent children 4,911   18.163  
3 or more dependent children 936   5,130  
Non-dependent children only 1,770   5,997  
Lone Parent 2,840   7,528  
Dependent children 1,830   5,210  
Non-dependent children only 1,010   2,318  
Multi-family households 295   1,537  
All households 26,994   64,067  

 

Whether we analyse the data in Household or Individual terms we are in both cases dealing with so-called snap shot figures which may be seen as underestimating the continued importance of the nuclear family because although at any particular time, only about 50% of people are living in nuclear families, many more will have done so at earlier stages of their lives and/or may do so in the future. Thus, many people who are currently living alone may have been married /cohabiting with children in the past or may marry/ cohabit and have children in the future; lone parents may subsequently marry or cohabit and so on.

 Concentrating on the percentages of individuals living in different types of households , the sociologist Robert Chester  argued in the mid 1980s that the nuclear family remained the dominant family form and that the only key difference in family life for most people was the increasing involvement of women in the labour force. Chester called this new family form the neo- conventional family. "It is little different from the conventional family form apart from the increasing number of wives working for at least part of their married lives."

It has been argued, however, that Robert Chester  overstated his case even in the mid 1980s and that there has since the 1980s also  been a continuing reduction in the proportion of people living in nuclear family households from 64% in 1961 to 57% in1981 to 47% in 2003 to 45% in 2009 while the  percentages of people living in lone parent households or simply living alone have increased.  {See Table 2.3 above]  .

On the basis of the data in Table 2.3 we may conclude that in 2009 the numerically largest household types are couples without children [representing 29% of all households ] followed by nuclear families [ representing 27% of all households]. Also in 2009 45% of individuals were living in nuclear family households making nuclear family households even more significant when measured on an individual basis rather than a household type basis.

However it is clear also that increasing proportions of individuals are now likely to live in non -nuclear family households at least for part of their lives. Whereas in the 1950s larger proportions  of children would have been raised in nuclear family households, would have left home in their early 20s to marry rather than to set up house as single individuals, would have produced their own children in their mid 20s-early 30s and remained married for the rest of their lives, more children nowadays are raised in single parent households, are more likely to live alone in their early 20s, more likely to become lone single parents and more likely to end a cohabiting relationship, to separate  or to divorce although they may of course enter into new relationships subsequently. All of these factors have clearly reduced the numerical significance of the nuclear family over time.

You may consult your textbooks for various studies which confirm these general conclusions and notes on such studies are obviously useful for essay  writing and examination purposes [In any case we shall see later  that there are other aspects to the question of family diversity such as  diversity according to social class, ethnicity, religion, stage of the life cycle of families, and between different family cohorts. These aspects of family diversity are considered in detail later in the course.

 

In the following document I shall outline in more detail the Functionalist Perspective on the Family.