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Essay: Is The Family in Crisis?

Date last edited:02/10/2015.



Please note that on 12/12/09 I have added an appendix to this document which provides a little information on social action theory, structuration theory, late modernity and postmodernism as they relate to the analysis of family forms.

 On September 9th 2012 I have altered slightly the following link from Birkbeck College to the Fawcett Society.

Click here and once you reach the Birkbeck College site scroll down to the Initial Results section and click on the link to the Fawcett Society  for very useful interesting survey information on attitudes to gender roles.

Click here and here for recent BBC coverage of some of the difficult issues affecting a limited number of "troubled families". Added 15/12/2011

Click here for BBC coverage of Coalition tensions over family policy. Added 18/12/2011

Click here for the Centre for Social Justice and here and here and here for three reports which exemplify the perspectives on families of the CSJ.   NEW LINKS added July -October 2013

Click here for an article which is critical of the Centre for Social Justice approach to research including its research on family issues. NEW LINK added May 2014

Click here for Independent coverage of Joseph Rowntree Foundation research indicating that single earner, "traditional" families are especially at risk of experiencing poverty. Also click here for the JRF Blog and  click here for the full JRF/IPPR Report. Very important new links added November 2013

Click here for discussion of whether fatherlessness causes crime. New Link added November 2013

Click here for Guardian article by Polly Toynbee on the decline in the rate of teenage pregnancy New Link added December 2013

 Document Contents

 Introduction: The Nuclear Family and Family Diversity

The sociological analysis of "the" family from the 1950s to the 1970s tended to focus on the nuclear family but, as we shall see, in order to assess whether "the" family is in crisis it necessary first to assess whether the nuclear family itself is a cause for celebration or a cause for concern and then to assess whether  the growth of family diversity from the 1970s onwards signals crisis or progress in the nature of family life.

 Parsons, Fletcher, Young and Willmott and the Nuclear Family

Functionalist sociologists [such as, especially, Talcott Parsons] of the 1950s and 1960s focussed their attention on the nuclear family based upon the married heterosexual couple with their own biological children .They argued that adult role allocation within the nuclear family reflected the natural expressive and instrumental qualities of females and males respectively ; that the nuclear family was especially suited to the needs of industrial societies for high rates of social and geographical mobility and that although structural differentiation was causing the nuclear family to lose some of its functions it did continue to  fulfil the vital functions of the socialisation of the young and the stabilisation of adult personalities. Another functionalist sociologist, Ronald Fletcher, agreed with  Parsons' claim that nuclear families were functioning efficiently but denied that the nuclear family had lost some of its functions due to structural differentiation such that, for example, even if children now received much of their education formally in schools, parents were now taking more rather than less interest in their children's education.

Furthermore by the 1970s the sociologists Young and Willmott argued that, life in the nuclear family was becoming increasingly companionate, symmetrical and happy by comparison with the conditions of the asymmetrical and patriarchal family of the 19th and early 20th Centuries all of which suggested that far from being in crisis the nuclear family was "functional" both for its members and for societies as whole.

 Leach, Laing, Cooper and the Nuclear Family

However this optimistic, evolutionary or "march of progress" view of the nuclear family was criticised even when it was first originated and these criticisms have retained their force in recent years. Thus it was argued by anthropologists such as Edmund Leach and radical psychiatrists R.D. Laing and David Cooper that life in the nuclear family might be far from harmonious.

The studies of Leach, Laing and Cooper have, however, been criticised for several reasons which means that the conclusions of these studies should not be assumed to discredit the functionalist theories totally. Thus critics have argued that none of these theorists have conducted detailed fieldwork in industrial societies and Laing’s and Cooper’s research is based only on families where one member has been defined as schizophrenic. They do not attempt to relate the family to other aspects of the social structure such that for example there is no consideration of the relationship between class and family life . Also Laing may have underestimated the extent to which liberal attitudes also emerge in the family and illiberal attitudes derive from sources other than the family.

 Feminism, Marxism and the Nuclear Family

Further criticisms of the organisation of nuclear families were raised by Feminists and Marxists. There are important divisions within Feminism , most notably as between Liberal, Radical and Marxist Feminism but all Feminists are critical in various respects of Parsons', Fletcher's and Young and Willmott's theories of the nuclear family . Thus Feminists argue in general that:

Although Liberal Feminists argue that many female disadvantages can be alleviated by sensitive education and gradual economic and social reform, this is not a view that would be accepted by Radical and Marxist feminists. Radical Feminists argue that societies in general and families in particular are deeply patriarchal, that patriarchy is based sometimes on male physical violence and that women's interests are best served by the rejection of family life and ,indeed, rejection of relationships with men although some radical feminists argue that motherhood can enable women to express sensitive, emotional qualities which men simply do not possess.

Marxist Feminists have accepted the general Marxist analysis of the family and then aimed to show how families support the continuation of the capitalist system via the exploitation of women. Marxist Feminists make the following key points about family life.

Thus, for Marxist feminists the socialisation process, the management of dissatisfaction, the allocation of roles between males and females, the hidden services provided by the family for the capitalist economy all contribute to the maintenance of an unjust capitalist system and to particular disadvantages for women within that system.

In summary whereas Parsons and Fletcher argue that nuclear families fulfil functions which contribute to the individual happiness of their members and to the stability of advanced industrial societies which are essentially democratic, fair and meritocratic , more critical Feminist and Marxist analysts argue that nuclear families may operate to the disadvantage especially of their female members and help to sustain societies based upon the inequities of patriarchy and/or capitalism. From these critical perspectives nuclear families could be said to be in a state of crisis which reflects the wider crises of patriarchal/capitalist societies. 

  The New Right: Family Diversity and Family Crisis?

The  last 50 or so years have witnessed the growth of family diversity in the forms of the growth of cohabiting couples with or without children, reconstituted families arising from divorce, separation  or death of a partner, single lone parent families and single sex couples with or without children, while an increasing proportion of people choose to live singly. Given theses patterns  many sociologists have argued that it is more appropriate to analyse this variety of family forms  rather than "the" family and the current official definition of a "family" does encompass a wide variety of family forms. It is New Right theorists who have been especially critical of this growth of family diversity.

It has been argued, [most notably by the political theorist Andrew Gamble] that the ideology of the New Right contains two distinct elements: a market liberal element which supports the provision of goods and services by the private sector of the economy rather than by the state and a neo-Conservative element which focuses on the importance of traditional norms, values and institutions as bastions of necessary social stability.

The neo-conservatives' general support for traditional values and institutions leads them to see the nuclear family as potentially an important source of social stability providing emotional security and effective socialisation of the young much as in the functionalist theories of Talcott Parsons. Many neo-conservatives would support also the traditional gender division of labour based upon Parsons' distinction between the "instrumental male" and the "expressive female" whereby men are more suited to the world of work and females more suited to child care and other emotional tasks. However neo-conservatives would also argue that many nuclear families do not currently function as effectively as Parsons' theory implies.

Also, of course, neo-conservatives are highly critical of the growth of what they describe as the liberal permissiveness of the 1960s and its influence on personal relationships leading to increased family diversity. According to neo-conservatives these trends have undermined traditional moral values [which, for neo-conservatives are often seen as deriving from Christian religious ethics] and resulted in the creation of unsuitable family forms which cannot fulfil the functions of "the family" which are necessary for the stability of society more generally.

Thus pre- marital heterosexual relationships, the legalisation of homosexuality, the growth of lone single parenthood, the increased rate of cohabitation rather than marriage, the growth of separation and divorce and the official recognition of single sex civil partnerships all signal for neo-conservatives a crisis of traditional values and a crisis of the nuclear family which threaten the foundations of society itself. Indiscipline in schools, educational underachievement, youth unemployment, social security fraud, vandalism, anti-social behaviour, drug and alcohol abuse and more serious criminal behaviour all derive at least to some extent from the decline of the traditional nuclear family. The solution, according to the neo-conservative New Right is "the remoralisation of society": the reassertion of traditional moral values which will increase support for the traditional nuclear family based upon life-long marriage.

The American political scientist Charles Murray's theory of the underclass does contain elements of neo-conservatism but, as we shall see, it is influenced also by neo-liberal aspects of New Right ideology. Murray  has  claimed in relation to the USA that an underclass of perhaps 5% of the USA population exists whose members are disproportionately Black or Hispanic and who prefer to rely on welfare benefits rather than to seek employment and are also disproportionately likely to be involved in [often drug related] crime and that similar trends are increasingly evident in the UK although in the case of the UK are much greater proportion of Underclass members are likely to be white.

According to Murray excessive welfare benefits encourage some young women to opt for lone single parenthood and these women are seen as responsible for socialising their children into a culture of dependency on welfare benefits  while the absence of fathers is seen as denying the children the example of a regularly employed male role model who might also be able to "discipline" growing teenage sons more effectively than can lone single mothers. Thus, in summary excessive welfare benefits result in the growth of lone singe parenthood and the absence of fathers from the household and these are the factors which lead to the intergenerational transmission of the culture of dependency in the USA and according to Murray all of these trends are increasingly evident in the UK.

Murray's theory might be seen as in part influenced by neo-conservatism in its claims that the traditional heterosexual nuclear family with its positive male role model is best able to socialise children in preparation for their adult responsibilities but it also contains important elements of neo-liberalism in its conclusions about relationships between the family and the state. Thus Murray accepts much of the classical and neo-liberal analysis of the state in general and of the welfare state in particular as indicated in his argument above that it is over-generous welfare benefits for single parents which itself encourages the growth of single parenthood which in turn results in the intergenerational transmission of a culture of dependency leading to the perpetuation of poverty

Poverty in this view can be alleviated only by reducing the generosity of welfare state benefits and this view is linked to the neo-liberal view of the state in general which suggests that the overall scope of the state should be reduced so that more resources are made available for the dynamic private capitalist sector of the economy and rates of taxation can be reduced resulting in increased financial incentives, greater economic efficiency and rising living standards for all as the benefits of economic growth "trickle down" even to the poorest members of society. We see therefore that Murray's theory contains elements of neo-conservatism but that it is also based, to a considerable extent  upon a broadly neo-liberal analysis of relationships between the state and society.

Murray's theory does suggest that the growth of lone single parenthood results in crisis within lone single parent families but several sociologists have been critical of Murray on the grounds that he has neglected more structural explanations of poverty, that he has neglected research indicating that the culture of the poor is not significantly different from the culture of society in general. that he has neglected the fact that many people move in and out of poverty such that no permanent underclass exists and that the scaling down of welfare benefits as proposed by Murray would surely worsen the situation for the poor in the short term and in the long term despite Murray's belief in "trickle down economics."

Given their criticisms of the nuclear family it is unsurprising that feminists take a different view  of family diversity. Thus they would argue  that relationships based on cohabitation may be just as secure as those based on marriage and also that cohabitation gives couples the chance to assess compatibility before entering into a more "permanent" marriage. They would argue also that as increasing number of lone single mothers choose not to marry their child's father [nor to cohabit with them] this may well be preferable to the formerly common entry into an unwanted and potentially unhappy marriage in order to avoid the once widespread stigmatisation as "unmarried mothers."  Feminists believe also that, given the potential for conflict within the nuclear family, it was entirely to be expected that the liberalisation of the divorce laws combined with improved female employment opportunities would result  in increases in divorce but that divorce is preferable for both parents and children to the continuation of an unhappy marriage. Furthermore all liberals would support the rights and freedoms of individuals to enter into same sex relationships and to have their relationships recognised officially as civil partnerships

On these arguments the growth of family diversity  is seen as deriving from rational responses  to the potential and actual limitations of life within the traditional nuclear family although it would be recognised also that many lone single mothers and divorced mothers are especially likely to face financial hardship, that cohabiting relationships are even more likely to break up than are marriages and that divorced fathers may often have legitimate grievances resulting from limited access to their children so that the growth of family diversity does generate important problems for those concerned and may also impose increased financial costs on the taxpayer if those in need are to be given adequate financial help.

Functionalists argued in the 1950s and 1960s that the nuclear family  was especially suited to meet the needs of its family members and of industrial societies as a whole  while in the 1970s Young and Willmott argued that as nuclear family life became increasingly symmetrical married couples' relationships would become increasingly egalitarian, companionate and harmonious. New Right theorists in turn accept the Functionalist argument that the nuclear family was vital to the stability of society as a whole but ague that increasing numbers of nuclear families does not function effectively and also that the growth of family diversity is in several respects a threat to social stability .

Marxists and Feminists, in rejecting  Functionalist and New Right theories, are much more critical of the nuclear family arguing that it often leads to the exploitation of women within the family and that it helps to perpetuate societies  which are economically unjust and patriarchal. According to Marxists and Feminists the kind of social stability that Functionalists and New Right theorists support  entrenches economic inequality and patriarchy which is exactly the kind of social stability which Marxists and Feminists wish to get rid of although Liberal Feminists do believe that  better education and gradual social and political reform can end female oppression within the family and in society more generally.

Marxists and Feminists would argue that the nuclear family is itself a site of crisis and that the growth of family diversity has arisen out of individuals' rejection of the limitations of life within the nuclear family. However , lone single parent hood, divorce, the break- up cohabiting relationships may impose severe financial and social difficulties on many women and divorced fathers' may well have legitimate concerns over access to their children  which means that family diversity also may result in personal crises of various kinds.

It may well be that Functionalists and New Right theorists overstate the extent to which the nuclear family as it currently operates can satisfy the needs and aspirations of both males and females and that Feminist and Marxist analyses of the actual operation of nuclear families are in may cases justified. However there is also evidence that attitudes, values and behaviour within the nuclear family are changing , not least as a result of acceptance of some  Feminist-based arguments so that many marriages , cohabiting relationships and civil partnerships may increasingly be more egalitarian, companionate and harmonious. Nevertheless the high rate of divorce, the even higher rate of break- up of cohabiting relationships, the widespread existence of "empty shell marriages" all suggest that many nuclear families are in difficulties while the growth of family diversity ,even if it may provide alternatives preferable to life in an unhappy nuclear family, may also generate problems of its own. 

Further insights into the analysis of family diversity can be taken from other approaches to Sociology: that is : from social action theory, from structuration theory and the analysis of late modernity and from postmodernism. I shall consider here only the implications of these approaches for the analysis of family diversity rather than the highly technical theoretical issues related to the approaches in general.

Essentially whereas structural sociological perspectives imply that individuals' behaviour is influenced heavily by powerful processes of socialisation  which limit their freedom of manouevre social action theories suggest that individuals have much greater individual freedom to determine their own behaviour and in so doing to change gradually the institutions and structures through which they live. This suggests in relation to the family that individuals do have some powers to modify personal relationships within the nuclear family and also to reject nuclear family life if it does not fulfil their expectations. In this view, therefore , family diversity suggests, at least in some cases, not the onset of a crisis of "the family" but the increasing freedom of individuals to live their lives as they see fit.

Similar arguments are made in structuration theories and analyses of late modernity. Structuration theorists seek to combine elements of structural and social action theories and conclude that individuals do indeed have some freedom of manouevre but that they are also constrained to some extent by the institutions and structures of their society. Nevertheless according to theorists such as Anthony Giddens in conditions of so-called late modernity individuals are increasingly self -reflexive: that is: they can evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of their personal relationships  and in many cases they have the freedom to end them if they are deemed unsatisfactory so that once again family diversity derives to a considerable extent from increasing individual freedom and does not reflect the onset of an overall crisis of "the family". Individuals nowadays may be able to develop more fully because of the increased freedom to end unsatisfactory relationships although this does not mean that the ending of relationships will not sometimes create difficulties as well as opportunities for those concerned.

Postmodernists reject all modernist sociological theories as "meta-narratives" which reflect the values and prejudices of the theorists who have developed them rather than the objective discovery of sociological truths. Thus according to postmodernists nuclear families are not necessarily the most effective family form as suggested by Functionalists and New Right theorists but neither are they necessarily patriarchal as suggested by feminists nor supportive of the capitalist system as suggested by Marxists. In the postmodern world where the powers of the traditional socialisation processes is much reduced individuals are assumed to have much more freedom to respond flexibly to changing circumstances and so, according to postmodernists , it is entirely desirable that individuals should be able to enter into different types of family relationships [or none] and the existence of family diversity is seen as evidence of increased individual freedom in the postmodern era.

Unsurprisingly modernist sociologists argue that the postmodernists' rejection of modernist sociological perspectives and methods means that they are unable to recognise the ongoing importance of patriarchy and/or capitalism for the analysis of family forms and, indeed, that they are unable to undertake systematic sociological research of any kind. Against this, however, the postmodernists argue that the acceptance of ongoing uncertainty is to be preferred to the dogmatic adherence to fundamentally flawed modernist meta-narratives. Controversy is ongoing.

I hope that this appendix helps to clarify these three approaches to the analysis of family diversity but as mentioned there are also tricky theoretical points which require further investigation.