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Access To Humanities And Social Science Sociology Essay

This essay will explore the concept of the family, and how it has changed over time. The family is an enduring institution over time and within different cultural settings such as nomadic, tribal, agrarian, industrial and post- industrial. The history of man is essentially linked to that of the family; for instance, the most powerful narrative of the western world is arguably the bible, and it gives the defining genealogy of mankind. A central theme of the bible is family history which links the main players from Adam and Eve through to Jesus himself, for instance; who doesn’t know Jesus was from the line of David? It is, amongst other things, an extensive documentation of family.

It is said that in pre-industrial Britain, the family had different a different social agenda and a different focus than that of the family in the industrial revolution that followed. Before industrialisation Britain was an agricultural country with most of its population working on the land. It is widely believed that the extended family was prevalent in these times. Social historian Philippe Aries (1962) suggested that children of this time were regarded as ‘little adults’ who took part in the work place and were thought of as an economic asset. He argued that as their death rate was so high, there were difficulties in investing emotionally in children. ‘In medieval society the idea of childhood did not exist’;

On the other hand, Peter Laslett (1972-77), studied pre industrial family structures and suggested that neither kinship, nor the classic extended families were typical family structures in pre industrial Britain or America, he suggested the figures showed these families made up less than 10% of the family population in. After extensive research on family sizes in Britain he reversed the argument that the nuclear family came about in reaction to industrialisation, stating that the nuclear family was to be found in pre industrial Britain, and that there was evidence of the same in much of Europe, the nuclear family had economic, political and social consequences that prepared Britain and Europe for early industrialisation. He called the nuclear family of this time ‘the western family’. His studies also led him to conclude that the classic extended family was found more widely in Eastern Europe and in countries such as Russia and Japan.

Anderson (1980) argued that there was a greater variety of family structure than Laslett implied in his research, implying pre industrial Europe was characterised by family diversity. Anderson used data from the 1851 census of Preston and concluded that 23% of the households of the working classes contained kin beyond that of the nuclear family, a much larger figure than that of Laslett’s findings. Preston was largely reliant on the cotton trade in these times, and he concluded that in these times of hardship, resulting from spells of high unemployment, low wages, high death rates and overcrowded housing, large kinship networks would be beneficial to all parties. For example, the parents of spouses would often live in the same household, providing them with child care whilst they were out at work. In turn the grandparents were cared for. Anderson’s studies led him to conclude that the working class family of the mid nineteenth century acted as a mutual aid organisation. Anderson argued that industrialisation increased rather than decreased extensions of working class nuclear families.

In1949 functionalist George Murdock published his studies on the institution of the family, looking at a wide range of societies (250) from large scale industrial, to small hunter gatherer societies. He concluded that a form of the family existed in every society. Murdock defined the family (1949) “It includes adults of both sexes, at least two of whom maintain a socially approved relationship, and one or more children, own or adopted, of sexually cohabiting adults.”; Haralambos & Holborn, Sociology Themes and perspectives Seventh edition, pg 460. Murdock defined the family as living together, pooling its resources, working together, and producing offspring. He also thought of the family as functioning with at least two of its adult members conducting a sexual relationship, depending on the norms of its society. For example in Muslim countries it is allowed for the male to have up to four wives. Murdock defined the family as being ‘a universal social institution.’

Functionalist views are often referred to as conservative thinking, preserving or maintaining the status quo. Arguments opposing functionalist theories emerge from Marxist and feminist ideology, as often in their fundamental nature, they will challenge or change existing perceived oppression and exploitation, with feminists exposing, or trying to change oppression of women, and in Marxist ideology, exposing and theorizing on the exploitation and oppression of the working classes.

(1884) Engles studied the evolution of the family with a Marxist outlook. Engles argued that the monogamous nuclear family developed as the state passed laws to protect private property, and to enforce monogamous marriage. The nuclear monogamous family solved the problem of the inheritance of property, and gave men certainty as to the legitimacy of their heirs. Engels stated that the monogamous family asserted male supremacy; “the express purpose being to produce children of undisputed paternity, such paternity is demanded because these children are later to come into their fathers property” Engles (1972) first published (1884), Haralambos & Holborn, Sociology Themes and perspectives Seventh edition pg464.

Marxist feminists see women as being unequal in society and in the family; they assert the inequality of patriarchal systems in society such as the family. This group of feminist psychologists see the problems facing women in society as being capitalist, but unlike Marxists, who concentrate on capitalism and its effects on the family, the Marxist feminist would focus on its effects on women. Speaking of housewives Benston commented (1972) “The amount of unpaid labour performed by women is very large and profitable to those who own the means of production” pg466. She would assert that the male member of the family pays for the running of a future work force (his children) and the financial care of his wife, and as a result, he is trapped in the cogs of capitalism.

Talcot Parsons (1959-65b) was an influential Functionalist sociologist who asserted that the American family had, by this point in the evolution of the American society, been reduced to two main functions; the stabilisation of children, and the stabilisation of the adult personalities. Parsons identified the typical family in modern industrial society as the isolated nuclear family, and argued; as the society evolves and becomes engaged in “processes of structural differentiation,” the functions of the family are diminished. Parsons thought that as institutions develop within society, there would be a ‘transfer of a variety of functions from the nuclear family to other structures of society,’ Haralambos & Holborn, Sociology Themes and perspectives Seventh edition pg47. The Education system, Health and Welfare systems were all seen as examples of this transference of functions. He argued that the isolated nuclear family helps to maintain and perpetuate the wider society. He continued that ascribed status that is given to its members within the family, directly contrasts with status that has to be achieved in society at large. It is because it is isolated it can manage this discrepancy; if it was not, extended tensions could arise. An example of this is the position Parsons gives to the male within the family, head of the family, which may contradict with a lower economic status outside the family, but it is managed within the isolated nuclear family. In an extended family, another male in the household who was on more pay than the spouse, would reduce that male’s status within his family. The family had become structurally isolated and family relationships were more of a matter of choice than blinding obligations. Parsons saw these existing functions of the nuclear family as being vital functions in maintaining the American way of life. (1976)

Zaretsky gave a Marxist outlook; in researching the developments of the family in industrialised societies he asserted “the family props up capitalism” Haralambos & Holborn, Sociology Themes and perspectives Seventh edition p465. Zaretsky (1976) asserted that only with industrialisation, work and family life separated. He noted that the family was seen as a refuge in a ‘terrible anonymous world of commerce and industry.’ But unlike Parsons, who was pro capitalism, he would say that the family perpetuates capitalism and inequality; in the unpaid labour of women, creating new labour forces, and in the family being a unit of consumption that allowed the bourgeoisie too prosper. Zaretsky saw socialism as the family’s answer to the evils of capitalism.

Marxist feminist Fran Ansley echoed the Marxist view point when she asserted “wives play their traditional role as takers of shit, they often absorb their husbands’ legitimate anger and frustration at their own powerlessness and oppression.” Hers was the view that married working class women cushion their husband’s ill feelings at their powerlessness within the work place.

There are three periods in the development of feminism; the first being political, mainly campaigning for women’s rights to vote. The second period of feminist development was in the 1960s depicting the rise of the woman’s liberation movement which dealt with social and economic discrimination, with feminists of the time campaigning for women’s rights and to change legislation. The third period is said to have continued from the second, but also in reaction to what had already been achieved by feminists through legislation. This period is said to have started in the 1990s and has continued to present times. There are different groups of feminists, who have differing opinions concerning women’s issues and what is the best way forward for womankind. It is said that in modern times feminism has splintered into different groups, reflecting the needs of a multi cultural society. Addressing, for example, feminism from a cultural point of view; such as honour killings, and arranged marriages, which pose considerable problems for the agents of a host society. Different groups of feminist sociologists include liberal feminism; which is a less extreme form of feminism than others. Commenting on liberal feminism Susan Wendel remarks, “one of the modern political goals most closely associated with liberal feminism is equality of opportunity which would undoubtedly require and lead to both”; / feminism. They see women as having equality, but would look at a women’s ability to show or uphold her equality in the decisions and actions she makes. A liberal feminist would say that a woman needs to mould herself to fit citizenship in a social structure constructed in the interests of men. They also believe that socialisation needs to be addressed, as in its current form, it can often perpetuate the inequalities that women face in society; an example of this would be girl’s toys like dolls and prams conditioning them into their future role as house wives and mothers. Liberal feminist Jennifer Somerville (2000) sees our society as being much more equal in recent years. She believes that laws need to be passed to make heterosexual marriages more equal in order to address the family breakdown.

Radical Feminists believe women are unequal in society. Women are exploited in patriarchal society. Some radical feminists believe the answer is separatism; meaning that men and women should live apart. Radical feminist Germaine Greer (2000) remarks on high profile family couples; “her eyes should be fixed on him but he should do his best never to be caught looking at her. The relationship must be seen to be unequal” Haralambos & Holborn, Sociology Themes and perspectives Seventh edition pg 468. She argues that women seem oblivious to the misgivings of marriage but the inequalities soon become apparent, and that ‘male sexuality requires the added stimulus of novelty’. She points to the fact that three quarters of divorces in Britain are instigated by women, as evidence that women will no longer suffer in silence for the illusion of a stable family life. She sees this as a good thing for women.

Difference feminist, Calhoun (1997) states that heterosexual relationships exploit women, and that gay and lesbian relationships reduce that exploitation. She remarks that gays and lesbians have historically been depicted as “family outlaws.” Calhoun sees another type of family outlaw; the ‘unwed welfare mother.’ Calhoun thinks that these family outlaws have been blamed for the breakdown of the traditional family, and of a moral decline within society. Difference feminism has been influenced by liberal, Marxist and radical feminism and has connotations with post modern theories. But where Marxist, and radical feminist movements are insensitive to family variation. Difference feminists focus on these family variations and there effects.

American Difference Feminist Linda Nicholson (1977) states that women can benefit from living in an alternative family, that other theorists and sociologists have over idealised the nuclear family and undermined the alternative family. Examples of alternative families are; families with a stay at home father, heterosexual families living outside marriage, step families and homosexual families to name a few. She points out that the nuclear family had only been the norm since the fifties, and that even then it was uncommon for groups such as the African American working classes. Nicholson says that changes in society such as “Increased participation of married women in the labour force, and the growth of female-headed households were making this way of life increasingly atypical”; Nicholson (1997) pg471. She sees benefits for women living in an alternative family; black women benefiting from mother centred families, as with no male presents, the women often group together forming strong support networks. Also in times of financial hardship, friends and kin act as a social insurance system, helping financially. Nicholson saw disadvantages for women in an alternative family as being; if the family did come into money, they would then be expected to, in turn, help their network of close friends and family financially, another disadvantage of this type of alternative family would be that children had no father figure, unlike in many middle class households. Nicholson also looked at the advantages and disadvantages of the nuclear family. Disadvantages are that with both parents having to work, the children’s upbringing can be negatively affected, and with such a structure, abused children often had nowhere to turn within a nuclear family. Nicholson would assert that an advantage of being in a nuclear family would be that there is a much greater chance of being economically successful as often, both parents are working, and that the nuclear family doesn’t have to redistribute its wealth. Nicholson would argue that different families and households should be acknowledged because they suit women in differing circumstances.

Examine the changing and diverse nature of the family in modern society; the modern family has become increasingly diverse in structure in today’s modern western world. The nuclear family is no longer seen as the norm by many sociologists, and other family structures such as: lone parent families, matriarchal families, reconstructed families (step families), Homosexual families, mixed race families, and ethnic minority families, have become more common place in modern western societies. One form of family which has attracted criticism in recent years is the lone parent family. This type of family structure is now much more prevalent in the western world, in Britain alone, it is said that there has been a thirty per cent increase in lone parent families in the last ten years. Around a quarter of all families are headed by one parent in Britain today. The new right (modern functionalists) believe that the nuclear family is the ideal family structure, and view lone parent families and same sex families as harmful to society. From a new right perspective, lone parent families mostly have no father figure to financially provide for the family, making it financially dependent on the state. Also they would argue that the lack of a male role model is a negative force in the socialization process of children. Other criticisms of lone parent families and their financial reliance upon the state, it is argued, is that they have eroded the responsibilities of fathers, who are much more likely to be involved in antisocial behaviour. New right thinkers believe that single parent families have helped to create an underclass in Britain’s society: who see no need to work, who often live in poverty, whose children are more likely to under achieve in school, and are more likely to be involved in a wide range of social problems. The new right would go so far as to say that there is a generation of a young ‘underclass’ of females who regard pregnancy as a ticket to receiving housing, and financial support from the state, but others would say that this is a simplistic outlook and that it is unfair to stigmatise single parent families, or to blame them for the problems within society. Mary McIntosh (1996) pointed out that “over recent years, the media in the United Kingdom have been reflecting a concern about lone mothers that amounts to a moral panic” pg478. Also, it is mostly not the case that these, mostly teenage girls, get pregnant to be housed and supported by the state, as in most cases, they see a future with their partner’s, but the relationship breaks down. E.E Ceshmore (1985) speaking of the ‘darker side family life’ and how it serves male interests asserted that “the idea of breaking free of marriage and raising children single handed has its appeals” pg488. She continued that it must be preferable for a child to grow up with one caring parent, than live with two warring parents.

Another new form of family structure in today’s Western society is same sex families. Recent changes in attitudes towards gays and lesbian behaviours and in the law (the UK’s Civil Partnership Act of 2004) have enabled this new form of family. Often same sex households will define their households as chosen families, with more choices available than traditional heterosexual families, these families adopt their offspring in most cases, but there is the option of producing a child in a laboratory using donated sperm for some women. It has also been known for homosexuals to conceive children, and for gay couples to use a surrogate mother in order to start a family. Geffery Weeks (1999) stated; “they choose whom to include in their family and negotiate what are often fairly egalitarian relationships” pg484. Weeks goes on to argue that this type of family is based on individual freedoms, and participation within this family is a matter of bargaining instead of merely adopting the traditional roles within the traditional heterosexual family. Arguments against same sex couples come from the new right and religious groups who argue that the socialisation process of children within these families is undermined by the lack of an adult of the other sex in a same sex family. Generally it is seen as a threat to the traditional models of the heterosexual family.

There have been different ethnic groups immigrating to the UK throughout the 20th century. These families have brought with them different norms and values, and different ways of bringing up their offspring. For example, Black Afro Caribbean families, whose structure is often fundamentally matriarchal (single Mothers rearing the children) provide economically for the unit. It is often the case that families originating from Southern Asia often contain extended families. Studies on British Asian families, Muslim: Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and Indian: Hindu and Sikh, found that there was a continued emphasis on family loyalty and an effort to maintain traditional marriage practices such as arranged marriages. Ballard commented that this was because upon arriving in Britain, many Asians saw British culture as placing little emphasis on family traditions, or on maintaining kinship ties. These observations resulted in a strong desire to uphold their traditional family ways and try to insure that their children upheld these traditions also. British Asian families often have members of a third generation living in a household, mostly the parents of the mother or father. A Sikh tradition is that when the eldest son marries, his wife moves into the household to help care for the spouse’s parents. This tradition of collective responsibility can be beneficial to members of the family, and the wider society. For instance, the caring of elderly relatives and child care arrangement of the children are traditionally provided for within the family unit, therefore these families have no need to rely on the state financially. On the other hand it could be argued that women in these families are closely monitored and there is the potential for their exploitation, and their abuse in some cases. Honour killings for example, can be seen as an extreme cultural behaviour, which pose a serious problem in modern society.

Different sociological groups have differing opinions regarding the changes in family structures, in changing attitudes towards what is the norm regarding the concept of the family, and the consequences these shifts have incurred. Some point to changes in the law in the sixties and 1970, The Sex Discrimination Act 1975, and changes in legislation that made it easier to divorce. Some sociologists see these changes in legislation as a turning point which saw the start of the decline of the nuclear family as the norm. Germaine Greer’s book, The Female Eunuch, published in 1970, helped to bring women’s liberation to a wide audience of young women. In it, Greer commented that opponents of the liberation of women ‘were more clear sighted’ than those who believed that equality for women would not upset anything. She went on to say that, “when we reap the harvest, which the unwitting suffragettes sowed, we will see that the anti-feminists were after all right.” M Abbott/ Family Affairs/ pg121. Other sociologists believe that the breakdown of the nuclear family is not down to just these changes in legislation, but point to changes in norms, values and in attitudes in modern times. They point to the numbers of divorces, and assert that most people still believe in marriage as the ideal way in which to bring up a family, but greater freedom and expectations for women have led to the divorce rate rising. Sociologists such as Abbot and Wallice recognise increasing family diversity but view the decline of the nuclear family and of marriages as having been exaggerated by the New Right for political reasons. They assert that, “seven out of eight children are born to parents living together, three quarters of whom are legally married. Only one in five children will experience parental divorce by the time he or she is 16.” Pg508


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