Within any society there are more or less common ways of ‘‘doing’’ family relationships. That is, there are ways of organizing family relationships which are broadly accepted as appropriate and given legitimacy in that society. This does not mean that all family relationships are similar or that all follow the same societally imposed ‘‘rules.’’ There are always variations, exceptions, and alternative practices. Moreover, the more complex and diverse the society, the more variation there will be in the family practices given legitimacy by different social groupings within it. Indeed, one aspect of different family systems is the social tolerance given to divergent patterns of family relationships. Nonetheless, it is useful, at least heuristically, to ask questions about the dominant family structures existing in different societies, in part to facilitate comparison and understand the variations that arise. The types of questions posed by sociologists concerned with family structures involve such issues as the distribution of power and authority within families; the patterns of solidarity and obligation that arise between different family members; and the differential access to resources that different family members have. A key prior question concerns the boundaries of family membership and belonging: Who is considered ‘‘family,’’ when, and for what purposes?
In examining family structure it is important to distinguish ‘‘family’’ from ‘‘household,’’ though the two are frequently elided, a tendency which itself is indicative of contemporary understandings of family structure. Household structure refers to the demography of households, domestic living arrangements, and domestic economies. Family structure, on the other hand, is concerned with the organization of kin relationships, though part of this also concerns how domestic life is framed and the different roles and responsibilities that different family members have within this. Indeed, historically, many of the key debates in the early years of family sociology were integrally concerned with the types of household structure that predominated in different societies. In particular, debates about the transformations that industrial capitalism generated in family structures often reflected the changed household composition found in developing industrial urban areas, legitimately so as these demo graphic changes reflected different familial obligations and solidarities. Nonetheless, analytically it is important to recognize that family structure reflects more than just household structure.
This becomes of consequence in examining some of the key theoretical developments in family sociology in the mid part of the twentieth century. In these, the dominant model of change, expressed with greater or lesser subtlety, was one that highlighted the movement from an ‘‘extended family’’ system to a ‘‘nuclear family’’ – one of parents and dependent children. The most compelling and sophisticated account of this shift was produced by Parsons (1943), who argued the ‘‘structural isolation’’ of the nuclear (or in Parsons’s terms, ‘‘conjugal’’) family was a dominant aspect of mid twentieth century American kinship. Parsons’s starting point was that industrialization involved increased functional specialization. The family as a social institution was affected by this as much as any other institution. It too became more specialized, with its prime roles becoming the socialization of the young and the stabilization of adult personalities. The family structure that Parsons saw as most compatible with this was a nuclear family structure in which husbands and wives also had differentiated roles – employment for husbands and domestic responsibilities for wives. Parsons’s argument was that within this family structure, each individual’s primary kinship responsibility was to the other members of his or her nuclear family. An advantage of this family structure for industrialized societies was that it facilitated geographical mobility, seen as essential for meeting the dynamic workforce requirements of a developed economy.
Parsons did not argue that other kinship responsibilities were of no consequence. Rather, he claimed these were secondary to the responsibilities individuals had to nuclear family members (Harris 1983). Nonetheless, other writers took issue with Parsons’s work, arguing that kin outside the nuclear family remained significant in people’s lives, especially parents, siblings, and (adult) children. This is undoubtedly so. Many studies in different developed societies have shown that kin outside the household are routinely drawn on to provide support, assistance, and companionship. At this level, it is evident that nuclear families are not socially isolated from other kin. However, this does not of itself contradict the argument that nuclear families are structurally isolated within economically developed societies. As noted, structural isolation refers to primacy of obligation rather than level of social contact, though clearly the two are not entirely discrete.
Other tendencies within contemporary family patterns also indicate the structural priority given to nuclear families. In particular, the increased emphasis placed on ‘‘the couple’’ reflects the centrality of nuclear families over wider kinship ties. The trend towards higher rates of marriage, and more youthful marriage, across much of the twentieth century is one indication of this, as is the growth in the number and variety of different experts and guides offering advice on how couples should best maintain and organize their relationships. At a cultural level, this clearly reflects the continuing shift from marriage as an institution to marriage as a relationship. Similarly, the emphasis placed on the rights and needs of children, the increased responsibilities of care, and the growth of child and adolescent centered markets highlights the level of priority given to dependent children within contemporary family systems. While recognizing the emotional and practical significance of some kin relationships outside the household, it is evident that in terms of structural properties, the conjugal family continues to be prioritized.
However, recognizing this does not imply that family structure has been unaltered since the mid twentieth century when Parsons was writing. It very clearly has, throughout the developed world. Two aspects of this are particularly significant. First, the family structure characteristic of the mid twentieth century involved a very marked division of labor between spouses. Each spouse had their own sphere of responsibility and obligation: employment for husbands, childcare and domestic servicing for wives. While this gendered division of labor is still evident, it is not now as powerful as it previously was. Wives usually continue to carry primary responsibility for domestic organization and care within the family, but changes in employment patterns as well as the cultural impact of second wave feminism have reduced the level of their financial and social dependence on husbands. In this regard, while the distribution of responsibilities and obligations within families remains gendered, there is now somewhat less rigidity about this than there was throughout most of the twentieth century.
And just as there is now greater flexibility in the division of familial responsibilities, so too there is greater acceptance of diversity in other family practices. Patterns that were previously understood to be in some sense problematic, if not pathological, are now accepted as legitimate alternative family forms. The most obvious example here is lone parent families, which have increased dramatically since the early 1970s, but other examples include stepfamilies, cohabitation, and gay partnerships. Moreover, life course trajectories are now far more diverse than they were. With new forms of partnership, increasing levels of separation and divorce, and what can be termed ‘‘serial commitment’’ (i.e., committed relationships which may or may not involve marriage), the patterning of people’s family lives over time has become increasingly variable. Indeed, there is now greater cultural uncertainty about who counts as ‘‘family.’’ Think here of stepparents who may be house hold members but not necessarily regarded by stepchildren as family members; cohabiting heterosexual and gay partners where the commitment is comparatively recent; or even non-custodial fathers where there has been no relationship. In addition, with globalization, in most developed societies there is now also increased ethnic variation, which frequently entails diverse beliefs about the legitimacy of different family practices.
This greater diversity within the familial relationships people construct is a key characteristic of contemporary family structure in developed societies. It is linked to both the growth of individualization and an increasing recognition that sexual and domestic arrangements are matters of choice, and thus legitimately located within the private rather than the public sphere. However, it also makes the specification of family structure within contemporary developed societies more problematic. No single form of family organization or pat tern of constructing familial relationships holds normatively or experientially in the way Parsons’s nuclear family model did in the mid twentieth century. Yet accepting this diversity as a feature of contemporary family life, it is also clear that there are continuities and consistencies patterning the ways family members usually construct and negotiate their relationships. Three warrant highlighting. First, as noted above, gender remains a primary organizational principle within most families, in part as a consequence of gendered labor market realities. Second, in the main, people prioritize their commitment to their partner and dependent children above those to other family members, though this does not imply that relationships with these latter are necessarily inconsequential. Many studies have shown the reverse is true, with ties to parents and siblings in adulthood continuing to be significant in people’s lives. And third, albeit with some ethnic diversity, love as a personal and emotional commitment is generally understood as the prime basis for contemporary partnership, whether or not this involves marriage. Conversely, the evident absence of emotional commitment within a partnership is accepted legally and culturally (in most instances) as a prima facie reason for ending the partnership.
- Adams, Allan, G. & Crow, G. (2001) Families, Households and Society. Palgrave, Basingstoke.
- Cherlin, A. (2004) The Deinstitutionalization of American Marriage. Journal of Marriage and Family 66: 848 61.
- Duncan, S. & Edwards, R. (Eds.) (1997) Single Mothers in an International Context. UCL Press, London.
- Finch, J. & Mason, J. (1993) Negotiating Family Responsibilities. Routledge, London.
- Gillis, J. (1997) A World of Their Own Making. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
- Harris, C. C. (1983) The Family in Industrial Society. Allen & Unwin, London.
- Parsons, T. (1943) The Kinship System of the Con- temporary United States. American Anthropologist 43: 22 38.
- Weeks, J., Heaphy, B., & Donovan, C. (2001) Same Sex Intimacies. Routledge, London.