contemporary diversity in the structure of the family

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Q: Examine the sociological evidence concerning the idea that there is contemporary diversity in the structure of the family.

The family is often seen as the corner stone of society. In pre-modern and modern societies alike it has been regarded as the most basic unit of social organisation and one that carries out vital tasks, such as the socialisation of children.

Functionalists’ approaches to the family are based on the assumption that society operates on the basis of consensus and that there is a balance between various parts of society so that they work together harmoniously. Functionalists assume that social institutions must have a function or purpose; therefore the family is examined in terms of the functions it performs for the benefit of society and the individual.

Functionalists view the family a little like a machine with many different parts all contributing to the smooth running of the whole (if one part breaks down there’s a chance that the whole thing wont work), therefore functionalist theories stress the interrelationship between the family and other social institutions.

E.g. the family prepares children to become adult workers and take on roles in the economy to support themselves an their dependents.

Functionalist consensus theorist, Talcot Parsons, sees two functions of the family as being basic and irreducible, these are:

· The primary socialisation of children

· Stabilisation of adult personalities

For Parsons the nuclear family is the ideal institution to perform these essential functions in industrial societies.

New Right thinkers also see the Nuclear family unit as the ‘normal family’. John Redwood a conservative mp stated in 1993 that the two adult family caring for their children was the ‘natural state’, these perspectives reflect the sociobiological view that the family is a natural institution based on biological requirements.

Another functionalist George Peter Murdock made the claim that the family is a universal feature in all society in his study entitled “social structure”, he made this claim following case studies and anthropological work on 250 societies, Murdock defines the family as follows.

The family is a social group characterised by common residence, economic cooperation and reproduction, it includes adults of both sexes, at least two...

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...erance of difference. There is no eternal right or wrong about the family; it has always been a changeable institution, and will go on changing whether we like it or not, according to material conditions in the world outside and not according to ideas of morality. Overall there are clear patterns of continuity with the past but within an overall trend towards increased diversity.


The family is a social group…. Murdock (1949)

Some view the mother only family … Mclanahan and Booth (1991)

Most adults still marry… Chester (1985)

In 1996 73% of households were… Silvia and smart (1999)

Families in Britain today… Rapoport & Rapoport (1982

International diversity

Gay and Lesbian diversity

Cultural diversity


Taylor, P., et al Sociology in focus, (1995), cause way

Haralambus, M., Themes and Perspectives, fifth edition (2000), Collins Educational.

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Kirby, M., et at, Sociology in perspective, (1997), Heinemann.

O’Donnell, M., et al, Sociology in practice, (1990), Nelson.

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