Dominic Fairfax Forum
Dominic Fairfax Forum

Is the Nuclear Family here to stay? Sociology

The sociologist George Murdock claims that from a practical perspective, the nuclear family performs four basic functions. He terms these functions : the sexual, the reproductive, the economic and the educational. Murdock states that these functions are essential for society since without the sexual and reproductive functions there would be no members of society. Without the economic functions such as agriculture, life would cease and without education [socialisation] there would be no culture. Murdock recognises that the family does not provide these functions exclusively. However, the family makes important contributions in perpetuating the way society operates and no other institution has yet been devised to match its efficiency.Therefore, the continuation of the traditional nuclear family is most certainly inevitable.


Murdock claims that the sexual function cements the union between spouses and provides a secure unit for children. The rules which largely contain sexual activity within the family prevent the probable disruptive effects on the social order that would result if the sex-drive were allowed ‘free play’. The family thus provides both ‘control and expression’ of sexual drives and in doing so, performs important functions, not only for its individual members but also for the family as an institution and for society as a whole. He applies a similar logic to the economic function, arguing that like sex, "it is most readily and satisfactorily achieved by persons living together." Murdock views the division of labour by gender roles in a positive light with males as main breadwinners, the women as usually secondary breadwinners and attending to home and children. He stipulates that his analysis provides a "conception of the family’s many-sided utility and thus of its inevitability."


Similarly, Talcott Parsons stressed the importance of primary and secondary socialisation whereby the young are conditioned to internalise the values of society until they become an integral part of the child’s personality. Parsons postulated that “families are factories" which produce individuals compatible with mainstream society.” Similar to Murdock, Talcott Parsons could conceive of no institution other than the family that could provide this context.


Criticisms of this view have been provided by sociologists such as D.H.J. Morgan, who stated that Murdock’s description of the family is almost too good to be true. Morgan satirically argues that Murdock’s nuclear family is a "remarkably harmonious institution where husband and wife have an integrated division of labour and a good time in bed.” An enormous number of families are thoroughly dysfunctional, especially where socio-economic and intellectual poverty are rife. There is no consideration that although functional for society, traditional families might be wholly dysfunctional for women. Louis Althuser and David Cooper [1972] stipulated that the family is simply “an ideological conditioning device in an exploitative society.” Functionalist theorists such as Parsons and Murdock do not appear to care whether society is exploitative for anybody as long as it is ‘functional’ for the whole; more or less regarding the majority of human beings as consumer fodder and batteries for the system. On the other hand, it is argued that many sociologists holding the feminist, Marxian or interactionist perspectives, tend not to perceive the nuclear family in this broad. 'functional' way. They are more inclined to examine the complexities of families in stratified societies in more psycho-sociological depth and detail, including the role of individuals within them. 

The Position of Women Within the Family

For example, it is impossible to analyse the inevitability of the family without regarding the position of women within it. Many sociologists of the feminist school are deeply critical of Parsons and Murdock. They argue that the family’s universality and seeming inevitability is due to the institutions of patriarchal societies conditioning young females into varying degrees of submissive gender roles via religion and cultural symbolic interactionism. It is stated that socialising females as 'other', 'the appendage', or 'the second sex' is so effective that on reaching adulthood women rarely question why they pertain to male ideologies. Considerable numbers of sociologists assert that in all societies. sexism, whether inside or outside of the nuclear family, is more rife than racism but sexism receives much less attention or condemnation. Forced marriages, child marriages, female genital mutilation and 'honour killings' [ meaning relatives and parents murdering daughters who refuse to marry a chosen spouse ] increasingly hit the headlines due to the increase in such cultures and attitudes entering Western society. As the generally physically weaker and childbearing sex, women in all societies are extremely vulnerable to abuse and dependency - economic and emotional. Dependent women with children are the most vulnerable. They fear abandonment and poverty which causes them to endure all sorts of appalling situations within relationships. The astronomical number of women in refuges is an indication of the extent of the violence which takes place in the isolated nuclear family unit. Those trapped  in such relationships often have to witness the horror of their children being emotionally and sometimes, physically abused. Some mothers abuse children but most abuse is perpetrated by fathers and stepfathers, especially sexual abuse. Some stipulate that abuse was much less likely to occur in extended families but others dispute that assumption. Some women are passive abusers within the nuclear family unit in that they fail to protect children from abuse by husbands or partners. It is stated that the isolation of the nuclear family dwelling provides a hiding place for all kinds of atrocities that can remain undiscovered.

On the other hand, many nuclear families are nurturing and loving. They provide a secure and stable environment. These are the kinds of families to which we endeavour to belong and create but many socio-psychologists stipulate that functionalists are blinded by their idealisation of the nuclear family unit. "There are some weird and twisted relationships out there; functionalists need to open up their eyes to reality." It is not of course, the case that all women, men and children suffer negative effects in family life. Functionalists argue that the negative consequences of nuclear family life only involves a minority. "The nuclear family remains the best arrangement for nurturing and socialising the young."

Some sociologists believe that due to the increasing higher education of women, it is doubtful that the family as we know it is endlessly inevitable. Once the nation's women are highly skilled and academically educated they will be empowered by economic independence and the entire economic system will alter irrevocably. The counter-viewpoints on that are firstly, "Where is the evidence that women, especially working class women, are becoming highly skilled and highly educated?" Secondly, capitalism will never facilitate the entire nation's women [or men for that matter] to become highly skilled and highly educated because stratification and educational streaming always need to be in operation in order to ensure that "all areas of human need - from the garbage collector to the highly professional scientist - are covered. The nuclear family facilitates those ends; that is why it is functional for society."  

Those supporting the 'Is Marriage Toxic?' stance, first popularised by sociologist, Jessie Bernard, claim that in its present form, marriage or heterosexual cohabitation, benefits men far more than women. Moreover, whether the couple are married or cohabiting makes little difference because it is still a nuclear family unit. Data does indeed reveal that marriage is on the decline. Thousands of people stipulate that the hassle of divorce if things do not work out is too stressful to risk. "Who gets the house, who gets the dog, or this or that, seems to be a frightening prospect as does the idea of solicitors and state interference in what couples initially thought was simply a personal relationship." In late 2012, figures stipulated that far more couples are living together in what used to be called 'common law marriages' rather than traditional marriages. They are partners rather than husbands and wives. The sociologists, Delphy and Leonard et al, stipulate that whether married or cohabitating, women contribute much more to the standard family in every conceivable way but take less. Similarly, Laura Purdy [1977], believes that women are disadvantaged and exploited in family relationships. She asserts that these disadvantages largely result from dependency and childcare responsibilities.

Gay relationships are certainly on the increase. They gained the right to marry in 2014. Some gay couples have children, either by ex-partners, or via surrogacy, fostering or adoption but they assert that marriage, gay or heterosexual, is not necessarily about having children. Others, of both genders, stipulate that it does not matter whether children are reared in same-sex partnerships or opposite sex partnerships; it is the quality of the relationship that counts. Data reveals that matrifocal families are rife in the US. Moreover, the numbers of matrifocal families in the UK are also increasing. Many such families become matrifocal due to the male partner's abandonment of the mother and children, or because the male plays a minimal role. Without a main breadwinner, such families invariably reside in relative poverty, often entirely dependent on welfare payments. Some sociologists continue to regard such families as part of the Culture of Poverty; others argue that there is no such thing; poverty stricken single-parent families are the result of prior dependence on low-waged or unemployed partners at the lower end of the stratification system. Lone parents from the higher societal echelons do not suffer poverty. Lone parents are mainly female-headed families. Very few fathers are looking after children single-handed due to death of the mother or abandonment by the mother. Furthermore, male lone parents are accorded more respect for their endeavours. Lone female parents at the lower end of the social stratum not only suffer poverty due to lack of financial support from ex-husbands/partners; they also suffer abominable stress, social condemnation and harassment from the Social Security and the DWP. Neither her ex-spouse nor the State particularly want to support her or her children; consequently she feels like the 'piggy in the middle'. Such circumstances precipitate profound anxiety and uncertainty for broken nuclear families, especially if the mother's own parents are deceased and she is without a supportive family network. Moreover, there are numerous reports of female lone parents being disrespected, treated with contempt and physically abused by their teenage children especially by sons brought up in macho socio-economically deprived areas. Many lone female parents admit that they feel so fearful of the future that they desperately seek to 'secure another man' in order to survive.

Disturbing manifestations of family life and fear of dependency are causing a proportion of wealthy women to deliberately select solo-parenthood by opting out of traditional marriage and attending anonymous sperm banks in Copenhagen. "Singletons are fed up with waiting for Mr Right and opt for IVF instead" stated an April 2014 newspaper. Many fervently feel that children need to be reared in love and tenderness. They need to be steered in positive, intelligent directions, by nurturing caregivers - not conceived as a result of routine, mechanical sexual intercourse as ''some sort of conjugal obligation'' as Murdoch and Parsons imply. Many women suffer rape within marriage. Others, from countries which disallowed contraception stated that they felt as if they had to oblige and risk another pregnancy lest the spouse should run off and leave them in poverty with the children they already had. Numerous opponents and supporters of traditional nuclear families assert that marriages are not supposed to be 'factories' for churning out children. Neither should women be treated as incubators simply to keep replenishing the human stock for stratification purposes. Others claim that marriage is merely a means of ensuring inheritances, shared property rights in the event of divorce, patriarchal lineages and for facilitating tax purposes. It is an economic unit. It is stipulated that on a worldwide scale, the nuclear family is a means of social control, especially for women. Many sociologists are concerned with the increasing feminisation of poverty. The sociologist, Laura Purdy, postulates that feminism should try to counter the general assumption that having children is necessary. Society, particularly the family and peer groups, will either deliberately or inadvertently socialise children to perpetuate conventional gender roles and stratification patterns. She advocated a ‘baby strike’. "Only then will social arrangements change for the benefit of women." Many like-minded academics postulate that the empowerment of women, including the solution to the elimination of family poverty, resides in women becoming highly educated, self-sufficient, refraining from motherhood at all, or at least delaying motherhood until much later in life so that emotional maturity and economic security can be achieved antecedently. The human body has by no means 'evolved' to suit the preoccupation with economic growth. For example, the age of female menopause has not extended. Moreover, people are capable of reproducing as young as twelve years old. In October 2014 it was announced that some companies are prepared to freeze their female employees eggs so that women can continue to work and boost the economy by delaying motherhood. On the other hand, many functionalists purport that such a situation would be dysfunctional for society since it would soon cause a population shortage. "Reproduction of the human stock at all occupational levels is essential, otherwise society would collapse. Such a catastrophe is best prevented by ensuring the transmission of intergenerationally perpetuated stratified nuclear family units."

The academic journalist and writer, Germaine Greer [2000], stated that the “ghastly figure of the bride still walks abroad but the honeymoon is soon over.” Greer further stated:


..the illusion of stable family life was built on the silence of suffering women….they put up with their husband’s drinking and their bit on the side, blamed themselves for their husband’s violence towards them and endured abuse silently because of their children.


It is asserted that married men score much higher on all measures of psychological well-being than married women. Career women, whether single or married, fare better. Women who go out to work are less likely to suffer abuse. Many question whether monogamy is a natural way of being, especially for men. It is a fact that both sexes can suffer from profound emotional abuse, violence and even murder within the marital unit but women much more than men. Informed women are becoming concerned about increasing intimate, or former partner femicide. From a feminist socio-psychological perspective, many point out that wives are seen as having a ‘duty’ to keep their husbands interested in sex, even though they may no longer feel attracted to them. Women may feel that they must ''look good and retain their sex-appeal'' in order to ''keep their man'' because they are tied to him emotionally and economically, even if the relationship is controlling and abusive. Where women have indulged in romantic ideas about love and marriage, they tend to seek sincerity, respect, communication, a soul-mate, romance and tenderness in their relationships rather than routine, mechanical, bedtime sexual occurrences where all natural passion and spontaneity have gone. However, sociologists such as John Bowlby, Parsons and Murdock retort that despite its shortcomings, the family is still the best societal institution for ensuring children's security and stability. 

The sociologist, Fran Ansley, stipulates that women really are the ''takers of shit'' in society. "Like sponges, they soak up men's unhappiness and frustrations with their work." Many like-minded socio-psychologists stipulate that women often project romantic notions on to the partner, especially with regard to sex. They tend to think that the act is the partner 'loving' her when half the time, ''he is probably fantasising about somebody else, especially if they have been married for a long time.'' The sociologist, Ann Oakley, the feminist writer, B. Friedan, and the philosopher, Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex, wrote extensively on the tediousness of domesticity, of which women are often in denial. The sociologists Willmott and Young's idea that the symmetrical family [ male and female equally sharing domestic tasks in the home] is certainly not the norm in most families. The onus still falls on women for the bulk of domestic tasks, especially in the working class family. Millions of women state that they feel as if they are part of the furniture, especially if they have teenage children and a disengaged spouse. They often feel as if family members are more like lodgers. Some women convey that they feel lonely - as if living half-lives - like ghosts in their own homes; the homes that they tended and created with loving care for their families oft times feel like tombs. The inevitability of the nuclear family depends on whether women are prepared to continue to tolerate any kind of oppression. In many circles, it is felt that the monotony of domesticity and the feeling that they are not genuinely cherished or appreciated causes thousands of women to develop psychological problems such as depression and anxiety. The resulting behaviours include comfort eating, secret drinking, chain-smoking and obsessive compulsive disorders such as excessive shopping and unnecessary cleaning but nothing fills the void. Thousands of women lack self-confidence and will choose 'any idiot' as a partner because they do not think they deserve any better. Or they will choose an unlikely or convenient partner because he has money or because they are 'afraid of being left on the shelf.' The increasing trend of cohabitation is perhaps a pointer to the unpopularity of traditional marriages. However, similar to traditional marriages in the 2000's, cohabitational relationships often fail with many women experiencing a feeling of non-commitment. Sham marriages designed to facilitate foreigners to remain in the UK are on the increase. A substantial amount of sociological research seeks to highlight the increasing problems men, women and children encounter in binuclear or 'reconstituted' families. Moreover, 'serial fatherhood' is usually ignored or accepted among the rich and famous but the increase in serial fathers and their effects on families among the 'ordinary' is of increasing concern. Some marriages become celibate once the passion has waned; the couples claiming that caring for the partner, the children, and sharing life's experiences, joys and sorrows in a Platonic way is real love for them and much more rewarding.

Sadly, dependency seems to be the crux of the matter for most women. In the early 1980s, Collette Dowling, wrote, The Cinderella Complex, which inter alia stated that the female conditioned dependency role is the main reason for women's oppression and the situation can only be alleviated by women taking their lives into their own hands by earning their own livings and acquiring proper careers. Traditional women were upset by the book and threw the ball back into Dowling’s court by more or less stating that the author was "simply jealous because her husband did not support her." This kind of argument has been going on for decades and is by no means exhaustible. Neither has the problem of women's dependency been ameliorated. One problem is that in relation to the general population, few women come into contact with psycho-sociological analyses of women and the family, certainly not at advanced or university level. The increasing perception of females as objectified sexual toys, as general compliers to male ideologies including their susceptibility to abuse, prey, misogyny and femicide, both in, and outside the nuclear family, are given very little media attention except when a specific incident is regarded as newsworthy. Instead of reaching the masses, where women's issues need to be focused, studies seem to  be concentrated in the world of academia. Even in the 2000s, women, particularly working and lower middle class women, continue to get themselves into the most appalling situations of dependency and abuse which invariably affect them for the rest of their lives.  


The sociologist, Jennifer Somerville [2000], offers what some sociologists regard as a more measured critique of the family. Somerville believes that many sociologists have failed to acknowledge the progress that has been made for women. In particular, that women now have much greater freedom to take paid work and "this has facilitated greater equality in marriage." Opponents state that this is an illusion. In order to attain a clearer perspective of women in the labour market it is essential to study the occupations of lower middle and working class married or partnered women who far comprise the majority. Women, are notoriously concentrated as part-time workers in elderly care homes, retail, childcare, catering, cleaning, teaching- assistants, supermarket checkouts, fast-food, textile industries, factories and low-level clerical in order to subsidize their spouses' income. They are increasingly employed in zero-hour contract jobs. Women with young children are under a lot of pressure to work outside the home as well as in it, irrespective of whether they want to or not. Where once, a single breadwinner sufficed, it now takes two to maintain the general cost of living. The result is that couples often see very little of their children. Many feel that this situation is contributing greatly to the disintegration of the traditional nuclear family unit and causing alienation within it. 

It is stipulated that women are overly represented in subordinate jobs in public sector 'caring industries'. Moreover, their employers pay them at the minimum hourly wage or just above because they are aware that women's spouses provide the main source of income. The proportion of female high fliers, especially of entirely independent means, is exceedingly small. Most women are concentrated in monotonous jobs which can hardly be described as liberating either financially or intellectually. "Females are still groomed with the marriage market in mind and are socially encouraged to reproduce before their 'biological clock' runs out." This runs contrary to the paradoxical, socially encouraged feasibility of developing economic security before starting a family and is particularly difficult for women from underprivileged or so called 'ordinary' backgrounds who have neither been facilitated nor encouraged to develop high flying careers.

There are also problems with affordable childcare. Moreover, educated women with huge gaps in their careers due to childcare responsibilities, will invariably take on any job following separation or divorce just to keep a roof over their children's heads. Others have to work at two or three jobs to attain the male's equivalent single wage. The measure of a woman's financial independence and security, especially if she has children, is whether or not she would be able to manage if the male were taken out of the equation. Unlike radical feminists, Jennifer Somerville does not see segregation from men as the solution or liberating force for womankind. She and her supporters feel that women's romantic notions regarding weddings, domestic bliss, the desire to have children, heterosexual attractions and the need for companionship mean that traditional families will not disappear thus lending support to their inevitability. However, women and the family is an enormous area of sociological study with many psychological and socio-economic dimensions which cannot realistically be condensed into a short assignment. The debate goes on. There is a vast array of historical documents on women and the family. Ongoing studies focus on the current variations of family life in their vicissitude and increasingly tend to question the conventional hypotheses of the nuclear family's inevitability.

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