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Classic Texts: Ann Oakley "Conventional Families" 1982


Last updated 27 Aug 2020

Feminist sociologist Ann Oakley is well known for her extensive research on housework and on childbirth, both using unstructured interviews to gain deep, valid data about families and women. In this article, she investigated the nuclear family, and its place as the "normal" or "conventional" family of the time.

Ann Oakley defined the conventional family as "nuclear families composed of legally married couples, voluntarily choosing parenthood of one or more children". This is otherwise known as the cereal packet family: the image of a normal family that was portrayed in television advertisements and soap operas at the time when she was writing. Oakley critically examines this idea. She looks at the work of other sociologists and considers where the idea that this was the "normal" way to live came from, and the influence it has over society and individuals. She considered the way the conventional family worked as a form of social control: people were expected to live in these families, and this controlled them by making it harder to live alternative lives. As people got older - especially women - they would be regularly asked when they were going to get married and have children, as though alternatives to this life plan were unthinkable.

Oakley noted that, even in the early 1980s, the conventional family was being challenged. People were exploring different ways of living and different arrangements that worked for them and did not conform to convention. She noted that people increasingly saw the conventional family as a stereotype and an archaic one. Instead some groups understood that they could organise their families differently and, indeed, that they did not have to live in a family at all, but could choose some other form of household or living arrangement.

Since the 1980s this challenge to the conventional family has increased and, today, there are a great deal of diverse family forms and structures we can choose to live in. Chester (a functionalist) however suggests that we still live in neo-conventional families. That is, that while fewer people are getting married, and people may live with step-siblings, etc. most people still live in a family that is effectively nuclear and most people want to live in that family structure.

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