Families: Forms of Family Diversity
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Last updated 15 Sept 2022
Some sociologists argue that there is no “normal” family, but instead a broad diversity of family and household forms in the UK today.
There are a number of reasons for this increased diversity, including:
- Secularisation (as religion has become less central to UK society, so people are more likely to consider alternatives to marriage and also there is a reduced stigma to divorce.)
- Legal changes (the legal changes mentioned in the previous section has made divorce easier, therefore leading to more family types)
Late modernist Anthony Giddens (1992) argues that greater gender equality has led to significant changes in the nature of family life. Relationships are now categorised by freedom – people are free to enter into relationships on their own terms rather than bound by tradition or family expectations.
A consequence of this is that people seek a pure relationship: if a relationship is not meeting their expectations then they are also at liberty to end it and seek one that is more fulfilling. Furthermore, relationships have become increasingly about the self: people’s self-identity is explored through relationships.
All of this combines to suggest that people are less likely to get married young and stay together for their whole lives and instead are likely to experience serial monogamy. That is, be part of several partnerships throughout their life course, rather than just one. While in previous eras it was not unusual for people to marry their “childhood sweetheart” it is now very unusual for people in a relationship at 18 to remain in the same relationship for life. While this represents greater choice and freedom, it is also characterised by instability.
Sociologists recognise a large number of diverse family forms in contemporary society.
Examples of diverse family forms
Traditional nuclear family
This is the traditional family as described functionalists like Talcott Parsons and the New Right: a married couple with their own children (2 or 3 of them) where the husband goes out to work and the wife looks after most of the domestic duties, with clear segregated roles.
This family form was described by Wilmott & Young who argued that in the later 20th century, families were becoming more symmetrical, with more joint roles. Women were increasingly going out to work and men were doing more of the housework.
Nuclear family with house husband or “new man”
Another family form that exists, especially in a postmodern society, is one where the female adult in the family is the “breadwinner” and the husband does most of the domestic work.
Extended family refers to those family members who are outside the “nucleus”: aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents, etc. Extended family households can be either:
- Vertical. Multiple generations living together (e.g. grandparents and great grandparents. The vertical description relates to how it would appear on a family tree.
- Horizontal. A household made up of aunts, uncles and cousins: the family extended horizontally across the same generation rather than vertically.
These household forms were uncommon in the 20th century, but had arguably been a feature of pre-industrial and early industrial households. However, life expectancy would suggest that at the time it would have been more likely to be horizontal extended families, whereas today – with an ageing population – the likelihood of vertical extended families has increased.
Again, looking at how a family looks on a family tree can present us with a beanpole family: a vertical extended family with no (or few) “branches”. This is a multi-generational extended family, or vertical extended family, but is characterised by each generation having few siblings. Again, as the fertility rate has reduced, this becomes a more common family form. In earlier generations, grandparents and great grandparents might be expected to have several siblings, as large families was the norm.
Matrifocal lone parent family
The most common lone-parent family is the matrifocal one: that is one where the lone parent is the mother of the child/children. There are several reasons for this, such as women giving birth (and therefore being the present parent if they are not in a relationship) and courts tending to prefer mothers in child custody cases, following divorces.
New Right sociologists, such as Charles Murray criticise lone parent families suggesting that the lack of a male role model can cause deviant behaviour and socialise children with deviant values, leading to the creation of an underclass.
Patrifocal lone parent family
A less common variation on the lone-parent family is the patrifocal one: a family headed by a single father.
A reconstituted family is where two nuclear families that have split up merge (or blend) to form a new family (i.e. with step-parents and step-brothers or sisters). Because of both increased divorce and the decrease in marriage, there are many more reconstituted or blended families in the UK today than there were 100 years ago.
Same sex couples
Of course, there are really a number of different same-sex family structures, not just one. Same-sex couple implies a couple living without children (coupling describes this household structure for both heterosexual and homosexual couples) but there are also same-sex families where there are children (either naturally the children of one or other parent or adopted).
Living apart together
A living apart together family is where a couple choose not to cohabitate (or are not currently cohabitating). This accounts for approximately 10% of UK adults.
This is a term for when children are brought up by their grandparents rather than their parents. There are a number of reasons why this situation might arise. It refers to a more formal, permanent or semi-permanent arrangement than just grandparents assisting with childcare.
This term refers to people living on their own. Again this is quite a common household type in contemporary Britain.
Some households are multiple occupancy. This might be in the form of flatmates or housemates such as university students, or it might be people who do not know each other prior to taking up residence (e.g. some migrant workers).
Empty nest family
This term refers to a household where there is a couple who had children but they have now left the family home. Because people are living longer, there are more empty nest households and they remain that way for longer.
However, a growing trend has been for boomerang families where children who have left the family home have come back again! For example, this might occur with people graduating from university and then returning to the family home. The cost and scarcity of housing has made this more common.
Polygamy in the strict sense is illegal in the UK: you cannot be married to more than one person under UK law. However, there are people who live with more than one partner (not married) and also some people have other spouses in other countries (not recognised by UK law). In some cultures polygamy is seen as a better option than infidelity and is therefore encouraged.