The classic sociological theory about the link between families and the economy is the debate about the impact of industrialisation on the family, and particularly Talcott Parsons’ theory that industrialisation led to the development of the nuclear family.
While sociologists today are more interested in more contemporary economic change, such as the impact of globalisation, we should look at this classic debate.
Talcott Parsons (1951) argued that the process of industrialisation led to huge changes in both the structure and the role of the family and the roles of family members.
Industrialisation is the process whereby the economy shifted from being based largely around agriculture to being based on industry and manufacturing. In the UK, this processes happened rapidly, particularly in the 18th and 19th centuries, as the industrial revolution. Alongside industrialisation there was a closely-related process of urbanisation. This is the process where people move from rural communities into towns and cities, resulting in the rapid growth of those towns and cities.
Such massive social change inevitably impacts on the family, but Parsons argues that it was transformative: it created the nuclear family.
Parsons, as a functionalist, believes that the institutions in society work together like the organs in the human body in order for society to work properly. Therefore, when there is social change, other institutions also have to change to ensure there is a functional fit: that the institutions fit society as it is, rather than as it was. For Parsons, the pre-industrial, agrarian society was populated with extended families. There was a functional fit between the extended family and the rural economy. Where people worked the land, the more family members to lend a hand the better: aunts, uncles, cousins and numerous children were economic assets. Everyone who was fit and able in the family had to be economically active, and so the presence of older relatives provided essential services in terms of childcare, education and healthcare. Families remained in the same communities and on same land for generations, and so there was no requirement to be geographically mobile to seek work, so a large family was not a burden.
However, when people started moving from rural areas into towns and cities, in order to get jobs in factories and mills, this all changed. Work and home were now separated. Families needed to be geographically mobile: they could not take large numbers of dependents and extended family with them into the city. There was paid work for men in the factories and mills, and so a clear gender division of labour emerged, with women staying at home to look after the children and the house. Increasingly the state took over many of the roles of the family listed by Murdock, leaving the family with the two irreducible functions previously referred to.
According to Parsons, this social change precipitated a clear change in the family from extended families with many functions, in the pre-industrials society, to privatised nuclear families with fewer functions in industrial society.
Why nuclear families have a functional fit with industrial society
Nuclear families allow for:
Evaluating Parsons on industrialism and the family
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