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Study notes

Industrialisation and the Family

  • Levels: AS, A Level
  • Exam boards: AQA, Edexcel, OCR, Eduqas, WJEC

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:

  • Geographical mobility (families can move to where the work is)
  • Social mobility or meritocracy. Parsons argues that individual status in pre-industrial society was ascribed (you were born into a particular status) whereas in industrial society people could achieve a new status through hard work. In extended families, social mobility can lead to inter-generational conflict, but this is less of a concern when families are “privatised” as small independent units. Both these forms of mobility are facilitated by the isolated nature of the nuclear family.
  • Specialised roles. In nuclear families, in industrial societies, men and women have separate specialised roles (according to Parsons). He writes about men being instrumental leaders and women being expressive leaders and this being the most effective division of labour for industrial society. We will return to this in the section on gender roles.

Evaluating Parsons on industrialism and the family

  • The principle difficulty with Parsons theory is that historians do not agree that the changes in the family described by Parsons actually match what really happened.
  • Peter Laslett (1972) conducted research into pre-industrial families in his famous work of social history The World We Have Lost. He found that the most common family form in the pre-industrial communities he studied was not the extended family but the nuclear family. People may well have lived close to extended family and worked together, but in terms of their households, most were made up of parents and children.
  • Furthermore, Michael Anderson (1971) looked at households in Preston in the midst of rapid industrialisation and urbanisation (using the 1851 census) and found a significant increase in the number of households made up of extended families. A rational response to moving from rural areas into the city was to move in with family. This helped economically, but also socially as – unlike the rural communities they had moved from – these were neighbourhoods where people did not know each other and so kinship connections were very valuable.
  • Parsons is criticised, then, for being an armchair theorist. His theory seems quite logical, but had he engaged in extensive empirical research into the question he may well have found evidence that undermined his theory. Indeed, if his data had replicated the findings of Laslett and Anderson, he might have had to turn his theory entirely on its head.
  • Having said that, the common family form when Parsons was writing was certainly the privatised nuclear family and there certainly were more extended families in the past. So family structures and roles had changed and the major social change of the era was industrialisation, so it does not seem unreasonable to make a connection. However, it would seem that Parsons had failed to detect the precise nature of the relationship.
  • In truth, what this array of research and evidence would appear to show is that there has always been rather more family and household diversity than Parsons’ theory would suggest.
  • There are also strong criticisms of the way Parsons presents the nuclear family as ideal (and an ideal which society evolves towards) and also the of Parsons’ explanation of gender roles (which will be discussed in more detail in the appropriate section).

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