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Study notes

Families: The "March of Progress" (Wilmott & Young)

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

An alternative functionalist approach comes from Wilmott and Young (1973). It is one of several “march of progress” theories that come from functionalists that look at how society develops and modernises over time.

Wilmott and Young (1973) established four stages of family development relating to the process of industrialisation:

Stage One: The pre-industrial family

The family works as a unit of economic production. There is no separation between work and home. Families live with or close to other family members and work together.

Stage Two: The early industrial family

Families move into towns and cities and home and work are separated as men go out to work. Women perform a domestic role. While pre-industrial extended families have broken up as a result of this, kinship networks remain very important and women especially rely on support from other female relations. Wilmott and Young suggested that while female relatives bonded, men were excluded from the home and spent time in the pub instead.

Stage Three: The symmetrical family

The modern nuclear family has less gender segregation than the early industrial family with men and women both in employment and both contributing to domestic chores. Also the family has ceased to be a unit of production and has become a unit of consumption. Families tend to be smaller, because children remain dependents rather than becoming financial assets. The family has become more isolated from kinship networks and so families spend more time together and generally there are joint conjugal roles as opposed to segregated conjugal roles.

Stage Four: The asymmetrical family

Wilmott & Young suggested that the family would become asymmetrical, with men increasingly spending their leisure time outside the home and without their partners (for example spending long periods of time on the golf course). Wilmott & Young conceded that this fourth stage did not really occur.

One important factor in family change, for Wilmott and Young, was something they called stratified diffusion. They suggested that the sort of cultural changes in family life described here began initially among those with higher social status, and these practices diffused down the social strata and became the norm. This was why they predicted Stage Four, because they saw evidence of rich families becoming increasingly asymmetrical, with couples spending more time apart and particularly rich businessmen spending their leisure time apart from the family. However, there does not seem to be much evidence to suggest that stratified diffusion as occurred in this case.

Evaluating the March of Progress

  • Some sociologists dislike the value judgement inherent in the idea of a march of progress: that the family has got better as it has developed. In rural areas, some families still occupy “stage 1” and some would suggest this is just a different family form rather than a better or worse one.
  • There is lots of feminist research to suggest that the “symmetrical family” is a myth, as we will discuss in the section on gender roles.
  • The modern nuclear family is presented in an idealistic way, which runs counter to many people’s experiences of family life.

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