Assess Sociological Explanations of the Nature and Extent of Family Diversity Today

1 January 2017

Assess sociological explanations of the nature and extent of family diversity today (24 marks) Rhona and Robert Rapoport (1982) argue that diversity is of central importance in understanding family life today. They believe that we have moved away from the traditional nuclear family as the dominant family type, to a range of different diverse types. Families in Britain have adapted to a pluralistic society; a society in which cultures and lifestyles are more diverse. In their view, family diversification represents greater freedom of choice and the widespread acceptance of different cultures and ways of life.

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Unlike the New Right, the Rapoports see diversity as a response to people different needs and wishes, not as abnormal or deviation from the assumed norm of the nuclear family. The Rapoports identify five different types of family diversity. Organisational diversity refers to the differences in the ways family roles are organised. For example, some couples have joint conjugal roles and others have segregated conjugal roles. Cultural diversity is the belief that different cultural, religious and ethnic groups have different family structures.

Social class diversity is the differences in family structure that are partly the result of income differences between households of different classes. Life stage diversity states that family structures differ according to the stage reached in the life cycle- for example, newly-weds, couples with children, retired couples whose children have left home and widows or widowers who are living alone. The last type of family diversity is generational diversity; older and younger generations have different attitudes and experiences that reflect the historical periods in which they have lived.

For example, they may have different views about the morality of divorce or cohabitation. Modernist approaches to the family such as functionalism and the New Right emphasise the dominance of the nuclear family type in modern society. These approaches take a structural or top down view; they see the family as a structure that shapes the behaviour of its members so that they perform the functions society requires.

However, other sociologists rejects the modernist idea that there is one best family type or that the family’s structure shapes its members behaviour. Sociologists influenced by social ctions and postmodernist views argue that structural or modernist approaches ignore two key facts. The first fact is that as individual social factors, we make choices about our family life and relationships. Structural approaches wrongly assume that our actions are shaped and dictated by the ‘needs of society’. The second fact is that we now have so much greater choice about our personal relationships, and this has increased family diversity so much that we can no longer talk about a single best or dominant type, or even a set of types as the Rapoports put forward.

In this view therefore, if we want to understand family life, we need to focus of individual family members and how they make their choices. To do this, sociologists such as Tamara Hareven (1978) use the approach know as life course analysis. This starts from the idea that there is flexibility and variation in peoples family lives- in choices and decisions they make, and in the timing and sequence of the events and turning points in their lives.

Similarly Holdsworth and Morgan (2005) examined how young people experience leaving home, for example, in relation to what it means to be independent or adult and in terms of how others such as parents and friends influence their decisions. Life course analysis therefore focuses on the meaning people give these life events and choices. Similarly to life course analysis, David Morgan (1996) uses the concept of family practices to describe the routine actions through which we create our sense of being a family member such as feeding the children or doing DIY.

Our family practices are influenced by the beliefs we have about the rights and obligations within the family. For instance, some men may see feeding the children as the wife’s job and not theirs. The concept of family practices thus allows is to see why conflict may exist within families- because different members may hold different beliefs or expectations about each others responsibilities. Morgan prefers the concept of family practices rather than family structures as a way of describing how we construct our life course and relationships.

In his view, families are not concrete things or structures, they are simply what people actually do. Morgan argues that the concept of family practices get us closer to realities of everyday experience of family life that structural approaches such as functionalism; particularly in today’s society, where individuals are much freer to choose how they organise their relationships. Postmodernists argue that we no longer live in the modern world with its predictable orderly structures such as the nuclear family. Instead society has entered a new chaotic postmodern stage.

In postmodern society, family structures are fragmented and individuals have much more choice in their lifestyles, personal relationships and family arrangements. A a result family life has become more diverse than even the Rapoports recognise. In today’s society there is no longer one single type of family that is dominant, only families (plural). While not accepting everything postmodernism says about the nature of society today, a number of sociologists have been influenced by postmodernist ideas about family life. Ulrich Beck (1992) argues that we now live in a risk society where tradition has less influence and people have more choice.

As a result, we are more aware of risks. This is because making choices involves calculating the risks and rewards of the different courses of action available. Today’s risk society contrasts with with an earlier time when roles were more fixed and people had much less choices in how they lived their lives. For example, people were expected to marry. Once married, men were expected to play the role of the breadwinner and disciplinarian and to make the important financial decisions, while women took responsibility for the housework and childcare.

However, the patriarchal family has been undermined by two trends: Greater gender equality, which has challenged male domination in all spheres of life; greater individualism, where peoples actions are influenced more by calculations of their own self interest than by a sense of obligation to others. These trends have led to a new type of family replacing the patriarchal family. Ulrch Beck and Elisabeth Beck-Gernheim (1995) call this the negotiated family. Negotiated families do not conform to the traditional family norm, but vary according to the wishes and expectations of their members, who decide what is best fro themselves by negotiation.

They enter the relationship on an equal basis. However, it is less stable as individuals are free to leave if their needs are not met. From the different contributions made by sociologists to our understanding of family diversity we can identify tow broad views- one against diversity and the other in favour of it. The first view opposes greater family diversity. It is held by Functionalists and the New Right. It is based on the belief that there is only one best or normal type of family.

This is the traditional patriarchal nuclear family, consisting of a married couple and their dependent children, with a division of labour between an instrumental breadwinner and an expressive female home-maker and housewife. It supports the nuclear family as natural โ€“ based on biological differences between men and women that suit them to their different roles. As such they see the nuclear family as best equipped to meet the needs of society and its members. By contrast other family types are seen as unnatural and dysfunctional. The second view is help by postmodernists and feminists.

It rejects the New Right view that only the nuclear family is a proper family. Instead writers take the view that whatever from the family rakes, this is a proper family. Hence family is not natural but socially constructed by its members. Postmodernists and feminists are in favour of greater diversity. They see diversity as desirable because it brings people the freedom to choose the personal relationships and ways of living that meet their needs. In particular, it enables women to liberate themselves from the oppression of the traditional patriarchal family.

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