Family Changes 1: has the family lost it's functions?

In pre-industrial and early industrial Britain the responsabilites of the family were solely concerned with preparing children to fit into adult society.

Functionalist writers such as Parsons and Dennis argue that the functions of the family in pre-industrial society no longer exist in contempory society. These functions have been transfered to more specialised institutions, Parsons calls this process structural differentiation.'Structural differentiation refers to the way new more specialized social institutions emerge to take over a range of functions that were once performed by a single institution'

Here are examples of what changes the family:-

- Ageing population

- Growth in 'singlehood'

- Loss of functions?

- Weaking of extended kinship links?

- More symmetrical?

- More child centered

- Decline of family size

- Rising divorce rates

- Growth in lone parent family

- More births outside of marriage

- Remarriage and the growth of the reconsituted family

- Decine in marriage and growth of cohabitation

Parsons then said this 'structural differentiation' gives two basic functions: The primary socialization of children and The stabilization of adult personalities. These are meant for the more specialized modern family.

Arguements against the family having lost its functions

Sociologists like Fletcher and Shorter suggest that in pre-industrial and early industrial society, poverty meant that functions such as welfare, education or recreation were not carried out. Male peasants often cared more about animals and wives therefore children were neglected. Fletcher argues that the family now has more responsablilties and he also says that the family plays and important economic role as a unit of consumption. The modern family is concerned with raising the living standards and 'keeping up' with the neighbours by buying goods targetted at family consumerism. Marxists see this pressure of buying consumer goods is a means of motivating workers in boring unfulfilling jobs. Feminist writers see the modern family as a unit of production, womens unpaid domestic labour produces a wide range of goods and services.

Family Changes 2: The decline of the classic extended family and the emergance of the privatised nuclear family

The classic extended family

The classic extended family was the type of family that existed up until the 1900's it was predominant because families didn't know how to look after children and needed the advice of the grandparents of the children as they were geographically close as they lived either in the same house or a short walk away. The classic extended family was based around the fact that the family was oriented around things such as being active in the community and being close with the neighbours. This family had the advantages of having a close family who had extended kin ties close by.

6 main reasons for the decline in the extended family and increase in the isolated nuclear family.

The need for geographical mobility. Contemporary society has a specialized division of labour with a wider range of occupations with different incomes and lifestyles. This means that the labour force needs to be more geographically mobile, being able to move around the country to areas that require their skills or to improve their education or gain promotions. This could involve leaving relatives behind, in turn weakening and possibly breaking up the traditions extended family life. The isolated nuclear family is more suited to this lifestyle as it is small in size and not responsible for their extended kin.

The higher rate of social mobility. This means that people can move up or down the social scale from the family their were born into. Different members of the extended family may find themselves in different jobs with different education, incomes, lifestyles, opportunities and values from their kin. These differences weaken relations between kin as they have less in common.

The growth in people's wealth as society has got richer and the welfare state has developed. People are much better of recently and the welfare state has taken over many of the functions of the family such as education, healthcare and welfare. This has reduced the dependance on kin for support, again weakening the extended family.

The growth in meritocracy. Contemporary societies require more skills and education for jobs than in the past. It is more what you know, not who you know. Therefore, extended kin have less to offer family members, like job opportunities, reducing the reliance of kin.

The need to avoid economic and status differences in the extended family that would cause conflict. The differences in occupation, income, lifestyle and status of extended family members who live together could lead to conflict within the family over where to live when different job opportunities arise etc. When adult children move away from the family home to establish their own independent lives, these potential problems are avoided.

The need to protect family stability by strengthening the bonds between married or cohabiting partners. Parsons argues that the lack of support from kin in the isolated nuclear family helps to cement family relationships by increasing the mutual dependancy of both partners. Wilmott and Young suggest that rising living standards have made the home a more attractive place to spend time and family life has become home-centered.


While there is evidence that the isolated nuclear family is more common than the extended family in contemporary britain, it is wrong to say that the extended family has completely disappeared. Also, families are changing rapidly and there is no longer a 'typical' family type. There is a wide diversity of family structures alongside to the isolated nuclear family.

The continued existence of the extended family: While the isolated nuclear family may be more common, the classic extended family still survives today in two types of community.

  • Traditional working-class communities. These are long-established communities dominated by on industry, like fishing and mining, in working-class industrial centers. in these communities there is little geographical or social mobility and people usually remain in the same community for several generations and this creates close-knit community life. This extended family life declined in the late 1990's as traditional industries closed down and people were forced to move away in search of new employment.
  • The asian community. The extended family is still very common among those who came to Britain in the 60's and 70's from asia.

The privatized nuclear family

The classic extended family has given way for the new, modernised privatized nuclear family.The privatized nuclear family is the new version of the family and has been updated from the classic extended. Due to a change in the times and a need to follow the job essentially, the isolated nuclear family has displayed that it can use geographic mobility and doesn't stay in one place for an extended period of time too much. The grandparents advice has been rendered useless with an increase in technology and more access to information, parents can now access the internet and other sources to find out what they would need to do during the upbringing of the child.

The privatized nuclear family is detached from community life due to the increase in geographic mobility.

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