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Sociological studies of the family look at:

  • demographic characteristics of the family members: family size, age, ethnicity, and gender of the members
  • social class of the family, the economic level and mobility of the family, the professions of its members, the education levels of the family members
  • what spheres of life are important in and to the family unit
  • the effect of social change on the family
  • the interactions of the family with other social organizations.
  • diversity of family forms in contemporary societies in relation to ideology, gender differences, and state policies such as those concerned with marriage
  • interaction between family members within the family. How they rely on one another. How they work together/rely on the work of someone in the family.

Examples of specific issues looked at include:

  • Changing roles of family members. Each member is restricted by the sex roles of the traditional family. These roles such as the father as the worker and the mother as the homemaker are declining. The mother is becoming the supplementary provider and she retains the responsibilities of child rearing. Therefore, the female role in the labor force is "compatible with the demands of the traditional family".[1] Sociology studies the adaptation of the males role to caregiver as well as provider. The gender roles are increasingly interwoven.
  • Increase in sole occupancy dwellings and smaller family sizes.
  • Average age of marriage being older.
  • Average number of children decreasing and first birth at later age.
  • The historical pattern of fertility, from baby boom to baby bust (instability).
  • The ageing population, and the trend towards greater life expectancy.
  • Rising divorce rates and people who will never marry.[1]
  • How the choices of the parents affect their children.
  • Same sex couples and marriages.
  • Children of same sex couples.


Research methods in the sociology of the family can be broken down to three major approaches, each with its own strengths and weaknesses.

One approach is survey research of contemporary families. This holds the benefit of leaving statistical data and large and hopefully random samples from which a researcher can interpolate the general traits of a society. However, survey respondents tend to answer as would feel regular or ideal rather than as things might actually be. It also gives a very one-sided explanation view of a larger group, which does not sufficiently allow for contention. The information is often outdated, not representing the true statistics of the world. The information can also be deceiving and not represent the true points that the surveys and graphs are representing.

Another method is ethnographic research of families. Where surveys allow for broad but shallow analyses, observation allows sociologists to obtain rich information on a source of a much more limited size. It allows the research an "insider" perspective, and through this closer look, a better idea of the actual social framework of families. Where surveys are strong, however, ethnographic research is weak. By reducing the size of a sample size, it may be no longer evident as to how representative the family being researched on is, to families at large within a society, and then also does not allow much room in linking the specific traits of the families being observed to a society more generally.

Finally, a researcher can use documented studies of families from the past as a source of information. These sources may include very personal items (such as diaries), legal records (census data, wills, court records), and matters of public record (such as sermons).

Sociology of interracial intimacy[edit]

The construction of race in Western society and, to a degree, globally, has led to a distinct view of interracial intimacy. Although interracial relationships and marriages have become far more popular and socially acceptable in the United States and Western Europe since the Civil Rights era, these unions continue to be viewed with less than total acceptance by significant portions of the population. More historically, American Families by Stephanie Coontz treats the difficulties these couples went through during the time before Loving v. Virginia, when interracial marriage bans were declared unconstitutional. These bans functioned to enforce the one-drop rule and reenforce identity and privilege. Internationally, the far right continues to promote ideas of racial purity by working against the normalization of interracial couples and families.

Pre-modern family life and religious discourse[edit]

Historically, religious discourses have played a significant role in constituting family members and constructing particular forms of behavior in families, and religion has been particularly important in discourses on female sexuality. An example of the role of religion in this respect was the'witchcraft craze' in Medieval Europe. According to Turner,[2] this was a device to regulate the behavior of women, and the attack on women as witches was principally 'a critique of their sexuality'. 'Women were closely associated with witchcraft, because it was argued that they were particularly susceptible to the sexual advances of the devil. ...Women were seen to be irrational, emotional and lacking in self-restraint; they were especially vulnerable to satanic temptation.'

Turner argues that attempts to regulate female sexuality through religious discourse have, in the case of Western Europe, to be understood in the context of concerns about managing private property and ensuring its continuity. Thus, for the land-owning aristocracy, the point of marriage was to produce a male heir to the property of the household. Since child mortality was common, women had to be more or less continuously pregnant during their marriage to guarantee a living male heir. Furthermore, this heir had to be legitimate, if disputes over inheritance were to be avoided. This legitimacy could only be ensured by the heads of households marrying virgins and ensuring the chastity of their wives for the duration of the marriage. Equally,daughters had to be sexually pure if they were to be eligible for marriage to other property-holding families. Such marriages were prompted solely by the need to produce children and had none of the elements of eroticism and sexual compatibility of contemporary marriages.

In pre-modern Europe, these interests were reflected in the character of marriages. They were private, arranged contracts that could be easily dissolved in the event of child production being compromised by the woman's infertility or infidelity. With the entry of the Church into marriage arrangements, different definitions of marriage emerged. Lifelong marriages were demanded,but with a concern to regulate sexuality, particularly the sexuality of women.

Sociology of marriage[edit]

In the year 2015, Judeo-Christianbelief system marriage is modeled after Adam and Eve's lifetime commitment between man and woman. The married couple produces children, constituting the nuclear family. Some sociologists now dispute the degree to which this idealized arrangement has and does reflect the true structure of families in American society. In her 1995 article The American Family and the Nostalgia Trap, sociologist Stephanie Coontz first posited that the American family has always been defined first and foremost by its economic needs. For instance, in colonial times families often relied on slaves or indentured servants to support themselves economically. The modern "breadwinner-homemaker model", argues Coontz, then has little historical basis. Only in the 1950s did the myth of the happy, nuclear family as the correct family structuration arise.[3]

"The modern family is increasingly complex and has changed profoundly, with greater acceptance for unmarried cohabitation, divorce, single-parent families, same-sex partnerships and complex extended family relations. Grandparents are also doing their bit."[4]

To paraphrase the quote, family structure is changing drastically and there is a vast variety of different family structures.

Yet Coontz argues in Marriage, A History that during the 20th century, marriages have become increasingly unstable in the United States as individuals have begun to seek unions for the ideals of love and affection rather than social or economic expediency.[5] This transition has blurred the division of labor within the breadwinner-homemaker model, such that maintenance of the household and childcare, called the "second shift", are now topics for debate between marital partners. Sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild argues in The Second Shift that despite changes in perceptions of the purpose of marriage and the economic foundations for marriage, women continue to do the bulk of care work to the detriment of the American family. Hochschild illustrates the ways in which an unequal division of the second shift undermines family welfare by reducing marital equality and spousal satisfaction.[6]

Families and marriage have increasingly become areas where gender matters. However, it is important to note that gender differences in marriage have too often been perceived as merely an "individual struggle and depoliticized by reducing social inequalities to differences".[7]:422

The marriage market: determining who marries whom[edit]

There are many theoretical models to describe how people determine who to marry. An important gender-focused approach is an intersectional approach that combines education level and gender. Men and women operate in a "marriage market" that is influenced by many competing factors. One of the most decisive factors is education level. Studies have shown that men and women tend to marry partners that have attained a level of education similar to their own. In the study by Bruze, Svarer, and Weiss, low education is defined as a high school education or less, medium education is defined as vocational education, and high education is defined as a college education (2015).[8]Marriages depend on the expectations of two people and are "formed and terminated" based on those expectations. Consequently, individuals "are selected into and out of the marriage market on the basis of their education".[8] The most distinct marital trend is that men with low education are slowly selected out of the marriage market, instead remaining single. The driving force behind this process is that a marriage in which both partners or only the husband have low education end with divorce at a substantially higher rate than marriages where both partners or the husband do not have low education. Young women with medium education levels tend to have the highest rates of marriage. Highly educated men tend to marry highly educated women. Moreover, men and women who have attained high levels of education delay marriage past the age when other individuals typically marry. This trend becomes stronger with age: the proportion of married with high educations who are married to women with similarly high educations reaches 64% when the men are 46 years old.[8]

Another important intersectional factor to consider in relation to gender and marriage is marriage markets.[9] Marriage market means how economics affects who marries, whose bonds endure and what this means for future generations of workers and parents. Analyzing marriage markets as they pertain to marriage has several benefits. First, marriage market conditions are forces that influence marriage from outside they subjects affect, which means they impact the general trends of marriage decisions.[10]:42 In other words, individual circumstances cause people to make decisions about their marriages that might be specific to their personal situation; marriage markets impact all peoples' decisions about marriage from a macro level, which means stead incomes and job make for sound marriage. In addition, Job stability benefits both employeers through greater productivity and families though more cohesion. Second, marriage market conditions may capture many economic influences.[10]:43 Empirical findings indicate that financial stability is an important requisite for marriage. In weak marriage markets (when there is high unemployment) couples who would like to get married may delay doing so due to unemployment or financial troubles. Furthermore, even couples that are already married may face doubts about the future economic status of themselves or their partners, which can create marital instability. Conversely, strong labor markets (when unemployment is low) may improve the employment situation and financial situation of either partner, which may facilitate marriage and increase economic stability.[10]:44 Thus, when marriage markets are strong and unemployment is low, marriage may be perceived as more attractive to individuals than when marriage markets and weak and unemployment is high.[11][citation needed]

Intersection of class and gender[edit]

Social class interacts with gender to impact the male-female dynamic in marriage, particularly with respect to "temporal flexibility at work and home".[12]:397 Research shows that class advantaged men and women use their class privilege and the flexibility it provides them in ways that support conventional gender roles. Conversely, men and women who do not have access to such flexibility and control of their time are pressured to weaken conventional gender expectations regarding marriage, family, and jobs. Gertsel and Clawson conducted a study in which they collected data from four groups of paid care workers, divided by class and gender (2014).[12] The two class-advantaged groups were nurses and doctors. The nurses were almost exclusively women and the doctors were almost exclusively men. This group had a number of choices about work hours and their ability to utilize family-friendly workplace policies. The two class-disadvantaged groups were female nursing assistants (CNAs) and male emergency medical technicians (EMTs). The class-disadvantaged group had fewer choices regarding their work hours and faced greater constraints in flexibility and control of their time. Women in particular need flexible work hours in order to meet the inflexible demands that marriage and a family place upon them, as traditional gender expectations stipulate that the woman be the primary caregiver.[12]:405 The results of this study demonstrate that class, intersecting with gender, influences the ability of men and women to obtain and utilize flexibility with their time.[citation needed]

Furthermore, gender shapes the particular variety of flexibility demanded. In advantaged occupations, both men and women are able to acquire the flexibility they so desire. However, they choose to use the control that this affords them in different manners. Women cut back on paid work hours and take leaves to handle domestic labor and child-care. In other words, they make job sacrifices. On the other hand, men are less likely to utilize family-friendly policies to make work sacrifices; they spend less at home and more time working. In essence, both men and women of class-advantaged occupations use the flexibility that their status provides them to "enact neotraditional gender expectations".[12]:424

Class-disadvantaged men and women do not have the same temporal flexibility that allows them to make decisions on how to allocate their time. They face stricter constraints on their work hours and policies, thus making it impossible for them to choose whether to spend more time at work or more time at home. For example, even if a class-disadvantaged woman wanted to spend less time at work and more time with her children or in the home, she might not be able due to the inability to get time off from work or take a leave of absence.[12]

Thus, class-disadvantage makes it more difficult for both men and women to adhere to traditional gender expectations. The researchers showed that class advantage is used to "do gender" in traditional ways, while class disadvantage may lead to a violation of traditional gender expectations in a way that "undoes gender".[12]:431

Gender and work-family balance in marriage[edit]

Research indicates that three principal factors predict how well men and women perceive their work-life balance in marriage: job characteristics, family characteristics, and spillover between work and family.[13]:2 Job characteristics determine workers' freedom to balance multiple demands and obligations in their marriage. As demonstrated by Gertsel and Clawson, higher-level occupations are generally more accommodating to family life than are lower level occupations (2014).[12] Furthermore, the number of hours worked and the work spillover into family life are the most telling predictors of perceived imbalance in marriage. Keene and Quadagno found a greater likelihood of perceived imbalance when work duties caused men or women to miss a family event or make it difficult to maintain their home (2004).[13]

Additional research by Keene and Quadagno suggests that the gender expectations that men should prioritize their work lives and women should prioritize their marriage and home life no longer exist.[13] However, there persists an unequal division of labor in the home between men and women. One theoretical approach to explain this concept is the "gender similarity" approach, which "predicts that the convergence in men's and women's work and family demands should lead to a convergence in attitudes toward work and family responsibilities and feelings of work-family balance".[13]:4 In contrast, the "gender differences" approach stipulates that "normative differences between men and women remain, with the family still primarily defined as women's sphere and paid work as men's domain".[13]:4 There is empirical evidence in support of both theories. Some research supports the convergence of men's and women's work experiences: both men and women make adjustments in their marriage and personal lives to meet their employer's expectations, while also making adjustments at work to maintain their marital and family obligations. However, the analysis from the abovementioned study supports the gender differences model. Gender differences exist in the division of household labor and chores, with men working more hours and women spending more time on domestic and child-care responsibilities.[13] Further research is necessary in this area to draw more definitive conclusions.[citation needed]



The divorce rate in western countries has generally increased over time. Divorce rates have however started to decrease over the last twenty years. In the USA, divorce rate changed from l.2 per 1000 marriages in 1860 to 3.0, 4.0 and 7.7 in 1890, 1900, 1920 then to, 5.3, 4.7, 4.1 and 3.7 per 1000 marriages in 1979, 1990, 2000 and 2004 respectively.[14] People are less inclined to stay in unhappy relationships to keep the family unit intact and the maintain consistency in their children's lives, the way previous generations did. As couples choose to leave their spouses in the hope of bettering the quality of their lives; children are being raised in a complex mélange of step-parents, step-siblings, half siblings, and binuclear families.[citation needed]

Divorce rates in Canada and the United States fluctuated in a similar pattern, though the United States still has the highest divorce rate in the world (50% higher than Canada's).[15] Many of today's marriages end up in divorce, for many different reasons. The following are some of the most common causes:[citation needed]

  1. Individualism: In today's society, families spend more time apart than they do together. Some individuals in a family focus more on personal happiness and earning income to support their family that it consumes the time actual spent with their family.
  2. Feelings are no longer mutual: Many people end marriages because they are no longer satisfied by sexual needs or merely because they have lost feelings for one another. This often happens when one partner finds a more exciting relationship and chooses to move forward with that new relationship. In some cases, a partner may even commit adultery which also may result in a divorce as a partner discovers their partner being unfaithful to them.
  3. Women have become more independent: Now that women have equal rights and have proven over time that they have the potential and ability to support themselves, women find it much easier to leave unhappy marriages. They are also more work focused, thus giving them less time to cope with their relationship.
  4. Stress: Stress is a big factor in marriages. Working to support a family, while trying to stabilize finances is a big factor of stress. Also, with both partners working (in most cases), leaves less "family time" which makes raising children difficult. This often happens in the stage where couples are raising young children.
  5. Socially acceptable: In today's generation, divorce is now more socially acceptable. Now, instead of discouraging a divorce in an unsatisfying relationship, it is more widely accepted and sometimes even encouraged. Not only is it now more acceptable, but it is also easier to get a divorce legally than it was in previous years according to the Divorce Act of 1968.

Parents: Falling out of love[edit]

Many scholars have attempted to explain why humans enter relationships, stay in relationships and end relationships. Levinger's (1965, 1976) theory on divorce is based on a theoretical tradition consisting of three basic components: attractions, barriers and alternatives.[16] Attraction in this theory is proportional to the rewards one gets from the relationship minus the cost of the relationship. All the things that can be seen as gains from the relationship such as love, sex, companionship, emotional support and daily assistance are the rewards of the relationship. The costs would the negative aspects of the relationship such as domestic violence, infidelity, quarrels and limitations on personal freedom. Generally people tend to stay in high rewards and low cost relationships. However, the reverse situation, that is, a costly marriage with few benefits does not automatically lead to divorce. Couples must overcome barriers such as religious beliefs, social stigma, and financial dependence or law restrictions before they successfully dissolve their marriage. A costly marriage is also not the only reason why a couple may decide to divorce. The possibility of an alternative situation, where a spouse would get better rewards with another partner or alone may also lead to divorce.[citation needed]

Another theory to explain why relationships end is the "Mate ejection theory", by Brian Boutwell, J.C. Barnes and K.M Beaver.[17] The Mate ejection theory looks at the dissolution of marriage from an evolutionary point of view, where all species seek to successfully reproduce. According to this theory there are gender differences in the process of ejection. For example, a woman will be more upset when her husband emotionally cheats on her and a man will be more upset when his wife physically cheats on him. The reason for this stems from evolutionary roots, a man emotionally cheating on his wife equates to a loss or reduction in resources for the wife to raise the children whereas an act of physical infidelity by the wife threatens the husband's chance to pass on his genes to the next generation via reproduction. Both these circumstances call for mate ejection. "Ancestral conditions that favored the dissolution of a mateship constituted a recurrent adaptive problem over human evolutionary history and thus imposed selection pressures for the evolution of strategic solutions." Put differently, the capability of emancipating themselves from certain relationships could have conferred a fitness benefit for ancestral humans.[18]

Effect of Divorce on Children[edit]

Three longitudinal studies on divorce: The Marin County Project (the clinical study of 60 families that began in 1971), The Virginia County Study (a series of longitudinal studies on marriage, divorce and remarriage) and The Binuclear Family Studies of 98 families have helped expand the literature on divorce. The Binuclear study was based on the findings from the Marin County Project and Virginia County Study.[19] This research has been used to understand the implications of divorce on children later on in life.[citation needed]

Judith Wallerstein, an influential psychologist's research on the effect of divorce(based on the Marin County Project), on children suggests that, "children with divorced parents often reach adulthood as psychologically troubled individuals who find it difficult to maintain satisfying relationships with others". A lot of quantitative research done by other scholars agrees with Wallerstein's conclusion. It has been shown that the children with divorced parents have an increased risk of: experiencing psychological problems, having troubled marriages, divorcing and having poor relationships with parents especially the father. Wallerstein, however, has a disputed 'extreme version' of her theory where she claims that the difference between the children with divorced and continuously married parents is dramatic and pervasive. Wallerstein's critics point out that Wallerstein's research results were compromised because she did not follow the rules for scientific research while compiling her data. Her sample was not random and she used case studies to support her theories instead looking at the data holistically. In addition, Wallerstein did not have a control group in her experiment.[citation needed]

One such opponent of Wallerstein's extreme theory is Mavis Hetherington who argues that the negative effects of divorce on children have been exaggerated and that most children grow up without long-term harm. Hetherington's data showed that 25% of children with divorced parents reach adulthood with a serious social, emotional or psychological problem, compared to 10% of children with continuously married parents. 75% of the children grow up to be well-functioning adults.[citation needed]

Twenty years after the 98 families from the binuclear study were interviewed; the offspring from these families were interviewed. Eighty-five percent of the offspring were interviewed and out of those, 23% had completed postgraduate training, 33% had completed college, 31% had completed post-secondary training, 10% had received their high school diplomas and the majority (85%) of the interviewed children were employed.[20]

Sociology of motherhood[edit]

Contemporary theories surrounding motherhood[edit]

Mothering is the social practice of nurturing and caring for dependent children. It is a dynamic process of social interactions and relationships. Mothering is typically associated with women since it is typically women who mother their children. However, "not all women mother, and mothering as nurturing and caring work is not inevitable the exclusive domain of women".[21] Mothering as a female role is a social construction that is highly influenced by gender belief systems. The roles associated with motherhood are variable across time and culture.[21]

Universalist approach[edit]

The universalist approach to motherhood is aimed at conceptualizing the work that mothers do. This approach identifies mothers through what they do, rather than how they feel. Mothers share a set of activities known as "maternal practice", that are universal, even though they vary as individuals and across cultures. These activities include nurturing, protecting, and training their children. An individual's mothering actions are shaped by their beliefs about family, individuality, the nature of childhood, and the nature of their child. These are also often shaped by their own childhood and past experiences with children. The dynamic interactions between the mother and child create deep and meaningful connections.[21]

Particularistic approach[edit]

The particularistic approach to mothering suggests that the role of a mother, their activities, and understandings cannot be separated from the context in which they live. According to this theory, mothering takes place within specific historical contexts framed by interlocking structures of race, class, and gender'[22] Furthermore, a mother's strategies and meanings that she develops are influenced by different social locations, such as the intersections of regional and local political economy with class, ethnicity, culture, and sexual preference.[21]

Conventional notions of motherhood[edit]

Motherhood ideology is influenced by the idealization of the family structure and perpetuates the image of a white, middle-class heterosexual couple with children.[23] Some sociologists refer to this as the "bourgeois family", which arose out of typical 16th- and 17th-century European households and is often considered the "traditional Western" structure. In this family model the father acts as the economic support and sometimes disciplinarian of the family, while the mother or other female relative oversees most of the childrearing. This structure is reflected, for example, in societies which legislate "maternity leave" but do not have corresponding "paternity leave".[citation needed]

In East Asian and Western traditional families, fathers were the heads of the families, which meant that his duties included providing financial support and making critical decisions, some of which must have been obeyed without question by the rest of the family members. "Some Asian American men are brought up under stringent gender role expectations such as a focus on group harmony and filial piety, carrying on their family name and conforming to the expectations of the parents."[24]

Families are often influenced by the media portrayal of the way women should run their families. In the book Media and Middle-Class Moms by Lara Descartes, women are often influenced by the social norms, and it is often the reason as to why they believe staying home or working is the right thing to do while having a family.[citation needed] See Ideology of Motherhood.

In many cultures, especially in a traditional western one, a mother is usually the wife in a married couple. Her role in the family is celebrated on Mother's Day. Anna Reeves Jarvis was a woman who originally organized Mother's Work Day's protesting the lack of cleanliness and sanitation in the work place.[25][26] Jarvis died in 1905 and her daughter created a National Mother's Day to honor her mother.[25] Mothers frequently have a very important role in raising offspring and the title can be given to a non-biological mother that fills this role. This is common in stepmothers (female married to biological father). In most family structures the mother is both a biological parent and a primary caregiver.[citation needed]

Intensive mothering and the motherhood mandate[edit]

Many social scientists argue that one of the central gender norms for adult females is the desire to become a mother. This gender role is manifested in a "motherhood mandate", which refers to the indoctrination of females to aspire to have children and raise them well.[27] Furthermore, this mandate involves the prevailing ideology of intensive mothering. In this ideology, a mother is depicted as being completely devoted to the care of her children, while sacrificing her own needs and interests. This type of mothering is "exclusive, wholly child centered, emotionally involving, and time-consuming".[21] Intensive mothering ideology paints a picture of a mother positioned within a biological nuclear family absorbed in nurturing activities. It remains the normative standard, culturally and politically, by which mothering practices and arrangements are evaluated.[21]

This mandate is instilled in females at a young age. For instance females in the United States typically play with dolls, which socializes them into future roles as mothers by teaching them to care for others. Motherhood has traditionally mandated that in order to be a good mother, women must stay at home to raise their children.[27]

Deviancy discourses[edit]

There are many cultural contradictions and diverse arrangements and practices that challenge the intensive mothering ideology. However, they are considered deviant discourses since they do not conform to the script of full-time motherhood in the context of marriage. These include single mothers, welfare mothers, minority mothers, immigrant mothers, and lesbian mothers. These types of motherhood categories are not mutually exclusive.[21] Furthermore, women who cannot or choose not to be mothers deal with many internal and external pressures.[27]

Motherhood Statistics[edit]

In the United States, 82.5 million women are mothers of all ages, while the national average age of first child births is 25.1 years. In 2008, 10% of births were to teenage girls, and 14% were to women ages 35 and older.[28] In the United States, a study found that the average woman spends 5 years working and building a career before having children, and mothers working non-salary jobs began having children at age 27, compared to mothers with salary positions, who became pregnant at age 31.[29] The study shows that the difference in age of child birth is related to education, since the longer a woman has been in school, the older she will be when she enters the workforce.[29] Other factors determining age of first child birth include infertility rates, when women meet their partners, and the age of marriage.[citation needed]

Sociology of fatherhood[edit]

According to anthropologist Maurice Godelier, a critical novelty in human society, compared to humans' closest biological relatives (chimpanzees and bonobos), is the parental role assumed by the males, which were unaware of their "father" connection.[30][31]

In many cultures, especially traditional western, a father is usually the husband in a married couple. Many times fathers have a very important role in raising offspring and the title can be given to a non-biological father that fills this role. This is common in stepfathers (males married to biological mothers). In East Asian and Western traditional families, fathers are the heads of the families, which means that their duties include providing financial support and making critical decisions, some of which must be obeyed without question by the rest of the family members.[citation needed]

As with cultural concepts of family, the specifics of a father's role vary according to cultural folkways. In what some sociologists term the "bourgeois family", which arose out of typical 16th- and 17th-century European households and is considered by some[who?] the "traditional Western" structure, the father's role has been somewhat limited. In this family model the father acts as the economic support and sometimes disciplinarian of the family, while the mother or other female relative oversees most of the childrearing. This structure is enforced, for example, in societies which legislate "maternity leave" but do not have a corresponding "paternity leave".[citation needed]

However, this limited role has increasingly been called into question. Since the 1950s, social scientists as well as feminists have increasingly criticized gendered arrangements of work and care, and the male breadwinner role, and policies are increasingly targeting men as fathers, as a tool of changing gender relations.[32]

Science of parenting[edit]

Described as 'the science of male parenting', the study of 'father craft' emerged principally in Britain and the United States (but also throughout Europe) in the 1920s. "Male adjuncts to Maternity and Infant Welfare Centers – reacted to the maternal dominance in infant welfare and parenting in interwar Britain by arguing that fathers should play a crucial role in the upbringing of children."[33] Were such a study to be conducted into the science of female parenting, it would be called mother craft.[citation needed]

The words 'ma ma' and 'mom', usually regarded as terms of endearment directed towards a mother figure, are generally one of the first words a child speaks. While 'da da' or 'dad' often precede it, this does not reflect a stronger bond between the father and child than that of the mother and child, it is merely simpler to pronounce than 'mummy' or 'mum' which require greater control over the mouth muscles.[citation needed] Children tend to remember 'daddy' more because, according to research, they are more exciting to the child.[34]

Contemporary theories[edit]

A number of studies have been given to the American public to determine how men view and define fatherhood. Specifically, studies have focused on why men choose to become fathers and the relationship between fatherhood and contemporary masculinity. Not surprisingly, recent research on fatherhood is framed by identity theory and has focused on the salience, centrality, and importance of the father identity in men's lives, especially as it may be linked to men's involvement with their children. According to identity theory, the more salient and central the identity, the more likely individuals are to engage in behaviors associated with it. Salience refers to the readiness to act out an identity in a particular situation. Centrality refers to the importance of an identity in relation to other identities. The centrality of the father identity is usually held at a higher level (as opposed to brother, husband, etc.) due to the gendered expectation that men must be "good" fathers. Men who view their role as a father central and crucial to who they are as a person are more likely to engage with their children and strive to participate in responsible fatherhood. Men who fail to successfully become fathers or are unable to have children view the lack of fatherhood as a threat to their masculinity. As a result, the threat to masculinity serves as a driving force for men to possibly become fathers because they never want to be seen as infertile or effeminate.[35]

Men who do not choose fatherhood[edit]

Studies on men who choose not to be fathers often focus on how the role of fatherhood is crucial to masculinity and a man's central identity. Many men blame economic difficulties, cultural differences, and life situations as potential factors that deter them from fatherhood.[35]

Economic difficulties, see economic problem, serve as a primary explanation for men to avoid fatherhood. For men, it is difficult to separate occupational success from fatherhood because financially providing for one's family has been central to the identity of being a father in the United States. As a result, a complex relationship is formed between economic struggles and the importance of fatherhood. Men who are not employed or have low earnings often feel as if they have failed as both fathers and men. On the other hand, men who have a low socioeconomic status find fatherhood very appealing because it gives them a measure of accomplishment denied to them by the occupational world.[citation needed]

In terms of the cultural importance of fatherhood, white men and men of color have differing views on fatherhood that can affect how many of these men participate in fatherhood.[36]

Lastly, some men blame life situations as the primary factor for their decision not to pursue fatherhood. Life situations are defined as an individual's relationship status (single or married) and their age. Studies have shown that men who are older and married tend to be more likely to pursue fatherhood. It has been proposed that men continue to view marriage, work and fatherhood as a "package deal"[37] meaning that lacking one of these components, like work or marriage, may result in the decision not to have children.

It has also been proposed that married men feel as if they are expected to pursue fatherhood as a part of their marriage though they personally may not want to have children. On the other hand, men who are single and younger do not feel the same desire because they are not "prepared" to emotionally and financially support a child.[citation needed]

Alternate family forms[edit]

The number of married couples raising children has decreased over the years. In Canada, married and common law couples with children under the age of 25 represented 44% of all families in 2001.[15] This statistic has lowered since 1991, when married and common law couples raising children under the age of 25 represented 49 percent of all Canadian families.[15] There are various family forms which are becoming increasingly popular in society.[citation needed]

One-parent families[edit]

In Canada, one parent families have become popular since 1961 when only 8.4 percent of children were being raised by a single parent.[15] In 2001, 15.6 percent of children were being raised by a single parent.[15] The number of single parent families continue to rise, while it is four times more likely that the mother is the parent raising the child. The high percentage of mothers becoming the sole parent is sometimes due to the result of a divorce, unplanned pregnancy or the inability to find a befitting partner. Children who are raised by a single parent are commonly at a disadvantage due to the characteristics of parenting. A mother and father both make significant contributions to the development of a child, therefore one parent's ability to raise a child on her or his own may be hindered.[citation needed]


A residence containing an unmarried couple is called cohabitation. This type of family style is becoming increasingly accepted in Canada and has increased from 8% in 1981 to 16.4% in 2001.[15] In Sweden and Nordic communities, this family form is quite common, with or without the inclusion of children. However, in various Catholic regions such as Italy, this is uncommon due to the religious aspects (See Catholic marriage).[citation needed]

Gay and lesbian couples[edit]

Gay and Lesbian couples are categorized as same sex relationships. In 1989, Denmark was the first nation to allow same sex couples to get married and to provide equal rights to all citizens.[15] After this many nations began to allow same sex marriages to occur such as Canada and Spain (2005).[15] All 50 states in the United States have changed their law to allow same sex marriages (2015).

Child-rearing by same-sex couples[edit]

Children of same-sex couples either come from past relationships or through other opportunities like adoption or artificial insemination.[citation needed] From the data collected in the 2000 U.S. Census, it was suggested that more than 250,000 children in the United States were being raised by lesbian and gay couples.[citation needed] In the 2010 U.S. Census, it was reported that 20% of lesbian and gay couple or partnership households are raising children (115,064 out of 594,000 same-sex households). The trend of child-rearing amongst gay and lesbian couples or partnerships is on the rise. Also, the support from the general public for gay and lesbian couples or partnerships to raising children is at its all-time high since the 1990s.[citation needed] In 1994, the idea of homosexual partnerships parenting children evenly divided Americans for support. When Americans were asked, "Do you think homosexual couples should or should not have the legal right to adopt a child", 28% of Americans said they should, and 65% said they shouldn't.[citation needed] In 2003, the idea of homosexual partnerships parenting children evenly divided Americans for support. When Americans were asked the same question about the right of homosexual partnerships to raise children through adoption, 49% of Americans said they should, and 48% said they shouldn't. In 2014, Americans were asked a very similar question. The results were almost more polarizing than the results found in 1994. Twenty years later, 63% of Americans said lesbian and gay couples or partnerships, and 35% said they shouldn't.[citation needed]

There are no federal laws prohibiting the adoption of a child by a homosexual couple or partnership.[citation needed] But there are some states, one being Florida, that depend on the opinions of the county judge in charge of the case, and county judges base their decisions on "the best interest of the child", in regards to child adoption by same-sex couple.[citation needed] The "best interest of the child" seems to be the driving force behind the push back and reasoning for the remaining lack of support for homosexual couples or partnerships adopting or raising children. The central argument in the debate for legal rights, policies and overall support is related to the idea of same-sex couples raising children is the well-being of children raised in those families. There are concerns like about the mental, emotional and even the social development of children who are raised in same sex couple or partnership households. There has been a plethora of research conducted that provides insight into a range of issues, including the personal development, gender development, peer relationships, and family relationships of children with same-sex parents.[citation needed]

Research suggests that sexual identities (including gender identity, gender-role behavior, and sexual orientation) develop in much the same ways among children of lesbian mothers as they do among children of heterosexual parents.[citation needed] Evidence also suggests that children of lesbian and gay parents have normal social relationships with peers and adults.[citation needed] There have also been studies of other aspects of personal development (including personality, self-concept, and conduct) that similarly reveal few differences between children of lesbian mothers and children of heterosexual parents.[citation needed] These differences are not significant but are noticeable. For example, there was a study that examined and compared particular behaviors and ideas/belief performed by sons and daughters of lesbian mothers. Studies found that 53% of the daughters of lesbian mothers aspired to pursue careers as physicians, attorneys, and engineers compared with only 21% of the daughters of heterosexual mothers.[citation needed] The sons of lesbian mothers also tended to be less aggressive and more nurturing than the sons of heterosexual mothers.[citation needed] The general concern about homosexual couples or partnerships parenting children doesn't have any grounds for their argument, "children who grow up with one or two gay and/or lesbian parents fare as well in emotional, cognitive, social, and sexual functioning as do children whose parents are heterosexual. Children's optimal development seems to be influenced more by the nature of the relationships and interactions within the family unit than by the particular structural form it takes."[citation needed]

Chosen or fictive kin[edit]

Main article: fictive kin

Others who are not related by blood or marriage are variously called fictive kin, chosen kin, or voluntary kin.[38]

Sociology of childhood[edit]

The values learned during childhood are important in the development and socialization of children. The family is considered to be the agency of primary socialisation and the first focal socialisation agency.[citation needed]


In the last two or three decades, the sociology of childhood has gained increasing attention and triggered numerous empirical studies as well as intensive theoretical disputes, starting in the Scandinavian and the English-speaking countries. Up to this time, sociology had approached children and childhood mainly from a socialization perspective, and the emergence of the new childhood sociological paradigm ran parallel to the feminist critique of sociological traditions. Childhood sociologists attacked the "adultocentric" approach and the "separative view" of sociology towards children. Not surprisingly, then, the key works in the sociology of childhood are quite interdisciplinary, linking history, cultural studies, ethnomethodology, and pedagogy. Key texts include James and Prout's Constructing and Reconstructing Childhood (1990/1997), James, Jenks and Prout Theorizing Childhood (1998)and Prout's The Future of Childhood (2005). On methodological issues in research with children see Research with Children, edited by Christensen and James (2008).

Recent trends[edit]

The current Sociology of childhood is organized around three central discussions:

The child as a social actor: This approach derives from youth sociology as well as ethnography. Focusing on everyday life and the ways children orient themselves in society, it engages with the cultural performances and the social worlds they construct and take part in. Theory and research methodology approach children as active participants and members of society right from the beginning.[39][40][41][42][43] Thus they are neither analyzed as outsiders to society nor as merely 'emergent' members of society. Therefore, the sociology of childhood distinguishes itself from the established concepts of socialisation[44] research and developmental psychology of the last decades.

The generational order: The second approach centers on socio-structural and socio-theoretical questions concerning social equality and social order in a society, which categorizes their members by age and segregates them in many respects (rights, deeds, economical participation, ascribed needs etc.). These issues can be summarized under the overall concept of the generational order.[45] Thus the categorization of societal members by age is far from being an innocent representation of natural distinctions, but rather a social construction of such a "natural truth". It is, therefore, a relevant component of social order and deeply connected to other dimensions of social inequality. Social and economic changes and socio-political interventions thus become central topics in childhood sociology. The analysis of these issues has increased awareness of the generational inequality of societies.

The Hybridity of Childhood

Father with his two daughters in relationship

Previous (Nubia)

Next (Nuclear fission)

The term nuclear family refers to the family group consisting of parents and children, as opposed to the extended family which includes all those with kinship ties. Throughout history, families have been central to human society, the basic social unit for the expression of love between man and woman and the creation and raising of children. Although the twentieth century saw the decline in strength and numbers of the nuclear family, it has also been noted that there was never an age in history when the ideal family existed. As we move forward into an age in which barriers are broken down and we come to live together as one human family, the essential nature of individual families is key to harmonious human societies. The three-generational family, including grandparents in addition to parents and children, provides the greatest support for the raising of children and continuation of the lineage.


The term nuclear family was developed in the western world to distinguish the family group consisting of parents and their children, from what is known as an extended family. According to Merriam-Webster, the term dates back to 1947 and is therefore relatively new, although nuclear family structures themselves are not.[1][2]

Margaret Mead, based on her anthropological research, affirmed the centrality of the nuclear family in human society:

As far back as our knowledge takes us, human beings have lived in families. We know of no period where this was not so. We know of no people who have succeeded for long in dissolving the family or displacing it ... Again and again, in spite of proposals for change and actual experiments, human societies have reaffirmed their dependence on the family as the basic unit of human living—the family of father, mother and children.[3]

In its most common usage, the term "nuclear family" refers to a household consisting of a father, a mother and their children (siblings).[4]George Peter Murdock has also described the term in this way:

The family is a social group characterized by common residence, economic cooperation and reproduction. It contains adults of both sexes, at least two of whom maintain a socially approved sexual relationship, and one or more children, own or adopted, of the sexually cohabiting adults.[5]

Extended family and nuclear family

Main article: Extended family

Around the world, the structures of family norms are different. Ideas of what constitute a family changes based on culture, mobility, wealth, and tradition. Yet, as James Q. Wilson has stated:

In virtually every society in which historians or anthropologists have inquired, one finds people living together on the basis of kinship ties and having responsibility for raising children. The kinship ties invariably imply restrictions on who has sexual access to whom; the child-care responsibilities invariably imply both economic and non-economic obligations. And in virtually every society, the family is defined by marriage; that is, by a publicly announced contract that makes legitimate the sexual union of a man and a woman.[6]

In many cultures, the need to be self-supporting is hard to meet, particularly where rents/property values are very high, and the foundation of a new household can be an obstacle to nuclear family formation. In these cases, extended family forms. People remain single and live with their parents for a longer period of time. Generally, the trend to shift from extended to nuclear family structures has been supported by increasing mobility and modernization.

Some have argued that the extended family, or at least the three-generational family including grandparents, provides a broader and deeper foundation for raising children as well as support for the new parents. In particular, the role of grandparents has been recognized as an important aspect of the family dynamic. Having experienced the challenges of creating a family themselves, they offer wisdom and encouragement to the young parents and become a reassuring presence in the lives of their grandchildren. Abraham Maslow described the love of grandparents as "the purest love for the being of the other." [7] The benefits of these intergenerational encounters are substantial for all involved.

Contemporary perception

Contemporary society generally views the family as a haven from the world, supplying absolute fulfillment, and encouraging “intimacy, love and trust where individuals may escape the competition of dehumanizing forces in modern society.”[8] The family is often referred to as a haven providing love and protection from the rough and tumble industrialized world, and as a place where warmth, tenderness and understanding can be expected from a loving mother and protection from the world can be expected from the father. It is important to note that the cohesiveness of the family is contingent upon the relationship of all its members, particularly the father and mother. They establish the bonds each member has to each other, strengthening the nuclear family.

However, the idea of protection is declining as civil society faces less internal conflict combined with increased civil rights and protection from the state. To many, the ideal of personal or family fulfillment has replaced protection as the major role of the family. The family now supplies what is “vitally needed but missing from other social arrangements.”Cite error: Closing </ref> missing for <ref> tag

Social conservatives often express concern over a purported decay of the family and see this as a sign of the crumbling of contemporary society. They feel that the family structures of the past were superior to those today and believe that families were more stable and happier at a time when they did not have to contend with problems such as illegitimate children and divorce. Others refute this theory, claiming “there is no golden age of the family gleaming at us in the far back historical past.”Cite error: Closing </ref> missing for <ref> tag

The number of single parent families in society is challenging the idea of the nuclear family. Divorce has given rise to different living arrangements for parents and children. These post-nuclear families have been described as “broken because the marriage bond has been broken.”[9] Single parent families also form as a result of the death of a spouse in the family. This changes the family dynamic, shifting responsibilities to the remaining spouse and new obligations for the children.

In the United States, however, the nuclear family remains more prominent—73 percent of all households in the 2000 United States Census—than any other alternative.[10]


A strong nuclear family in these modern times presents each member with peers that they are able to confide in, and a social support network they are able to rely on in times of stress. The rise of single parent households present certain dangers of spending too much time in the work area, away from their children. A strong nuclear family allows everyone to take care of each other.

The nuclear family is important in the development of children. Early morals and ethics are instilled in children at an early age from those closest to them, which begins with their family. A strong, supportive nuclear family is beneficial to the mental and emotional health of children.

The extended family augments the nuclear family in many cultures. They remain an important part of the nuclear family dynamic. They provide support and care to each nuclear family member while not necessarily adopting a position as part of the central nuclear family. In particular, grandparents offer a unique form of support to the family, both to the parents and to the children.

When a newly married couple moves far away from their parents, establishing their own nuclear family, isolation from their extended family may prove stressful. Families in which three generations interact in close harmony provide the greatest support for successfully raising children. Such children are then ready to relate to people of all ages in society, and are substantially connected to traditions and beliefs of their lineage.


  1. ↑ Greif, Avner. 2005. "Family Structure, Institutions, and Growth: The Origin and Implications of Western Corporatism." Access date: Dec. 15, 2006.
  2. ↑ Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance. 2006. "Types of marriages in the Bible, and today." Access date: Dec. 15, 2006.
  3. ↑ Mead, Margaret and Ken Heyman. 1965. Family. New York: Macmillan. pp. 77-78.
  4. ↑ Merriam-Webster Online. "Definition of nuclear family"
  5. ↑ Murdock, George Peter. 1949. Social Structure. New edition, 1965. New York: Free Press. ISBN 0029222907
  6. ↑ Wilson, James Q. 1993. The Moral Sense. Reprint edition, 1997. New York: Free Press. ISBN 0684833328. p. 158.
  7. ↑ Maslow, Abraham. 1954. Motivation and Personality. Third edition, 1987. New York: HarperCollins Publishers. ISBN 0060419873. p. 183.
  8. ↑ Zinn, Maxine B. and D. Stanley Eitzen. 1987. Diversity in American Families. Fourth edition, 1996. Tuscon, AZ: Good Year Books. ISBN 067399080X
  9. ↑ Whitehead, Barbara Dafoe. 1996. The Divorce Culture. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. ISBN 0679432302
  10. ↑ Blankenhorn, David. 2002. "The Reappearing Nuclear Family." Access date: Dec. 15, 2006.


  • Maslow, Abraham. Motivation and Personality. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1987. ISBN 0060419873
  • Mead, Margaret and Ken Heyman. Family. New York: Macmillan, 1965.
  • Murdock, George Peter. Social Structure. New York: Free Press, 1965. ISBN 0029222907
  • Whitehead, Barbara Dafoe. The Divorce Culture. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1996. ISBN 0679432302
  • Wilson, James Q. The Moral Sense. New York: Free Press, 1997. ISBN 0684833328
  • Zinn, Maxine B. and D. Stanley Eitzen. Diversity in American Families. Tuscon, AZ: Good Year Books, 1996. ISBN 067399080X

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Noatak Family Group by Edward S. Curtis, 1930


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