Family: Perspectives

Household and/ or Family?

A household is any single person or group of people who make up the people at a common residence and who share facilities or have a meal a day in that place. They may or may not be a family. They allow a label for when there is no family resident.
  1. Draw up a list of examples of people who live in households but do not constitute a family, either because there are too few people or because they are unrelated.
It is important to realise that some people live in destitution, without a home, living on the streets and in poverty, moving from shelter to shelter. They often seek an address in order to improve chances of getting work. They may need help from social services and other agencies.
There are four main types of family:
Nuclear family This is limited to two generations of a mother, father and child or chidren. It is what people often imagine a family to be, but it is often not the reality.
Extended family This is where generations are added on to the nuclear family. It can be extended horizontally to brothers and sisters or cousins. It can be extended vertically to include a grandparent or more, with three or even four generations.
Lone parent family Here there is one parent only and his or her children.
Reconstituted family Here we have social parents (raising the children) who may not be the biological parents for all or some of the children. There are a high number of reconstituted families due to separations, divorces and adoptions of children.
  1. There are other terms too. One is the cereal packet family. What that might be?
  2. Think of a relative of your family in one household and, without using real names, construct a basic family tree of the household. This needs terms of labelling like adopted son, adopted daughter, social mother, social father, and will include any vertical or horizontal extensions.
  3. Now do the same task as above for another relative in a different household, where there is a different family tree.

What do families do?

Families carry out important roles of providing physical (actual), emotional and economic support.
  1. Discuss what support people need in terms of their basic physical needs, emotions and economic supports.
  2. Describe ways that a family can assist these basic physical needs, emotions and economic supports?
According to functionalists, the family plays a very important positive role in raising the next generation.
  • Families reproduce and raise the next generation. Not only do they carry out this rather obvious point, but they show how to do it. They pass on and display a model of rearing children, through (often) a monogamous sexual relationship and techniques of child rearing. This model is passed on to the next generation and is seen as the way to do child rearing by others in society.
  • Families nurture children into the values and norms of society. They transmit the culture of society and how to conform. It is said that family is the essential bedrock of society: if families are in harmony then society will be in harmony. This is called primary socialisation because it is a crucial, early and continuing part of socialisation for the child.
  • Families give emotional and psychological support. They are safe places (when they work properly). One expects comfort, sympathy and support from other family members regarding the stresses of going to school, college and work, and through all the difficulties of ill health and life crises.
  • Families offer structures of economic support. This can be physical support, such as shelter and food, but also allows for economic development, such as families offering each other work or money for businesses, as well as support for when times are hard.

  1. nurture children into the values and norms of society.
  2. can offer emotional and psychological support.

New Right and the Family

Whilst the functionalists stress the positive roles the family plays in society, and may well stress the nuclear family as preferred, the New Right definitely stresses the nuclear family.
For them, two parents of each sex in a monogamous married relationship with their biological children is the ideal. They take the functionalist argument that bit further, because for them it is this particular form of family structure that will produce stable adults from their children, and so public policy should support the nuclear family (with taxation benefits for marriage, for example) and aim to reduce abortion, single parenting (especially families without fathers), and reducing the need for women to go out to work when there is a child to nurture.
They promote what are called family values. Jewson (1994) identified some core family values.
  • The nuclear family of two married parents and biological children is the normal family.
  • The woman cares and nurtures while the man brings in economic earnings.
  • The family should look after one another in times of ill health, old age and lack of work.
  • Public policy should favour this family type and oppose other types like lesbian and gay families, sexual freedoms, sex education that ignores the family setting, and abortion.
  1. In small groups imagine you are a New Right orientated cabinet in power. What policies might you imaginatively introduce to give support to the nuclear family and restrict other forms of family?
  2. Should married couples stay together for the benefit of the children when they might be considering separation or divorce? Give reasons for the answer.

Working Class Families and History

It is a myth that before the industrial revolution people commonly lived in large extended families. The myth is partly because the sociologist Talcott Parsons states that families became nuclear to fit in with the needs of industry (Parsons focuses on the American middle class - and this difference matters). A figure around ten per cent is a rough guide for extended families in the pre-industrial period, not dissimilar from today.
Wealthier households did, however, take pity on the poor and adopt or employ the poor children who lived in with them. These children were turned into domestic labour. Whilst the burden of economic support was lifted from the poorer families, the children did have to earn their keep in the home, or perhaps in the wealthier family's business. It should be noted, however, that some families were very large.
One reason that the extended family was often not more prevalent than now was because of a lower life expectancy. Therefore there were not as many grandparents as there are today.
In fact from 1850, as industrialisation gathered pace, people did form many extended families and there were more then (nearly one quarter) than there are today. This was a means of running the family with the very long working hours in factories. People were living longer, and grandparents did find themselves either looking after the young members of the family or being looked after by younger members of the family. Urban working class families became extended families or smaller families with relatives close by. Families became quite complex due to the concentration in some areas of a number of intermarrying families. There were many brothers and sisters (infant mortality rates were falling) and there were many more cousins. An example is the cotton industry in Preston as studied by Michael Anderson (1971). Michael Young and Peter Willmott (1961) noticed how important was the extended family in Bethnal Green in the middle 1950s, living in reasonably close proximity (within two or three miles) and helping one another as described in their book Family and Kinship in East London.
However, with the council housing boom of 1955 and onwards, when working class people moved out of slums and high density areas to large new estates, the size of families and their concentration fell. This was assisted by better wages for workers, needing less extended family support. With later research in the 1970s, Young and Willmott were able to call this stage the symmetrical family because it is self contained and self supporting within the home where conjugal roles are not interchangable (divided functions) but the mutual support is of the same amount - equality - from each adult partner. So the nuclear family made a come-back with the working class, and Young and Willmott claim they are more home centred than work centred because work is realtively boring (the middle class is less symmetrical because they are more work orientated). Still, families remain in contact by modern communications.
At the time of their later study, Young and Willmott (1973) expected more work centred families even amongst the working class, adapting middle class structures, functions and mores.
  1. Young and Willmott charted three stages of family and have expected one more: apply possible labels to help understand the phases.
  2. Why was the extended pre-industrial family not as prevalent as might be expected?
  3. Why did the extended family structure increase in working class families due to industrialisation and urbanisation?
  4. In terms of family structure, are we all (including the working class) becoming middle class now? Give reasons.

Trends in the family: activity

Here are some statistics for 2004 compared with 1996

Mouseover the for answers.

What has changed? How has it changed? Why has it changed?
Extended families
(working class)
In early phases of industrialisation, extended families with kinship connections grew. In more modern societies, they have declined back to the symmetrical family and other forms. Early industrialisation needed large families to support people otherwise in the factory and in towns; today better wages and the State providing functions outside the family allows it to be smaller.
Cohabitation It has increased, in fact from 1980 it has approximately doubled so about one quarter of non-married women are not married.
Lone-parent families
Dual worker families
Reconstituted families
Single person households

Critics of the Family

This is more than simply saying parents row and pass this behaviour on to their children, or even that families are places for domestic violence. The critics of the family produce more systematic and analytical criticisms and come in two main analyses.

Conflict Approach

In this understanding, families are places for maintaining the inequalities of society. The well off give their children a better start in life and nurture them more successfully due to their favourable material position. At the same time, the poor, in an unfavourable material position, can do little more than survive and cope. Families also, through passing on capitalist values, help maintain a belief that the poor and disadvantaged should stay this way.
  1. Suggest practical ways of support in which the better off do to help their children get an advantage in life.

Feminist Approach

This approach criticises in particular the gender based differences promoted by the New Right and even functionalists where they emphasise that a woman should be nurturing and stay at home and the man should be the main breadwinner. It goes further than this and says that through acting out and effectively teaching many gender differences, the family continues the sexual inequality of generations. So the family is the place that continues and maintains the culture of patriarchy, or male power, found throughout adult society.
  1. In cartoon form, draw how a woman's activity in the house might act out a stereotypical female gender role to her daughter, and then how a man's activity might act out a stereotypical male gender role to the son.
  2. Toys vary between boys and girls. How?
  3. Consider how a family might vary its ambitions for the future of the children according to gender.


Jewson, N. (1994), 'Family Values and Relationships', Sociology Review, Vol. 3, No. 3.

Anderson, M. (1980), Approaches to the History of the Western Family 1500-1914, London: Macmillan.

Young, M., Willmott, P (1961), Family and Kinship in East London, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Young, M., Willmott, P (1973), The Symmetrical Family, Harmondsworth: Penguin.


Some Specific Questions

  1. Explain what is meant by the term household. (2 marks)
  2. Identify and describe two types of family or household that can be found in Britain today. (4 marks)
  3. Explain why some sociologists prefer to use the term 'families' rather than 'the family'. (2 marks)
  4. Identify and describe two ways in which families may contribute to the well-being of members. (4 marks)
Answers hereAnswers to questions requiring student writing here
Questions from: Wilson, P., Kidd, A. (1998), Sociology for GCSE, London: Collins Educational, 118, 123.

Adrian Worsfold

Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful