family, nuclear

The term nuclear family is used to refer to a unit consisting of spouses and their dependent children. Early accounts of the family emphasized the biological imperative underpinning the nuclear family. Anthropological studies reinforce the ‘naturalness’ of the nuclear family and George P. Murdock asserts that it is a ‘universal human grouping’ (Social Structure, 1949). Murdock attributes this to the nuclear family's utility in performing tasks necessary to the survival of the species and to social continuity: namely, the regulation of sexual relationships, reproduction, the socialization of children, and economic co-operation between the sexes. Sociologists emphasize that biology is not sufficient for understanding family forms and insist that it is also necessary to examine how the nuclear family is shaped by ideological, political, and economic processes.
The structural-functionalist interpretation of the family (see, Family, Socialization and Interaction Process, 1955) is still important because so much subsequent family sociology is a reaction against functionalism. However, the argument that the isolated nuclear family developed in response to the needs of a mature industrial economy is now widely rejected, because of evidence of historical and cross-cultural variation. Parsons argues that the nuclear family fits industrial needs because, on the one hand, it allows families to be mobile and economically independent of the wider kin group; and, on the other hand, it ensures that in an individualistic and impersonal world, adults and children have a stable, if limited, set of affective relationships. William Goode (The Family, 1964) also emphasizes that a nuclear family serves industrial society well in providing what Christopher Lasch calls a Haven in a Heartless World (1977). However, Goode also warns that family forms and functions change, as a result of individual desires and initiatives.
The ‘family as a haven’ thesis raises the question of haven for whom? By treating the family as a unified entity, the realities of power are ignored. Husband, wife, parents, and children all have different interests and differential power. Michael Young and Peter Willmott claimed, in The Symmetrical Family (1973), that the nuclear family is becoming more egalitarian, with more flexible sex-role division. However, this optimistic view has been rejected by many feminist authors, who argue that the family is a repressive institution, especially for women. What is clear is that, with rising divorce-rates and the ageing of the population, the nuclear family is no longer the norm in either Britain or America. An adult will usually experience nuclear families twice: once as a child in his or her family of origin; and, after a period of independence, as a parent in his or her family of marriage (see, The Family and Industrial Society, 1983) Nuclear families are therefore increasingly associated only with certain stages in the life-course and are less durable than in the past. They may also have a different role structure now that the majority of married women and mothers are in paid employment. Nevertheless, the nuclear family seems a remarkably resilient institution, surviving various social upheavals and adapting to social change. See also affective individualism ; family, sociology of ; marriage ; role, conjugal.

Dictionary of sociology. 2013.

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