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Effects of Family Changes in Society

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 1607 words Published: 6th Jul 2018

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Explain how new problems have emerged within your society as a result of changes in the functions of the family.

In the UK and other Western countries during the last forty years there has been a widespread experience of changes in marriage, household, and family forms that would not have been thought possible prior to the Second World War (Giddens, 2001). People are less likely to marry than they used to and there is less of a tendency to marry at a young age. The women’s movement which began in the 1960s has, it is argued, led to a rise in the divorce rate and the number of single parent families. There has also been a growth in the rate of women who have children but have not married and in 1997 they made up 42% of all lone parent households (Social Trends, 2000). This paper will look at traditional notions of the family and then at some of the changes in the functions of the family and some of the social problems that have resulted from this

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Defining the traditional family

The family might be generally defined as a group of people who are usually linked by kinship[1] and marriage, who live together, usually, but not necessarily made up of two parents and their children. This type of family is the norm for most people. Murdock (1949) has argued that common to all societies, is the nuclear family, described above (parents and children) or extended family (a wider family membership e.g. grandparents). 40% of all people in Britain in 1996 lived in nuclear families (Brown,1998).

Parsons (1955) has argued that the traditional family serves two major purposes that are common to societies, the primary socialisation of children into the norms and values of society, and the stabilisation of adult personalities. For Parsons the institution of the family provided the mutual love and support needed by individuals in order for them to be fit enough to take their places in society (Giddens, 2001). This has been contested by feminists such as Abbott and Wallace (1997) who argue that family life is experienced by its members in different ways and family life has not been supportive of women because it is generally they who provide other members with support.

Parson’s model of the family where one adult worked outside the home while the other remained to care for the family has been criticised by many scholars as overly idealistic and neglects the ethnic and class differences that occur within a capitalist society (Giddens, 2001). The capitalist system failed to take into account women’s work in the home Abbott and Wallace (1997) contend and this enabled men to go out to work because women were the hidden labour force. Goode (1972) argues that social systems such as the family, are powerful agents of control because to some extent their existence is founded on force. Within social systems such as the family this is often unrecognised. Goode argues it is, not visible because it is effective (1972:512).

Giddens (2001) has further criticised Parsons’ view of the family for neglecting to recognise, and take into account the emergence of different family forms. Fewer people are now choosing to marry and those who do may choose not to have children. Gittens (1992) is of the opinion that in modern Britain:

Ideals of family relationships have become enshrined in our legal, social, religious and economic systems which, in turn, reinforce the ideologyand penalise or ostracise those who transgress it (Gittens, 1992, p.74).

In 1997 when Blair’s Government came to power the ideology of the family that had existed in Britain for almost a century was breaking down and unemployment was continuing to rise. Death, divorce, and the rise in the number of single parent families meant that the traditional ideal of the male breadwinner and the female carer/homemaker were becoming less common.

Single Parent Families

40% of marriages in the UK end in divorce according to the Guardian newspaper 2000,p.3)and there are an increasing number of single parent families in the Western world. There are many different reasons why people become lone parents family structures may change either through the death of a partner, cohabitation or remarriage which leads to reconstituted families. Second marriages however tend to have a higher divorce rate than first time marriages. Some theorist suggest that couples would have lived together prior to getting married, but those who live together may be far more likely to split than married couples. Some of those cohabiting may also have had children and Government figures show that the vast majority of single parent households are headed by women. Because traditional notions of the family headed by a male breadwinner are still prevalent, Abbott and Wallace (1997) suggest that many single parents, who of necessity live off welfare benefits are seen both by those in power as a burden on the state. The concerns of the Welfare State were with the traditional, nuclear family where the man was the breadwinner and the woman cared for the home and children. It was not therefore, set up to deal with single parent households. In this way changing family structures result in an increase in other social problems, particularly poverty (Giddens, 2001).

Families and Poverty

The media and for some Government members refer increasingly to young single mothers as representative of lone parents. In contrast, Crowe and Hardy (1992) and others state that single parents are a varied group because there are a number of different routes to becoming a single parent These involves increased responsibility and many single parents who are without an extended family network are forced to rely on the state system just to get by. These households are very often among the poorest. Giddens (2001) maintains that English speaking countries have the highest number of single parents, and those who are working are among the lowest paid. These are parents who are attempting to be self-reliant and while family working tax credits may seem like a good idea many people have argued that they serve to encourage a dependency culture for people who might prefer to be independent.

In 1991 31% of children lived in households with an income that was less than 50% of the national average (Giddens, 2001). The Social Fund was set up to help the poorest members of society to afford basic necessities such as bedding, shoes, and children’s clothes but this does not help those that most need it because it is the poorest who mostly do not get this funding(Cohen,1996). Single parents who want to join the work force rather than remain in receipt of benefits are often prevented from doing so because of the cost of childcare. The Government claim to support working families’ childcare arrangements does not make provision for older children during school holidays. Without the help of other family members, such moves to join the workforce become virtually impossible. In this way families become part of a growing number of those who are excluded from many of the things that most people take for granted. People who are financially poor are also liable to suffer from social exclusion in other areas. They may live in areas with the poorest housing, and have less access to decent schools and health services.


Clearly traditional family structures are no longer the norm in the UK. This leads to other social problems because the state system is not equipped to deal with either the increased burden on the benefits system or in making the employment and childcare systems more equitable. It might be argued that things are not going to return to the way they were and therefore Government needs to initiate policies that relate to the changed structure in UK society.

1250 words


Abbott, P. and Wallace, C. 1997. An Introduction to Sociology: Feminist Perspectives. London, Routledge.

Chambez, C. 2001. “Lone-Parent Families in Europe: A Variety of Economic and Social Circumstances” Social Policy and Administration 2001, 35, 6, Dec, 658-671

Cohen, R. 1996 “The poverty trap” Community Care; 1 Aug 96, p.26-7

Crowe, G. and Hardey,M.1992. “Diversity and ambiguity among lone-parent households in modern Britain”. In Marsh, C. and Arber, S. (Eds.) 1992. Families and Households: Divisions and Change. London: Macmillan. Giddens, A. 2001. (4th ed). Sociology. Cambridge, Polity Press.

Gittens, D. 1992 “What is the family? Is it Universal”. In Macdowell, L. and Pringle, R. (Eds.) 1992 Defining Women: social institutions and gender divisions. Cambridge:Polity.

Guardian, 27th March, 2000 p.3

Parsons, T. and Bales, R. 1955. Family, Socialisation, and Interaction Process. Glencoe, Illinois: Free Press

Social Trends 30 2000. General Household Survey in Giddens, A. 2001. (4th ed). Sociology. Cambridge, Polity Press.p.181

Walby, S. 1986. Patriarchy at Work. Cambridge: Polity.



[1] Kinship ties generally refer to descent and blood relatives, also to marriage (Giddens, 2001).


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