There is a great deal of work within many disciplines, such as history, psychology and anthropology, on family studies, available to researchers. This undoubtedly serves to inform our awareness of the interdisciplinary, varied, and at times controversial, nature and lack of stability around the idea of family. Much of this research highlights a number of major perceived problematics: the related characteristic political discourses, social policies and cultural narratives, which differ dramatically from contemporary family relationships and formations of the 21st century.
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In view of this, this essay critically explores the concept of the nuclear family. It discusses the political contexts and social discourse in which understanding of family has been set. It explores how and why understandings of what make family have changed, paying attention to how it is lived within contemporary society. It reflects on the practices that equate to family.
Critical debate on nuclear family
Many early functionalist sociologists’ perspectives on the family (Murdock, 1949; Talcott Parsons, 1960) focus heavily on the idea of the nuclear family, which consists of a married couple (male and female) and their biological offspring.
There are many issues with the functionalist nuclear family model. For example, it assumes the family to be composed of a heterosexual couple, and that specific structures and practices exist which define this type of family (Widner & Jallinoja, 2008). Further to this, the nuclear family model makes assumptions about gender roles within these specific structures (OINONEN, 2008). It is heterosexist (Stacey & Davenport, 2002; Pothan, 1992), based on traditional historic ideas of what family should be (Richardson, 2001). For example, the man is the provider and the woman is the nurturer. It promotes hierarchies within the family, with the man situated at the top in relation to the woman, but also as adults in relation to the children (Taylor, 1998). This model can also be seen as ‘western’, and assumes a universal model rather than thinking through the historical and cultural specificity of family formations.
As a functionalist construct, some researchers (Weeks, Heaphy & Donovan, 2001) highlight the heterosexual functions and practices that families have assumed, such as the socialisation of children, where children and young people learn social roles and morals, what is right or wrong: the ‘norms’. Donavan (2013) notes this as the heterosexual assumption; similarly, Rich (2007) discusses this in terms of compulsory heterosexuality, assuming this is how gendered roles are transmitted and important for the development of sexualities.
The functionalist nuclear family model makes the assumption that specific family formation is not neutral, often with a privileging of heterosexuality (Donavan. 2013). This, however, is a certain form of heterosexuality, as not all heterosexuals are privileged in the same way, for example, if they live outside of the normative ways of living associated with the nuclear family model, such as single or gay parents. Therefore, it could be argued that the nuclear family model is heterosexualised, classed and racialised against these ‘none-normative ways of living’ (single and gay parents) and their forms of ‘inappropriate’ heterosexuality.
It could be claimed that the functionalist nuclear family model suggests that there is a particular form of living within a heterosexual way that becomes the pinnacle of how we should live, look up to and aspire to do or be. That is not just in terms of how we live with our ‘families’, but also the practices within and outside of society: the public and private, for example how we believe ‘authentic’ love happens.
To conclude, many early functionalist sociologists’ perspectives on the nuclear family (Murdock, 1949; Talcott Parsons, 1960) are now heavily criticised and outdated. However, what we do have are cultural, political and ideological discourses that equate the family to being a specific shape, structure and set of roles.
Political and social contexts
Before discussing and evaluating the new terms and theories within and around family, it is important to reflect on the political contexts and social discourse in which understandings of family and specifically the nuclear family have been set.
The late 80s and early 90s were noted as the start of a neo-liberalist society, yet ideologically this era also promoted a particular way of living: a neo-conservative family life.
After reading up on some of the literature around government policy and practices from this period, I can see a real contradiction as to whether the state had any involvement in personal / private family lives or not. It tended to step away, detach and disengage in one sense, yet normalise, regulate and control in another.
For example, Thatcher’s views on family and what family was were simple: traditional Victorian family values and the nuclear family. Thatcher and the Conservative government argued that the 60s had started to tear apart this ideal of the family and promote inappropriate promiscuity and sexual freedom. Thatcher’s also disliked the fact that there were many social movements developing, such as the Hippy Movement, Civil Rights Movement and Peace Movement, and in the late 70s and early 80s, the conservative government felt like their ideal of the family was under attack (Holborn & Steel, 2012). Thatcher argued that this was “potentially the end of society and the nuclear family” and that she will “fight hard to regain the traditional family values”. It could be claimed that her neo-conservative intentions were to reinforce traditional Victorian family values in society, and re-establish the importance of the traditional heterosexual nuclear family.
There was a great deal of legislation created on the basis of Thatcherism, a new hegemonic politics in which the Left was increasingly marginalized. For example, Section 28 (also known as Claus 28) of the local government act 1988 was a controversial amendment to the UK’s local government act 1986. Enacted on the 24th May 1998, the amendment stated that local education authorities “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality” or “promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”.
After Section 28 was passed, there was a lot of debate as to whether it actually applied in schools or whether it applied only to local education authorities. Most teachers acted extra cautious due to not knowing what they were actually permitted to do. Some sociologists (Weeks, 2007) believed that Section 28 enlisted teachers to stigmatise part of our society; and this then caused schools to fail to engage in basic social justices.
In relation to these concerns; and a call for further explanation by numerous professionals working in the pedagogic environment, the National Union of Teachers published a statement, remarking that:
whilst section 28 applies to local authorities and not to schools, many teachers believe, albeit wrongly, that it imposes constraints in respect of the advice and counselling they give to pupils. Professional judgement is therefore influenced by the perceived prospect of prosecution.
Similarly, the Department for Education and Science (1988) made the following statement regarding Section 28:
Section 28 does not affect the activities of the school governors, nor the teachers. It will not prevent the objective discussion of homosexuality in the classroom, nor the counselling of pupils concerned about their sexuality
Many Conservative backbenchers disagreed with the above statements, and supporters such as Baroness Knight of Collingtree (then Conservative MP Jill Knight) who introduced Section 28, and wanted to back up her initial justification for the act, discussed the history behind initially setting up Section 28. She was the chairman of her local Child and Family Protection Group, and was contacted by numerous concerned parents who strongly objected to the fact that their children were being taught about homosexuality through specific literature that was being used to teach their 5 and 6 year olds. For example, a book called The Playbook for Kids about Sex, in which brightly coloured stick men showed all about homosexuality, and how it was done. Another book called The Milkman’s on his Way explicitly described homosexual intercourse.
In retrospect, the above statements seem to suggest something of an internal problem: a problem with the literature that was being produced for the pedagogic environments.
This was also brought to light in 1983, when the Daily Mail reported that a copy of a book entitled Jenny lives with Eric and Martin, portraying a little girl who lives with her father and his gay partner, was provided in a school library run by a London Education Authority.
There was a large political response towards Clause 28; and this served to galvanise the disparate British gay rights movement into action; and the resulting protests saw the rise of now famous groups like Stonewall, started by, amongst other people, Ian McKellen and OutRage!, subsequently led by Peter Tatchell, who is still now an iconic gay activist (Tatchell, 1993; LGF, 2008).
Although Section 28 has been repealed on the 18th November 2003 by section (122) of the local government act 2003, there are still a number of complex issues to be tackled with regards to the teaching of homosexuality, gay marriage and contemporary family life. Faith school are a major problem (LGF, 2008), and as Waller (2009) suggests religious views need to be addressed more. More debate is needed on love, respect and diversity within and outside of contemporary family life for faith schools, as this would then avoid the so called promotion’ of homosexuality and pretend family relationships, and focus more on the diversity of sexuality and family life. Gay rights activists, such as Tatchel (2001), discuss their concern for the lack of progress within this area, and mentioned that there is going to be more of a battle to beat the last acceptable prejudice within our education system (LGF, 2008).
In contrast, Waller (2009) suggested that as sex education in England and Wales has been regulated solely by the Secretary of State for Education since the Learning and Skills Act (2000) and the Education Act (1996), it could be argued that Section 28, before its repeal, was already largely redundant. Local education authorities, such as Manchester, continued to deliver training to their staff on how to deliver their services without discrimination against lesbians and gay men; and these pioneering works were never once challenged by the act (Waller, 2009).
There is, however, one case of Section 28 being used to bring a case to the courts against a council. In May, 2000, the Christian Institute unsuccessfully took Glasgow City Council to court for funding an AIDS support charity which the Institute alleged promoted homosexuality and disrespectful family relationships.
It could be suggested that in order to create change, we must consider the psychology (Hanley, 1993): mapping the information against the general certificate of secondary education (GCSE) curriculum, and making it accessible to the children. Training the teachers so that they are confident in delivering it correctly, as at present, many teachers are not equipped to discuss the complexities of the human sexuality and contemporary family life. Cookson et al, (2009) suggests that this personal and professional development should be a priority for any local education authority.
Schools should be encouraged to expressively forbid discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation within their codes of conduct, whether the school has a religious character or not (Cookson et al, 2009). Then, at an appropriate stage of the national curriculum, students should be encouraged to examine the variety of views on human sexuality and family life, and as Waller (2009) suggests, this will then allow them to develop their own position within their understanding of and within these complex areas.
However, despite the controversy around Section 28, it should be noted that Thatcher supported legalising homosexuality in the 1960s, and in the face of severe opposition from Tory traditionalists, in 1967, she voted in favour of the decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales.
The Conservative government still however caused much uproar, as although the hegemonic legislation was in force, to ostracise; to an extent it did the opposite. It made people fight. Fight for their right to have equality, to be a family, or at least have that choice. Although many gay communities had been decimated by the AIDS epidemic, something extraordinary happened. People joined together, from within and outside of their communities, as a family, setting up support groups, lobbying parliament, fighting for their right as a community, and as a family. Not blood-related though, but as families of choice (Donavan, 2012; Weeks, 2001). They had connectedness, cared for each other, and were loyal: and not the “drug-taking, promiscuous loons” as described by one Tory MP at the time (Briggs, 1987).
Over the following years, many of the HIV positive men died, and during this period further inequalities became stark. Partners, who had supported, cared for and loved their partner for many years were not recognised legally, for example, during the sale of a house. Blood family members of the deceased or dying would deny same sex partner’s access to their dying partner’s bedside or attendance at the funeral. These harsh inequalities highlighted through these challenging times, but also politicised a generation (Donavan, 2013).
Weeks (2007: 2) support this notion of politicisation, and suggests that the
longer term perspective tells us something different as despite the setbacks, pain and loss of the 1980s and early 1990s we can now see that under the surface of events, dramatic changes in sexual and intimate life were taking place, a sort of grass roots revolution, that have transformed the possibilities of LGBTQ lives
In view of Weeks (2007) quote, it should therefore be argued that the battle for legislative reform is about a formalisation of a right to exist in the public sphere, and a public declaration of, for example, love, marriage, equal opportunities and family.
Weeks (2007) supports this critique and proposes that this shake up also started to deconstruct the idea of a family unit, and so destabilise specific social norms and boundaries, which existed between the public and the private. This political and social shift is important, as when public and private start to collide, the old school family unit that is ideologically engrained within society and culture is challenged (Richardson, 2000). This is a powerful, and much needed shake up, which has had considerable consequences further down the line, and has attacked many discriminative social forces and factors underpinned within many forms of discrimination. It is also important to acknowledge the processes and changes underpinned within the wider political, economic and cultural realities, and how these may have been challenged. In de constructing the idea of the family, we can then start to challenge the tradition behind it, which takes away its power, its right to dominance, govern and lead. This idea of tradition is still however problematic, as Weeks (2007) notes, due to the fact that the evidence is limited when looking at tradition beyond specific recent time frames and histories, and that due to this lack of ’empiricability’, can we be certain people always follow tradition, and by tradition I mean as how we see it. It could be argued that this was not the case, and tradition, as we see it, has shifted over time, context and reality. What we see now as tradition may have at specific points in history been its opposite, with the normal of our tradition shifting to the abnormal of our non-traditional realities. Therefore, it could be argued that tradition and its underpinnings are by no means monochrome, in any historical, political and / or cultural reality.
Williams (2004) conceptualises this well and terms this ‘re-traditionalisation’, yet Weeks (2007) still argues for more of a ‘de-traditionalisation’. Whatever the term used, it could be argued that either or suggest that back in the 80s during the birth of Stonewall and other political and social equality movements, and also now, as we were (and still are) searching for an individualism, or a framework that supports this. It could be maintained that if people were allowed to manage their own lives, their own way of living, without fear or discrimination, different forms of community and / or individual arrangements would develop, assisting life in its creative, problem-solving, innovatory way.
This process of social restructuring (or as Williams (2004) terms ‘re-traditionalisation’ and Weeks (2007) terms ‘de-tradionalisation’) is important to consider with my research when thinking about my research, and the participants (also my own) political, cultural and social histories and contexts, and how these have been changed, adapted and developed within and outside of tradition as we see it now in this specific context and reality, during their specific coming-out process.
Why / how family has changed and how it is now lived + reflections on family practices.
These previously discussed political and social developments highlight the fact that ways of living have changed, causing major variations in the compositions and practices of families and intimate relationships. At the core of the debate sociologists such as Finch (2007), Smart (2007), Donavan (2013) and Stacey (2004) emphasise that the old concepts no longer capture the realities of contemporary family living and that new definitions, concepts, ideas, ideologies, terms and legislation are needed.
Smart (2007: 84), a feminist sociologist and academic, defines the family as:
a set of personal relationships that are forged together to create dynamic and multidimensional connections held together through shared histories and memories.
Smart’s (2007) quote suggests that individuals live in a diverse array of living conditions and relationship formations, within and throughout a major social institution and a locus of much of an individual’s social activity. It also highlights the importance of shared histories and memories, not just blood ties or relations.
Smart’s (2007) definition recognises that this new conceptualisation of family highlights the significance of ‘dependencies’, ‘interdependencies’, ‘connectedness’ and ‘relationalism’ as central features within social grouping identified as family.
All the above suggests there are many factors that shape the experience of family life, for example, social class, race, sexuality (lesbian or heterosexual couples) and family structure, for example, nuclear family, extended family and single-parent families. This adds a new dimension to the study of family as it links family experiences to other influences in society, signifying that the family is not an isolated entity but rather an integral part of the wider social system with society.
Calvin (2011), on the other hand, disagrees with much of Smart (2007) observations and defines the family as:
a social unit created by blood, marriage, or adoption, which can be described as nuclear (parents and children) or extended (encompassing other relatives).
There remains many obvious problematics within the Calvin (2011) definition. For example, extended family may not be relatives, but could be friends, neighbours, work colleagues, and / or ex or current partners. The nuclear family concept has also been critiqued by many (Finch, 2007, Smart, 2007 and Donavan, 2013) (also see section 1) and holds many perceived problematics: westernised, heterosexist, gendered, and assuming a universal model which alludes to the historical and cultural specificity of contemporary family formations. It could be argued that in contemporary society, many individuals now live in households that are single-parent, gay, lesbian, interfaith, international, interracial, intergenerational, and increasingly single-person, not to mention families of long-term companions, adopted children, or half-siblings. Calvins (2011) definition does not seem to take this specificity and multidimensionality into consideration.
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Fields, Jason and Casper (2001:67) support my critique of Calvin’s (2011) definition, and suggest that it is generally assumed today that the modern family has “undergone significant transformations in its structure”, and that societal changes have contributed to a “harsh reduction in the percentage of classical typical families, predominantly nuclear families”. Replacing these are “childless families, one parent families, other family formations, and quasi-family units based on non-marital cohabitation” (Fields, Jason and Casper, 2001:69), which includes (and will include more so after the recent legalisation of gay marriage in the UK) gay parents and families.
Sociologists such as Finch (2007) and Smart (2007) have clearly highlighted the many diverse arrays of living as a family, and how this must be recognised within the literature. However, there are also many terms that underpin these theories, for example, families of choice (Weeks, Donavan, and Heaphy), postmodern families, and families of origin (Morgan (2007). There has been much debate as to whether these sit alongside the idea of the nuclear family or in opposition. There has also been much debate around a shifting postmodern nuclear family.
This section of this essay will therefore discuss and evaluate some of these terms, critiquing the literature.
Donavan et al (2001) incorporated the term ‘families of choice’ (also known as ‘families we choose’ coined by Kath Western, 1998) which means literally asking the participants for names of people they see as family. For example, if I decided to use this term within my research and one of my participants stated that 2 of his friends, his step brother and his second aunt were the people he recognised as family this would be fine. Similarly, if another participant involved no blood relatives this would also be fine. Families of choice literally mean people choose their families. Donavan (2001) does however express some concerns with this method and notes that within her 2001 study with Weeks and Heaply, two well-known social constructionists, as many of the heterosexual participants named blood family when ask to discuss family; whereas many of the non-heterosexual participants named mainly friends and (ex) lovers as family. Although this does not suggest an obvious issue, it does suggest a lack of closeness, or ‘connectness’ with the LGBT participant’s and their blood family compared to that of their heterosexual counterparts. Although this term sits well for my research, the same issue could occur. A way around this could be to break the question down further. For example, ask the participants to name 5 people who they feel are most important to them in their life. And once a list has been put together, ask them to decide who they see as family. This 2 staged question may be a way of getting around this issue around participants misunderstanding the term family. Not including the term family would be helpful until I understood who they classed as family. On the other hand, by using the term families of choice, I am giving the participants a choice to choose whoever as their family members, and this open-ended approach is enabling them to decide. Therefore, would it really be an issue if they did not include any blood relatives, or included all blood relative?
Modern policy (Children and Adoption Act, 2006; Equal Marriage Bill, 2013; Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, 2008) has noted a shift to two parents of any gender (but still a demonization of single parent families due to an underlying stigmatization mainly but not exclusively enhanced by stereotypical negative Media perceptions). The question is could we call the 2 parent family of the same gender a nuclear family and would we want too? Donavan (2013) suggests it is not, although structurally it looks the same, i.e. two parents, 2 children, a household, but if you look at the social roles within it, it is very different. For example, there may be no men or no women involved, and usually there is at least one parent who has no biological relation to the child.
It could therefore be argued that the term postmodern family sits better here (and also potentially within my research). This term suggests it can be what it is, in this specific moment in time, through the specific structures and practices it has/uses. This concept also recognises that what you describe as your family now may not be family in 5 years’ time for example. Although it could be argued that the term postmodern family is doing nothing apart from saying meaning of family can change historically. On the other hand, terms that help to destabilise gendered and heterosexist terms like that nuclear family model are a welcome addition.
There are many different ways of theorizing family and the practices within it, but in reality, when it comes to gay youth and my intended area of study, many of these individuals will come from heterosexual family set ups and have been exposed unconditionally to heterosexual family practices. Therefore, using the a term like families of origin (Morgan, 2007) could be beneficial as it describes the setup of your life at that point in time, whether it be step families, friends, blood mother or adopted father. This again gives the participant flexibility in their choices. The term origin however may be confusing as origin suggests where you have come from, which then suggests blood or adopted family, with the exclusion of friends, (ex) partners, and work colleagues.
It could also be beneficial to ask my participants about their understanding of families i.e. where they see their families being, or who is classed as their family, as during Weeks, Heaply and Donavan’s (2001) study, many of their LGBT participants failed to recognise blood family as family members. This would suggest that they may have disconnected from their ‘families’ of origin and that it did not occur to them to speak or include them into their LGBT sphere, or private world. However, this study is now 12 years old, and many changes have occurred since then, potentially highlighting a shift in generational understandings and acceptance of how, who and why we consider certain people to be classed as our family.
In view of the above, Finch (2007: 71) notes that the way in which we consider our family is “qualitatively orientated”. By this she means decided by a number of internal and external factors including, location, relationships, love, employment, religion, sexuality and friendship. In view of Finch’s (2007) consideration, it could be argued that this ‘process’ of qualitative orientation demands considerable creativity when initiating the “design, composition and practices” of the family, and how these “intimate networks are constructed, perceived and maintained” (Stacey, 2004: 359). It could also be argued that as Stacey (2004) has identified this as a ‘process’, this then suggests a considerable shift from the previous definition of family and the nuclear family, through the household or through kinship: set and defined, to a more holistic way of thinking, friendly and accepting to the diversity and variation of modern family formations.
Gabb (2008: 22), who is an interdisciplinary sociologist, terms this the “extended family”. Her research consists of a combination of autobiographical, anecdotal and empirical methods and methodologies, which re-situate emotions at the centre of ‘family’ studies. She suggests that the ‘process’ of ‘family’ selection mentioned by Stacy (2004) requires “an extended approach; a wide angle research lens that can record the evolving matrix of intimacy” (Gabb, 2008:17). I agree with Gabbs (2008) comments on the “matrix or intimacy” and argue that this idea places much emphasis on relationship formation, which in turn constitutes and creates family life. Contemporary psycho-sociologists Mcload and Thomson (2009) support this critique, and suggest that Gabb’s (2008) idea of the “extended family” places increasing importance on the way in which relationships are built, with ideas of social change at the forefront of this ‘process’.
The contemporary research above highlights the importance of recognises fluidity within the composition of the family unit and also highlights briefly how we select family; however, it is also important to discuss how contemporary family life is defined more by ‘doing’ family things rather than ‘being’ a family.
For example, Morgan (1996) is one of the most influential sociologist who initially highlighted the importance to shift sociological analysis away from “family as a structure to which individuals in some sense belong”, towards understanding families as “sets of activities which take on a particular meaning”, associated with family, at any a given point in time (Finch, 2007:66).
Morgan (1996) defines these ‘family’ practices as:
a set of practices which deal in some way with ideas of parenting, kinship and marriage and the ‘expectedness’ and obligation which are associated with these practices.
The key features of the practices approach in general are as follows:
â€¢ An attempt to link the perspectives of the observers and the social actors;
â€¢ An emphasis on the active or ‘doing’;
â€¢ A sense of the everyday;
â€¢ A sense of the regular;
â€¢ A sense of fluidity or fuzziness;
â€¢ A linking of history and biography.
Morgan (2011) uses the term family practices as an illustration of wider currents of thought in sociology engaged with understanding how social relations are enacted and represented as symbols, combining a number of key concepts that other scholars have used to analyse contemporary families. These include ‘fluidity’, ‘diversity’, and ‘multi-facetedness’, by rooting our understanding of ‘doing family’ in the everyday and the routine. These everyday routines are where individuals constitute certain actions and activities as family practices, as family (defined by Morgan and Finch) “is a facet of social life, not a social institution; it represents a quality not a thing”.
A good example of this routine that constitutes family practices was in Finch (2007) where she discusses 2 examples of her own family practices: the weekly phone call which she makes to her sister; and her care in assuring that a step child gets Christmas presents as valuable as those she gives to her own children. These are actions that allow her to regard these people as part of her family. Finch (2007:55) also quotes “from my perspective these are family practices”.
When discussing these practices, Morgan (1996: 190) recognises that these
practices are often little fragments of daily life which are part of the normal taken for granted existence of practitioners. Their significance derives from their location in a wider system of meaning.
Finch (2007:66) supports Morgan (1996) quote and suggest that “the emphasis is on social actors creatively constituting their own social world”. It could therefore be argued that an individual’s understanding of family is subject to change over time and locations, deeply rooted in individual biographies and realities. This is something I need to
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