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June 26, 2013 / C H Thompson

Understanding family diversity

So far we’ve been looking at families in the traditional sense as being either nuclear or extended. These more traditional structures construct a family image of the mother, father and their children forming the nucleus (nuclear family) with grandparents possibly extending such a nucleus.

This model of the family is discussed as if it is ‘the‘ rather than ‘a‘ ideal family form. These discussions have the effect of creating a discourse about the perceived ideal family structurefamily data at the expense of ignoring any Diversity Beyond the Nuclear Family. The extent of family diversity in the UK is discussed towards the bottom of this page.

Data from the Office for National Statistics (in the adjacent image) highlights the social trend towards heterogeneous family structures rather than homogeneous structures. This social trend towards diversity contradicts the established discourse often articulated in the media promoting moral panics about the family.

French philosopher Michael Foucault wrote about the power of discourses. Discourses construct the way we discuss the social world, consequently discourses construct the way we understand the social world around us. This discursive process continues to construct our image of what constitutes the ‘normal’ family in our everyday speech.

For example the family doctor, the family theme park ticket, the family car and the family holiday are just some of the ways in which we discursively reinforce our ‘traditional’ image of the family.

This occurs because when we imagine a family car most of us immediately think of a car which holds four people, very few of us think of a car which holds a single-parent and a child. Another example is the family ticket to a theme park. Most family tickets are for two adults with two children – the nuclear family.

In 1967 Edmund Leach called the type of family described above as the ‘cereal packet image of the family’. Such an image creates a normalised construction of what a family should look like. Feminist Barrie Thorne (1992) attacked this image for being ‘monolithic’ as it ignores variations in family structures. We can now open-up the cereal packet family to see what’s inside.

Some sociologists prefer to use another mechanism (other than discourse) to explain how the traditional image of the cereal packet family remains so powerful. This other social mechanism is ideology. Ideology is seen by feminists as hiding the diversity of family life.

For feminists the dominant ideology of the cereal packet family is a tool of patriarchal power. This power (Lukes’ radical view of power) gives men the capacity to emasculate women by tying them to the home as carers and domestic servants via the triple-shift.

Patriarchal power has the effect of ‘hiding’ the family diversity evident in the clip below from the wider public gaze by not allowing such images to be placed on cereal packets. Therefore with ideological power it’s easier for sociologists to identify which social group has the power and which social group doesn’t.

Family diversity is the term used to describe the numerous family structures which exist outside the traditional family structure. Rapoport and Rapoport (1982) identify five types of family diversity:

  • Organisational diversity – which is due to different patterns of work outside and inside the home, and to changing marital trends.This category includes ‘reconstituted families’ as a result of divorce and remarriage, and dualcareer families, some of which have resulted in a greater democratisation of domestic labour.
  • Cultural diversity– which accounts for much family diversity from the indigenous population to migrant households from diverse regions such as Western Europe, Southern Europe, Middle Eastern and many groups from East and Southeast Asia bring with them aspects of family and household composition.
  • Social class diversity – which is demonstrated in the material resources of families, the relationships between couples and between parents and their children, and the socialisation and education of children.
  • Life cycle diversity – which exists between families whose members are from different historical periods.The impact of the Depression and the experience of war were defining influences for many Australian parents of the baby boomer generation. Baby boomers, in their turn, have tended to rear their children differently because of the greater economic prosperity and rapidly changing social morés of the 1960s and 1970s.
  • Family life course diversity – which refers to the difference that occurs when a family has a baby, when the children reach their teens, and finally when (or, increasingly, if) they leave home. At each of these stages, families have different priorities, and may organise themselves in terms of work and domestic labour, rather differently than at other times. (Bernardes 1997: 11–12)

The following links explore the depth and intricacies of this diversity of family forms while this Powerpoint: Family Diversity covers all the areas listed below.

Remarriage – blending families

Lone parent families

Same sex families


Social class




Leave a Comment
  1. james / May 13 2014 2:38 pm

    wwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwooooooooooooooooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh this website is amazing!!!!!!!!!

    • sociologytwynham / May 13 2014 4:03 pm

      Many thanks – spread the word 🙂

  2. james / May 13 2014 2:38 pm


    • sociologytwynham / May 13 2014 4:04 pm

      Once again; many thanks, spread the word 🙂

  3. MOLLY / Apr 24 2018 1:16 pm


    • C H Thompson / Apr 24 2018 3:13 pm

      Thank you for this 🙂

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