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July 2, 2013 / C H Thompson

Some key studies on the family – family structures

Is the extended family still thriving? Wilmott & Young, 1957.

Wilmott and Young’s study of family life in Bethnal Green, Family and Kinship in East London, led them to argue that the extended family – supposedly superseded by the nuclear family in an era of advanced industrialisation – remained an important part of many peoples’ lives. Kinship ties provided a strong network of assistance across a range of areas such as childcare, finance and emotional support.

Did the nuclear family pre-date the industrial period? Laslett, 1965.

Peter Laslett’s The World We Have Lost contests the common functionalist view that the industrial revolution encouraged the development of the nuclear family. He argues instead that nuclear families were common before the industrial period and that no more than 10% of families were extended in the pre-industrial era (mainly due to short life expectancy). Indeed, Laslett maintains it was the very ubiquity of the nuclear family that facilitated industrial development in the first place.

Did industrialisation actually strengthen the extended family? Fletcher, 1966.

Ronald Fletcher disagrees with Parsons and others that the process of industrialisation weakened the influence of the extended family. In fact, he argues in The Family and Marriage in Britain that it actually strengthened kinship ties. However, like them, he views the family as an essentially benign (and popular) institution, which fulfils a number of key functions. For him, the family remains a central institution in modern society, satisfying social needs while encouraging ‘self-realisation and autonomy’.

The nuclear family – still our common experience? Chester, 1985.

Robert Chester, in The Rise of the Neo-Conventional Family, disputes the argument that the nuclear family is an outmoded ideal that fails to reflect the diversity of family types in existence in the UK today. Whilst at given points in an individual’s life cycle they may not be living as part of a nuclear family, he maintains that most adults will marry and have children and that most of those children will be reared by their natural parents. In addition, despite rising divorce rates, most people who get married remain married and most people live in a household headed by a married couple.

How close-knit are kinship ties? Devine, 1992.

In Affluent Workers Revisited, Fiona Devine investigated (among other things) the kinship patterns of a group of manual workers at a car factory in Luton (a group similar to that studied in Goldthorpe and Lockwood’s well-known 1960s’ study The Affluent Worker). She found that while most of her respondents lived in nuclear family households, family members maintained regular contact (whether face-to-face or by telephone) and strong emotional ties with their kin.

Family and Intimate Relationships: Val Gillies, 2003.

The paper examines the way interpretations of family and intimate relations have shifted over the years and how published material from particular schools of thought have documented and shaped our understanding of the subject. In the past, intimacy was seen very much as part and parcel of the obligations and functions of family and kinship. Today, however, the strong focus is on the ethics of friendship, negotiation and disclosure. The paper highlights the difficulties of researching the topic of intimacy, showing how family and other close relationships are viewed through particular ideological lenses, fixing the parameters for understanding and explanation of family relations.

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