Term Paper: Sociology of Families Making Families in the New Millennium

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Sociology of Families: Making Families in the New Millennium

There is little doubt that the nature, shape and form of the modern family has changed and is still changing in new and radical ways. The family has in the last few hundred years changed from the traditional and extended structure to the nuclear family unit and into various permutations and variations in the postmodern world.

There are also many theorists and researchers who have already announced the end or demise of the family as a relevant structure in contemporary society. Others on the other hand assert that in the spite of compromises and experimentation, there has been resurgence among many cultures towards the maintenance of the family as a viable and essential part of the social and cultural matrix.

In sociological terms the reality of the modern family is inextricably linked to various social, historical and socio-psychological aspects that have shaped this social entity. This leads to numerous theories and theorists who put forward views about the reason for the shape and form of the modern family, as well as predictions about the future of the family.

This paper will attempt to discuss some of the most pertinent and important issues relating to the modern family. Sociologically the family is also an essential indicator of the social constitution of a particular culture and society. Many of the forces and factors that shape modern society are seen at play within the social dynamic of the family. The family is often the repository of the values and norms of a culture and society. Another aspect that will be considered in the paper is the difference between families in the developed and less developed regions of the world.

Brief overview and history

Baker (2003) states that "...Fewer people now live within the kind of family considered 'normal' in the 1950s." (Baker 2003, p. 176) This is mainly due to the fact that various social changes have resulted in a movement away from more conventional and traditional views of marriage and the family. These include aspects such as "... The separation of sexuality and reproduction, greater equality for women, the recognition of same-sex relationships, and more international migration and intermarriage (which) have led to the coexistence of multiple forms of family life." (Baker 2003, p. 176.)

Understanding the modern family one has to trace its historical origins to the extended family. In this more traditional construct, the family is a group that includes many relatives and kinship relationships. "A large extended family might include the old man and his five wives, their unmarried children and married sons, and the sons' wives (each son having one wife or several) along with their unmarried children." (Stephens 1967, p. 517)

The extended family was influenced and altered as a result of many factors; one of the most important of these was the industrial revolution in Europe in the late 18th and early 19th centuries and the subsequent rise of the technological society. These two aspects are crucial in understanding the changes for the traditional and extended family to the much reduced and less dominant nuclear family.

One of the leading factors in this transition was the movement of people and work from the rural environment to the urban city and industrial complex. This was essentiality a change from a society based on agriculture, with the more conservative and values that this implies, to one based on industry and technology.

Among the many sociological factors that were to impact on the extended form of the family were changes in mobility as well as a decreasing birthrate. In essence the larger extended family was broken up by urbanization and the smaller nuclear family developed as a consequence of social pressures. The following quotation places this process into contact.

Urbanization and mobility have broken up the large family group of our older rural society. Grandparents, uncles, and aunts less frequently live with the family. Adolescent sons and daughters leave the home community to find work. A new cultural attitude has arisen that it is actually undesirable for a young married couple to live with a parental family.

Folsom 1934, p. 189/190)

Another factor that is often mentioned as part of modern social change was the change in the status of women and the fact that they become employed outside of the home; which had obvious consequences for the development of the family.

The last mentioned point in the quotation above refers to change in concepts and thinking about the nature of the family. The rise of industrial environment also meant the rise of individualism. This is an extremely important in understanding the nature of the modern as well as the postmodern family.

The cult of the individual meant that it become more acceptable and in fact a desired cultural goal, for the children to break away from the parents or from the extended family and to establish separate and autonomous family units of their own.

Another aspect that must be briefly mentioned in the light of cultural forces that have shaped the family was the rise of the secular society; as well as the demise of the older religiously-based family and society. This is also a crucial factor that will be seen to impact on the postmodern demise of marriage and the family.

The increase in the cultural acceptance of individuality, technology and the modern mode of thought went hand in hand, in a socio-historical sense, with the growth of secularization and a less religiously oriented approach in cultures. This meant that the restraint and normative restrictions that had been part of traditional society were radically questioned in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This questioning also led to the search for alternative lifestyles and different modes of family life.

However, note must also be taken of the fact that the above overview relates to a very general picture of the modern family in the developed world. The less developed regions of the world have not, until fairly recently, been subjected to intense technological and industrial change. In many parts of Africa we still find cultures who endorse the extended family structure, which is based on extended kinship relationships and which still holds to the traditional gender and family roles. It is often the case that African family values are entrenched in their cultural belief system. The distinction between nuclear and extended families is vague because every person has a functional role. Grandparents transmit the family values and discipline through the father to the extent that every elder in the village community is regarded as a parent. However it must also be stated that this situation has changed with the departure of colonialism and the introduction of industry and technology to these areas in recent years.

Taking the plethora of research into account it can be stated in a general sense that there has been a shift from an extended to a nuclear family structure. "...there has been a notable shift... In many of the world's nations from the extended family-kinship system to the nuclear family kinship system." (Popenoe 1988, pp. 46/47) This has in turn led to changes in social norms and behavior patterns, especially with regard to sexual norms and marriage. According to one sociological view of the history of the family, the traditional family, based on the principle of lineage and manifest in the dominance of the stem or extended family... was displaced by the modern family based on the principle of conjugal pairing and manifested in the predominance of the nuclear or elementary family household. (Noble 1998. p. 257)

Theoretical perspectives

There a many theories suggested by sociologists that attempt to explain and even predict these changes in the structure and cultural meaning of the modern family. One well-known theoretical stance is the functionalist approach; which is associated with theorists like Talcott Parsons. The functionalist approach views the changes in the structure and shape of the family as a natural response to the changes and transformations in the society as a whole. In other words, various societal pressures exerted on the family cause it to alter in order to be more functionally aligned to the society.

One of the central claims of this approach is that, "....whenever a country becomes modern, industrial, urban, family organization shifts from large kinship groups to a more isolated nuclear or conjugal pattern." (Elshtain 2000, p. 312) This approach therefore views the change from the extended to the nuclear family, as well as other forms of the family, as an alteration which is "...the ineluctable result of forces impinging on the family from the outside.: (Elshtain2000, p. 312)

The functionalist theory however has many detractors and possibly a more appropriate theoretical model to explain in the family is the constructivist approach. This theory states that societal forms and reality are not determined by aspects outside of the construction of reality by the society and the individual. In the words, all aspects of society such as marriage and the family are not predetermined… [END OF PREVIEW]

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