Acceptance of family in Western society – Sociology Essay

Acceptance of family in Western society – Sociology Essay
The Encyclopaedia Britannica (1995) defines family as
a group of persons united by the ties of marriage, blood, or adoption, constituting a single household and interacting with each other in their respective social positions, usually those of spouses, parents, children, and siblings.

The family group should be distinguished from a household, which may include boarders and roomers sharing a common residence. This paper will discuss whether all forms of the family are accepted in contemporary

Western society by addressing several key questions. What are the forms of the family that we currently have in contemporary Western society? How do these current forms of the family differ from historical familial forms? Why does the family continue and at what point does a form of family become accepted? When looking at these key issues, other factors also need to be taken into consideration. Particularly when addressing forms of the family in contemporary Western society, aspects such as the law, religion and cultural influence are of paramount importance if we are to consider this question in its entirety, as it could be considered that many societies in the West have constructed their own variations or types of familial forms from the various cultural influences that comprise contemporary society.

There are several defined forms of families that exist in contemporary society. The Australian Bureau of Statistics Year Book, in the Population- Households and Families analysis of data collected in the 2001 Census, describes significant changes in the types of families in Australia with the following statistical depiction:

In 2001, of the 4.9 million families counted in the census there were 2.3 million couple families with children (47.0%). The number of families with this family type was the same at the time of the 1991 census but the proportion has declined, from 53.7%, as the number of all families has grown (from 4.3 million).
While families with children remained the most common family type in 2001, other family types have grown significantly in the last 10 years. Couple families without children increased by 30% from 1.4 million in 1991 to 1.8 million in 2001. These are comprised of couples who have not yet had children and also couples whose children have left home. One-parent families also increased, from 552,400 in 1991 to 762,600 in 2001, an increase of 38%. (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2001)

In the Encyclopaedia Britannica Online (1995), the forms of family organisation are the nuclear family, “… the basic unit of family organization in virtually every society. It is generally defined as a married couple and their children (including adopted and fostered children, as well as the couple’s natural children).” The one-parent family, “…consists of one parent and his or her children. One-parent families may be formed through widowhood, divorce, or separation. They may also be formed when an unmarried person, usually a woman, raises children on her own.” The compound family, “…consists of a central figure (normally the household head), his or her spouses, sometimes concubines, and their children.” The joint family, “a group of brothers and their wives and children all live together in the same household”, the extended family – a larger and lesser controlled form of the joint family and kin networks, a result of extended families dispersing and government agencies taking over the financial responsibilities customarily looked after by direct family.

Recent research has indicated that modern industrial societies are comprised of a “plurality of household and family types, and the idea of a typical family is misleading”. (Van Krieken, Smith, Habibis, McDonald, Haralambos and Holborn, 2000) In the 1970s, Shorter (1975) described the emerging post-modern family for possibly the first time. The three important characteristics noted by Shorter are: adolescent indifference to the family’s identity; instability in the lives of couples, accompanied by rapidly increasing divorce rates; and destruction of the “nest” notion of nuclear family life with the liberation of women (Zeitlin, Megawangi, Kramer, Colletta, Babatunde and Garman, 1995).

In pre-industrial societies, it was argued by Frédéric Le Play, there had been three types of family structure. He first describes the patriarchal family (typical among peasant families), where all sons in the family remained in residence with and under the authority of their father until such a time as an individual heir was appointed. Next, the unstable or nuclear family, where there is no expectation of support to anyone outside the nucleus and the offspring establish themselves as independent from their parents (typical among the wealthy and urban manufacturers) and the stem family, where only one son inherits the property and resides with the parents (again, typical of peasant families) (Van Krieken et al, 2000). This theory was argued against by Peter Laslett (1983; 1984) however, who uncovered evidence that there was a distinctive ‘Western family’ that was typically nuclear in structure, where the children were born relatively late to parents with little age gap and who as a family resided in their own separate households. This type of familial structure was distinct from Eastern Europe and other parts of the world and according to Laslett, possibly helped Western Europe to industrialise first (Van Krieken et al. 2000).

One reason for the continuation of the family could be that in society, we have an extensive ideology of familism. Any changes to the familial structure, particularly that of the ‘nuclear family’ could be viewed as threatening the ‘stability of society as a whole’. (Steel and Kidd, 2001) ‘Familia ideology’ it is suggested by Diana Gittins (1993) ‘is often supported by the belief systems of both science and religion’ (Steel and Kidd, 2001). By this it is meant that religious institutions or teachings assert that ‘the most suitable way for humans to live is within a family’ and science asserts that humans have primitive biological urges (specifically sexual reproduction) that can be best fulfilled by existing in familial structures (Steel and Kidd, 2001). Families are viewed not as fixed, static entities, but as living, growing and changing over time (Steel and Kidd, 2001).

A central concern to family sociology is diversity. Rhonda and Robert Rapoport (1982) believe that because of societal changes in recent years and the fact that there are various options and choices now giving flexibility to family living, there are five types of diversity that sociologists need to consider (Steel and Kidd, 2001). There is organisational diversity, where there are many structures and ways that families are organised, either both parents or figure heads earn a wage, or only one does and the resulting effects on the roles these parents or figure heads perform. There is cultural diversity, differences in the familial structure of various ethnic and cultural groups. Class or economic diversity, the differences in which middle-class and working class execute familial roles. Life-course diversity, changes in the family structure from early age marriage and children to a late age couple whose children have become independent and cohort diversity, people who may share similar family life experiences due to them experiencing similar social and historical events (Steel and Kidd, 2001). As diversity in familial structures and the rise of alternatives to the conventional nuclear family becomes more accepted and prevalent, they are also becoming more legitimate, particularly when dealing with divorce and cohabitation (Steel and Kidd, 2001).
In an analysis of research focussed on the family or households carried out in Britain, Jo VanEvery (1995) states that in reference to ‘the precise ways in which family life is changing,’
“…recognisable are the public anxieties and political debates about the causes and consequences of these changes, and the legislative solutions aimed at halting the ‘post-modern family revolution’.” (VanEvery, 1995 in Jagger and Wright, 1999:165)
What VanEvery (1995) is bringing to our attention is that with the difficulty of finding a precise definition for family, much of what we as society can classify as ‘research’ in which to base our laws and literature on, does not represent the diversity of family that we have in contemporary Western society. What was found was that only modern nuclear family households existed in the reality constructed by this research, regardless of how the individuals researched chose to organise their lives (VanEvery, 1995 in Jagger and Wright, 1999:166).

With the difficulty that comes from defining the forms that ‘family’ takes, the consequent possibility of flaws that may exist in the gathering of data that could show the existing forms of the family in Western society and the constant changing and development of society as a whole, how do we implicitly say are all forms of the family accepted in contemporary Western society? When looking at census data, we can see that the forms of family that could be defined ‘accepted’ are couples with children, couples without children, couples whose children have left home and one-parent families (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2001). Are these the only definable categories of family? Are compound families, with a central figure head and his or her spouses and children or joint families with brothers and sisters, their spouses and children counted as ‘couples with children’ although living in alternative households? What is it that constitutes a couple to be counted? Are they same sex, married or unmarried? It would appear that the differentiation is not clear in the census data, but one could perhaps assume the absence of this differentiation shows acceptance in our society. If you are a same sex couple with children, you are counted as family – even if there are aspects of society that don’t reflect this acknowledgment.