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This family was described as home-centered or

“privatized,” as nuclear rather than part of an

extended kinship network, and, most significantly,

as having much less segregated roles for

husbands and wives. In some ways this new vision

was closer to that of Parsons and Bales, except

that the latter did not predict any change to the

rigid segregation of the male breadwinner and

female housewife. By the time The Symmetrical

Family was published, the sociology of the family

(in both the United Kingdom and the United

States) had become wedded to the idea of the

nuclear, home-loving, monogamous, heterosexual

family where other family forms were dismissed

as aberrant or dysfunctional. It seemed

as if there was little more to be said about families;

theoretically the field was still predominantly

functionalist in orientation, and empirical

research was happily documenting progress towards

an egalitarian, child-centered, companionate

family form in which, although there might

still be problems, progress was being made.

Beck and Beck-Gernsheim describe the sociology

of the family as becoming a zombie category, still

occupying a place in the sociological canon and

yet holding to ideas and conceptualizations long

dead in other fields of sociology and social theory.

Yet this criticism is only accurate if one dismisses

the significance of the new feminist work

which began to dominate the field in the 1970s

in both Britain and United States. This feminist

work challenged the idea of the family as a

companionate, egalitarian institution, and sought

to understand the workings of families from the

standpoint of the women who lived and worked in

them. There were two particularly important

strands of work that developed: the first was a reinterpretation

of the meaning and significance

of the gendered division of labor in the family,

and the second was the re-discovery of domestic

violence in families.

While Young and Willmott were identifying

the rise of the symmetrical family, other studies

were beginning to reveal that the movement of

married women into the labor force seemed to

be generating a double shift for women, rather

than a sharing out of paid and unpaid labor.

Empirical studies showed that husbands did not

take on more housework or child-care responsibilities,

but that wives would come back from

paid work only to find that they remained responsible

for all (or almost all) domestic duties. Men

might have spoken of their willingness to “help”

in Young and Willmott, but this was seen by later

feminists as merely confirming that domestic

work remained the responsibility of women. Research

by feminists such as Ann Oakley (The Sociology

of Housework, 1974) drew attention to the idea

that housework was “real” work and that it was,

moreover, never finished. She dismissed the idea

that modern technology had lightened women’s

load because, although the physical labor associated

with each task might have become

less arduous, standards of cleanliness and child

care rose exponentially. Following Oakley’s attempt

to force sociology to take “women’s work”

in the home seriously, there arose a more explicitly

Marxist analysis which became known as

the domestic labor debate. In this debate, the

feminist position argued that a materialist analysis

of capitalism should include consideration

of women’s unpaid labor, because housework

and child care were part of the reproduction of

labor power needed by capital to keep those in

paid employment (see work and employment) fit

and capable of working long hours in the process

of producing profit. Without women’s unpaid

labor in the family, it was argued, capitalism

could not survive, and women’s labor indirectly

contributed to the creation of profit.

family family


Linked to this argument was the idea that

women continued to give their labor freely

because they subscribed to (or were brainwashed

by) the ideology of familialism. It was

argued that ideas that women’s roles as mothers

or as housewives were a natural component of

women’s being and psyche were a kind of false

consciousness, which kept women willingly confined

to economically dependent and subservient

positions in their families. Rather than seeing

women’s economic and social vulnerability as

either god-given or as functionally necessary, this

approach saw it as exploitative and oppressive.

Marxist feminist work became associated with

a profound critique of the family, and this oppositional

stance is exemplified in the work of

Michelle Barrett and Mary McIntosh, Anti-Social

Family (1982).

While the domestic labor debate was about

housework, other feminists turned their attention

to “care” work. This approach focused on

two aspects of hidden work in families. The first

was the work of caring for others, not only children,

but also often elderly or infirm relatives.

These activities had previously been treated as

extensions of women’s natural caring capacity,

and so the process of redefining it as work was

part of a process of making it more visible and

understood as a social activity. The second approach

centered more on emotional labor. This

activity was identified as women’s responsibility,

and its focus was to keep the breadwinner happy,

to attend to his emotional needs, and to provide

an emotionally comforting and restorative environment.

It is interesting that, in bringing these

activities to the fore, feminists at this time used

the terminology of work or labor to give a kind of

concrete status to these otherwise apparently

ephemeral activities. But, in so doing, both care

and emotions were reduced to a form of labor

which could be measured and assessed.

Throughout this period, work on the family

therefore sought to deconstruct taken-for-granted

ideas about the warmth, love, and support supposedly

found in families. Instead it focused on

power relations, something notably absent from

earlier approaches. However, because emotions

were seen as suspect, this feminist work banished

a sphere of enquiry on love, care, and attentiveness

for over a generation. Indeed, it was argued

that the very term family should be avoided, and

in its place the concept of the household used,

because this was free from naturalistic assumptions

about gender roles, affection, duties of

care, and unequal, heterosexual relationships.

However, the attempt to remove the term family

from the sociological lexicon ultimately failed.

The rediscovery of domestic violence (itself a

contested term) was also linked to the focus on

power relations in the family. The term was

coined to counterpoise the idea of the domestic

as an environment of harmony and safety, with

concepts typically associated with the public

sphere, namely danger and harm. It was later

criticized because it obscured the fact that this

violence was inflicted overwhelmingly by men,

and so it was seen as disguising men’s moral responsibility

for their behavior. But whether the

term wife beating or domestic violence or woman

abuse was used, the focus on violence was a crucial

part of the redefinition of the family as a

universally “good thing.” Feminist work sought

to explain why women had little choice but to

stay in violent relationships, and also argued

that violent men gave rise to violent sons and

intimidated daughters. Through this focus on violence

it was also argued that heterosexual relationships

were dangerous for women and that,

even though not all men were violent, the cultural

acceptance of male violence in the home served

to empower all men in their relationships with


Research on domestic violence highlighted the

core problem of women’s economic dependence

on men, especially when they had children and

had left the labor market. It also revealed the

extent to which both criminal and family law

protected the privilege of husbands within the

privacy of the family. Assaults, which would have

led to criminal proceedings if carried out in

public, were treated as a private matter between

spouses, and there was little help an assaulted

wife could call on. When combined with the

recognition of women’s double shift, emotional

labor, and economic exploitation in families,

there emerged an argument that the monogamous,

heterosexual family was an arrangement

which was highly detrimental to women, and

which reproduced the privileged position of men

in western societies. For at least a decade feminist

work on family life was largely preoccupied

with these questions of power and exploitation,

and sought to challenge the idea that families

had become more democratic and egalitarian


The feminist critique on the family is often

(rather simplistically) seen to be the cause of the

decline of the family. This is because the depiction

of the family as a poor choice for women coincided

(in western societies) with a rise in the

family family


divorce rate, a decline in marriage rates and the

birth rate, a rise in cohabitation and lone motherhood,

and also a rise in people living alone. However,

it is important to recognize the extent to

which concerns and predictions about the decline

of the family are a historical phenomenon. It is

hard to find a moment when someone was not

expressing alarm that the family was no longer

the decent, patriarchal household of the past,

with obedient children and subservient wives.

Even Parsons and Bales started their book on the

family with reference to the worry that changes

in family structure were causing in the postwar

United States. Each new generation would appear

to have identified slightly different reasons for

the perceived decline or disorganization of the

family. Some saw the shift from extended to nuclear

families as a profound loss, other saw the

loss of “functions” of the family (for example education)

to the state as an indication of moral decline.

Yet others saw (and still see) the rise in

divorce (see marriage and divorce) as a clear indicator

of decline, while opponents argue that the

high rate of divorce is a sign that people set great

store by the value of good personal relationships

and so will no longer tolerate bad, or abusive,


These concerns gave rise to the so-called Pro-

Family Right, predominantly in the United States,

but also to a lesser extent in the United Kingdom.

In a kind of backlash against the perceived

hegemony of feminist thinking, the Pro-Family

Right depicted fatherless families as the cause of

rises in delinquency, idleness, and poverty (David

Popenoe, Disturbing the Nest: Family Change and

Decline in Modern Societies, 1988). A dystopian vision

of family life came to dominate much of this

writing with each rise in the divorce statistics or

rise in numbers of children born out of wedlock

interpreted as a nail in the coffin of the family.

As early as 1983 Brigitte and Peter Berger, in

The War over the Family, were trying to find the

middle ground between those promoting policies

to re-establish the traditional family (by which

it was meant the patriarchal breadwinner / dependent

housewife model) and those who saw

the family as the site of the reproduction of both

gender and class oppressions. In the United States

the “war” was highly charged because of the direct

link with both policy and politics, which meant

that studying the family had become less an

academic pursuit than a politically fraught enterprise.

This politically charged engagement suggests

that the study of the family might not have

been in the doldrums as Beck and Beck-Gernsheim

suggest, but in fact their point still stands because

the interminable debate about family decline

was ultimately intellectually reductive and circular.

The claims and counterclaims became

familiar territory, and it seemed to become impossible

to move beyond this narrow conceptual


In fact, sociological work on families did manage

to move forwards (although not completely)

as new ways of thinking about family relationships

started to emerge. A key re-conceptualization

came from David Morgan in Family Connections

(1996), where he succeeded in ultimately breaking

with the functionalist tradition of seeing the

family as an institution with its roles and core

functions, and instead saw the family as something

people “did.” He coined the terminology

of “family practices.” He conceptualized the

family as a web of relationships which was created

and recreated by what people did and how

they related to one another through their ordinary

practices. This meant that the family was set

loose from traditional ideas that it was fundamentally

about the co-residence of a man and

a woman and their children, who all occupied a

given status in relation to one another. He grasped

what is acknowledged in everyday experience,

namely that those whom people feel to be family

are family and that co-residence is not vital to

form a family, but affective (and other emotional)

bonds and everyday practices are. This conceptual

shift provided a means to think differently about

families and to start to include varieties of previously

unrecognized families without constantly

comparing them to the nuclear ideal. Morgan

also rehabilitated the term family. He acknowledged

that it is a problematic concept because

of the ideology of familialism which idealizes a

particular type or set of relationships. The term

family is also apparently resolutely heterosexual

in intonation; some would argue it is heteronormative,

because of its focus on and privileging

of marriage and opposite sex biological reproduction.

But Morgan’s work pointed to the flexibility

of the concept of family in everyday usage

and the ways in which it has been stretched and

molded, notwithstanding sociology’s attempts

to fix a definition of the family as comprising

two opposite sex parents and their children.

Morgan also pointed out that the term family is

deeply culturally significant, and, even though it

may have many different meanings, it is still

meaningful and so should not be discarded, since

it encapsulates and reflects a range of cultural

values which should be the focus of enquiry. The

family family


task for sociology, he suggested, was to explore

more imaginatively how people “do” family life.

These ideas were simultaneously being reflected

in a new body of empirical research on families.

Of particular significance was the work of

Janet Finch and Jennifer Mason, Negotiating Family

Responsibilities (1993), who re-incorporated ideas

about values and meaning into how people live

their family lives. They used the term negotiating

in order to express how, even in close kin relationships,

people were not governed by a sense of

handed-down rigid obligations, but were guided

by their feelings about their relatives and by

their own sense of ethics, or “the proper thing to

do.” Almost all family relationships were thus

seen as negotiable and so variable. Yet they also

found that there remained an important sense

of obligation and commitment to kin. This microlevel

analysis focused much more explicitly on

the values that people live their family lives by;

it looked at everyday workings and gave precedence

to the meanings that family members

themselves constructed in living their families.

This focus on meanings and values in everyday

living has also been reflected in other empirical

studies which have attempted to capture the

complexity of both relationships within families

and those between generations. This greater attentiveness

to the ways in which real, complex,

and multilayered relationships are lived has

finally ended the sociological tendency to speak

about the family as if it was an entity of likeminded,

homogeneous people who react in a

uniform way to the “outside world” rather than

themselves being (inter)active agents. An example

of this development is found in How Families

Still Matter by Vern Bengtson, Timothy J. Bibblaz,

and Robert E. L. Roberts (2002). This is a longitudinal

study of American families which focuses

on intergenerational change and continuity

across time. Four generations were included in

the study, with the first generation born at the

turn of the twentieth century, the second born

around the 1920s, the third around the 1950s,

and the fourth in the 1970s. The importance of

this study is that, through its longitudinal methodology,

it has been able to capture continuity

and change across generations, while also mapping

such changes onto the changing historical

times through which the families lived and are

still living. The study is also able to capture individual

change, for example the authors can compare

what people say now with what they said

ten or twenty years ago. They can, moreover, compare

what older people born in the 1950s actually

said and felt when they were in their twenties

with what twenty-year-olds now say and feel. This

move to qualitative and quantitative longitudinal

research marks an important shift in the extent

to which sociology can actually grasp family life

and also the actual processes of family and social

change. Most significantly, it is able to deal with

the problem of “golden age” thinking in which

family life of the past is always depicted as better,

more moral, more loving, and generally superior

to family life now.

Observations of the interiority of family life

have also brought a new level of imaginative

thinking to the field. John Gillis, in A World of their

Own Making (1996), has distinguished between

families we live “with” and families we live “by.”

The latter are the families in people’s memories,

hopes, and imaginations, the families people represent

to themselves; while the former are the

actual co-resident families who may be far from

the ideal held in thoughts or longings. Gillis

points to the constant iteration between these

two levels of experiences of, and thinking about,

families. His focus is on myth and ritual (for

example family holidays or the ways in which

ancestors influence lives lived in the present) in

order to reveal the ways in which people live

their families in their heads, not just in the

material present. To some extent, Gillis has rehabilitated

the older concept of the ideology of

the family which, when deployed by feminist

writers in the 1970s, was seen as a kind of imposed,

malign influence which kept women in

their place. In other words he has reintroduced

the significance of hopes and feelings into an

understanding of families, without the prior

assumption that these are oppressive devices.

These shifts in conceptualizing families, namely

seeing families as kinship networks which need

not co-reside, focusing on negotiations, highlighting

the importance of the representation of

families both culturally and personally, and the

idea that it is important to capture process and

change, rather than taking a series of snapshots,

have all produced a sociology of family life which

is far more complex and subtle than the early

functionalists were able to produce. But factors

such as gender, social class, ethnicity, religion,

and sexual orientation remain an important component

of a sociological imagination about family

life. Families remain one of the most significant

means of the transmission of privilege, wealth,

and cultural capital (see social capital) across generations.

The personal nature of family life which

is captured above is also part of the reason why

family family


abuses of power across genders and generations

remain hidden and tolerated. Moreover, the fact

that one is born into a family (usually) and that

one’s kin is identified in advance (through blood

ties and lineage) still means that families, unlike

friendships, are imposed rather than entered into


This idea that families are inevitably given,

rather than chosen, has been challenged however.

Kath Weston, in Families We Choose: Lesbians,

Gays, Kinship (1991), has pointed to the growing

creation and recognition of families of choice.

The exclusion of gays and lesbians from supposedly

proper (that is, heteronormative) families

in conventional thinking has led to a reclaiming

and remolding of the concept of family so that it

can be used to signify people living together in

close relationships notwithstanding the fact they

are unable to marry and are not blood relatives.

The increase in, and increasing visibility of, lesbian

mothers and gay and lesbian adoption, has

profoundly affected the taken-for-grantedness of

the heterosexual family. The claim by lesbians

and gays to form families has been controversial,

precisely because the family has been seen inevitably

to incorporate and promote heterosexual

privilege; however, this move can also be seen as

part of the redefinition of what families are in

contemporary society and as a blurring of the

boundaries between traditionally privileged relationships

and those that were once ignored and


It has been suggested above that sociological

work on families operates on two levels, with

macro-theoretical work progressing in a parallel

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