Family Ideology

Types of family

Source: The Place of Men in changing family cultures. Geoff Dench (1996).

An example of how differing ideologies support different family arrangements.

The study was an exploration of contemporary cultural variations in family roles allocated to men. It can only be considered a pilot study because only small numbers were involved. The importance of the study is the light it sheds on the impact that ideology can have on how family life is lived and experienced.

The fundamental ideological division was between: conventional regulation (marriage) and individual choice.

Conventional families

Family is understood as a network of interpersonal rights and obligations arising out of birth and marriage and extending across household boundaries. Personal choice is allowed for to some extent, as in marriage, but once exercised it should foreclose further choices.

Family ties are seen as binding together people of all ages and sex categories into groupings whose members feel responsibility to provide reciprocal supports for each other. Such interdependence within families is seen as the moral basis of society, and therefore as requiring compromise of purely personal interests.

Many of the respondents in this study emphasized a distinction between what may be good for individuals and what is good for families as groups.

Deregulated families (individual choice)

One third of the respondents in the study rejected all group conventions and insist that family arrangements are a private matter to be freely negotiated among those people choosing to share a household. Most consider traditional families, and especially conventional divisions of domestic labour, as sources of social inequality and injustice.

Personal choice and autonomy are regarded as being of fundamental value in achieving a fair society.

It was found that it was the deregulated (alternative) family culture that leads to the loosening of family expectations on men. The advocates of the alternative position tended to be younger, childless, and the view enjoyed more acceptance among white British than among ethnic minorities.

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African Caribbeans seem the exception to this but this could be due to the speedy acceptance and conversion to UK libertarianism than to Caribbean cultural values. Migrants born in the Caribbean are divided from African Caribbean children raised in the UK by differences of cultural practice and values.

Alternative values were not retained by many of the respondents after they became experienced parents. The ideology emphasising personal choice does not provide a stable basis for enduring family relationships.

The study criticises much research into men's family roles as shallow - little more than measurements of men's participation in domestic activities. In such research, the 'male breadwinner role' is regarded as a reactionary phenomenon that nobody would want to analyse. Indeed, women's economic independence is viewed as a self evident uncontested good.

  1. Most people gravitate towards conventional family life - more so as they raise children and move to middle age.
  2. Many women do want more than domestic roles.
  3. The highest levels of personal and marital satisfaction were among people who lived in traditional families. The highest levels were connected to families in which the man worked and the woman was at home. The lowest levels occurred when the woman worked and the man stayed at home.

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  1. Restore a positive valuation of some sexual division of labour and identify some important roles for men.
  2. Encourage marriage through financial and legal benefits.

In the UK, the debate around conjugal rights and responsibilities is bogged down in the pursuit of fully symmetrical roles.

The individualist philosophy that has resulted in alternative lifestyles has denied men any responsibility for creating and maintaining family ties and responsibilities.

When the 'male breadwinner role' started to deteriorate, so did many men's felt obligation to work and support their family. This has had a particularly disastrous effect on young African Caribbean males.

It seems that men who pursue alternative lifestyles are:

More likely to live alone.

More likely to be unemployed.

Have less contact with relatives.

Generally, such men are less likely to be needed and this can mean that men are left out of the family picture - either because they opt out by being absent or because women choose to manage without them.

A view from 1950

The following extract comes from a 1950's home economics textbook:

  • Have dinner ready. Plan ahead, even the night before, to have a delicious meal - on time. This is a way of letting him know that you have been thinking about him and are concerned about his needs. Most men are hungry when they come home and the prospects of a good meal are part of the warm welcome needed.
  • Prepare yourself. Take 15 minutes to rest so you will be refreshed when he arrives. Touch up your makeup, put a ribbon in your hair and be fresh looking. He has just been with a lot of work-weary people. Be a little gay and a little more interesting. His boring day may need a lift.
  • Clear away the clutter. Make one last trip through the main part of the house just before your husband arrives, gathering up school books, toys, paper, etc. then run a dust cloth over the tables. Your husband will feel he has reached a haven of rest and order, and it will give you a lift, too.
  • Prepare the children: Take a few minutes to wash the children's hands and faces (if they are small), comb their hair, and if necessary, change their clothes. They are little treasures and he would like to see them playing the part.
  • Minimize all noise: At the time of his arrival, eliminate all noise of washer, dryer, dishwasher or vacuum. Try to encourage the children to be quiet. Be happy to see him. Greet him with a warm smile and be glad to see him.
  • Some don'ts: Don't greet him with problems or complaints. Don't complain if he's late for dinner. Count this as minor compared with what he might have gone through that day.
  • Make him comfortable: Have him lean back in a comfortable chair or suggest he lie down in the bedroom. Have a cool or warm drink ready for him. Arrange his pillow and offer to take off his shoes. Speak in a low, soft soothing and pleasant voice. Allow him to relax-unwind.
  • Listen to him: You may have a dozen things to tell him, but the moment of his arrival is not the time. Let him talk first.
  • Make the evening his: Never complain if he does not take you out to dinner or to other places of entertainment. Instead, try to understand his world of strain and pressure, his need to be home and relax.
  • The goal: Try to make your home a place of peace and order where your husband can renew himself in body and spirit.

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Remember, that although there are undoubtedly differences between now and the recent past, for example, immigration, values and affluence, there arealso likely to be strong continuities. In addition, it is possible that the more unified view of the family we see in sociological literature from the 1950s is a distorted view that ignored, or did not observe real differences in family structure and life course.

Much recent research supports the view that diversity is the rule in family arrangements. In Britain, Fogerty and Rapoport (1982) concluded that:

"Families in Britain today are in a transition from coping in a society in which there was a single overriding norm of what family life should be like to a society in which a plurality of norms are recognised as legitimate and, indeed, desirable".

As Crowley(1992) argues: 'The normative family is a statistical minority'.

One way to study family life is to divide up a family in terms of a number of stages that a 'normal' family would be expected to pass through. This is the Life-cycle approach. Life-course approaches are, by contrast, much more focused on the individual as the unit of analysis, rather than the family unit.

The life-cycle approach views family life as essentially predictable. The assumption that the future, in most ways, resembles the past and that there are regular patterns that can be discerned. However, recent evidence reveals that such regular patterns are now considerably weakened.

Other researchers would argue further that the unity seen in the past was in fact a false unity - the result of wishful thinking and biased research and that, in truth, family life has always been diverse.

Furthermore, if we take the individual rather than the family as the unit of analysis, considerable diversity can be viewed in many people's journey through family life.

Do we choose the sort of life we live or are we, at least to some extent, the victims of circumstance?

Social action theorists support an approach based on humans' capacity for choice. This approach emphasizes that people can choose/negotiate alternative lifestyles in the light of their understanding of their situation, and within the limits that their circumstances allow. Peoples' behaviour is not determined by society. People choose the sorts of family arrangements that they want.

Much Postmodernist and Structural theories takes a much more determinist approach. Postmodernists tend to see us all as the result of our exposure to differing and contradictory accounts, which via history, culture and our social, world produce different kinds of people. This approach explains the diversity of family structures as being a consequence of contemporary society being made up of competing and contradictory discourses (stories/explanations), which act upon people in different circumstances.

The Rapoports (1982) argue that there are five types of diversity in contemporary families. These are:

Organisational diversity

This refers to different types of family structure, for example, single parent and reconstituted families. It also refers to differing kinship patterns and to the domestic division of labour.

Diversity of lifestyles also reflects people at different points in their life course. For example, many people live alone, but for different reasons and this may or may not be a permanent state.

Cultural (ethnic)

Britain is a multi-ethnic society. In the case of South Asian families, both Hindu and Muslim, there is a tendency for the families to be extended, traditional and patriarchal.

Afro-Caribbean families, like Asian families, tend to reflect the societies from which they migrated. The stereotypical image of the Afro-Caribbean family in Britain is of a single parent household, but perhaps the key point is that Afro-Caribbean families tend to be mother-centred.

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Inequalities in lifestyle possibilities have increased since the 1980s.

Wealth and income have an obvious impact in terms of type of housing, room size/number, financial problems and holidays, for example.

Life course

The life course of individuals within families can vary greatly. This can reflect choice or circumstance. This covers such factors as the number of children, the spacing of the children, divorce, remarriage, widowhood.


A cohort of individuals refers to those born in the same year (or band of years). Such individuals may well have a shared experience of historical events, for example, the introduction of comprehensive schools, or the introduction of the birth control pill.

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  1. Material factors. Greater affluence, greater geographical and social mobility. The greater economic independence of women, increased lifespan.
  2. Values. People are increasingly likely to view their circumstances in terms of what's best for them - their rights.
  3. Immigration. The cultural life of Britain has been greatly enlarged by the mass immigrations of the 1950s and 60s.

There is another viewpoint, that the family has not changed much and that the predominant form of family organization continues to be the traditional nuclear family. Signs of stability can be gauged in two ways.

1. Behaviour

Robert Chester, "The Rise of the Neo-Conventional family, New Society "9/5/85 argues that:

  1. Most adults still marry and have children.
  2. Most children are reared by their natural parents.
  3. Most people live in a household headed by a married couple.
  4. Most marriages continue until parted by death.

Chester argues that no great change in family organization has occurred. There is, in general, continuity with the past.

2. Attitudes

Sheena Ashford, "British Social Attitudes" 1987, argues that:

In their attitudes towards marriage and other family matters, the British emerge as highly and consistently conventional. The family may be dead, but the idea of the family survives unchallenged.

Essay-style Questions

  1. Item

    The term 'the family' seeks to refer us to a norm. This norm pictures the family in terms of a typical life cycle. It progresses from unattached young heterosexual people, to couples to marriage, the birth of children, raising children, the return to 'coupledom' then 'singledom' with the death of a partner.

    Clearly, this norm hides the considerable diversity that exists in family life. People might be homosexual, they might not get married, they might not have children, children might remain in the family home... Many of us will have more than one family through divorce and remarriage. Alternatives to the traditional nuclear family are increasingly socially acceptable and people are able to exercise choice over the sort of family they want to live in.

    Using material from the Item and elsewhere, assess sociological explanations for the diversity in family forms found in Britain today.

    (Marks available: 20)


    Answer outline and marking scheme for question: 1

    • Make sure you use material from the item and from elsewhere.
    • You need to explain.
    • You need to assess the explanations.
    • You are not being asked to simply list different types of family.

    What's in the item?

    Nature (types):

    Heterosexual/homosexual; married/unmarried; children/childless.


    Social acceptance - (this is a bit vague, but you should be able to support this from your own knowledge). The idea of a norm - has this norm changed?

    Overall, the item is of limited use here. All you get is the idea of social acceptance and the possibility of developing the idea of a norm.


    Explanations with examples:

    More Choice - our behaviour is not determined by society.

    Giddens, The Transformation of Intimacy (1992). We form families because we want to.

    For example: organizational diversity concerning the domestic division of labour. Contraception means we can choose to not have children, or when to have them and how many to have.


    Beck (1995) - we live in a risk society. Things just happen to us. Divorce, death, remarriage, unwanted childlessness, etc.


    We live longer so we are more likely to divorce, remarry etc.

    For example: Regional variations Eversley & Bonnerjea (1982) 'sun belt' families of the affluent south east, elderly retired live, in 'geriatric wards'. Inner city areas tend to have more lone parents, and ethnic minority households.


    Our own biographies will have an effect on the families we form. We are affected by our own pasts.

    Life course rather than life cycle

    The traditional approach considers the family as the unit of analysis. The life course approach takes the individual as the unit of analysis. It is clear than many individuals have differing family arrangements because of the circumstances of their personal lives.


    Macionis & Plummer (1997). Reproductive technology enables new family relationships. Communications technology enables families to live in different parts of the world.


    Mass immigration into the UK in the 1950's - mainly West Indians, 1960's mainly South Asians.

    For example: South Asians least likely to form single parent families. Black people most likely. Modood et al (1997).

    R. Oakley (1982) in a study of Cypriot families in Britain, found strong extended family ties.

    Material factors

    Increased economic independence of women. Consequences; more single women, more dual career households, more divorce, etc.

    Social Policy

    The existence of the Welfare State provides economic support for those in need. This makes possible the existence of many single parent households.

    For example: Class inequalities have widened since 1979 as a direct result of governmental taxation policy.

    Mark scheme:

    This is only a rough guide. Clearly, if you included everything mentioned in the QuickLearn you would score over 20 marks!

    Give yourself 2 marks for each explanation that is supported by an example.

    The assessment needs to consider which explanations are most important. For example:

    A statement or claim:

    Silva & Smart (1999) argue that there was drift towards more varied forms of family organization, based they argue on more freedom of 'personal choice'.


    Certainly the decline of religion, and the increasing emphasis on individuality suggests that many more people feel free to choose the family lifestyle they would prefer.

    Give yourself 1 mark every time you use an evaluative phrase such as, it would seem that/on the other hand/as against this however/overall/provided you have linked it to a sociological claim regarding diversity.

    (Marks available: 20)


Ideology attempts to explain and justify a particular view of some aspect of perceived reality and present it as the only legitimate understanding of that reality. What you should remember is that ideology is principally a set of beliefs about what ought to be the case - they are standards we are taught to try and achieve.

  1. The ideology of the family consists of all those values and norms that instruct us on how 'ideal' family life should be lived.

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  2. Ideology provides a justification for the type of institution the family is seen to be in our culture.

  3. Most of the time this ideology is 'hidden' in that it is there in our unconscious, but not often brought to consciousness and seriously questioned.

  4. Most of the time the ideology assumes the status of 'common sense' or what is 'natural'.

One way in which family ideology is exposed, is when the institution supported by a particular ideology is seen to be at a point of crisis.

The family is currently very much the focus of great concern, and it is precisely at times like this that the gap between ideology and lived experience becomes uncomfortably wide and causes strain. A consequence of this is that the ideology itself may come under attack. It is then defended by the status quo against those who wish to dismantle it.

  1. The concept of the family dominant at the present time is a relatively recent creation; it arose during the late 18th century, and then, as now, the ideology describes what 'ought' to be the case and not necessarily what 'is' the case.
  2. The ideology is patriarchal, justified by reference to what is seen as 'natural' and in part to scriptural authority. The ideology was devised by and served to mark the middle class off from the decadence of the upper class and the immorality of the working class.
  3. With the rise to political power of the middle class it became held up as an ideal to which all, no matter from what class, should aspire, and indeed it became enshrined in state policies. Although this ideology has a clear middle class pedigree it is presented as universal.
  4. It is clearly founded on authority, deference and dependence, which are by their very nature unequal. Since it is a conservative ideology, radical movements are seen as both a threat to the family and to have been a consequence of the crisis in the family.
  1. Through motherhood, a woman expresses her natural maternal instincts.

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  2. Only a stable family can ensure the successful upbringing of children.

  3. The predominant family type in western society is the nuclear family.

  4. The family is, or should be, warm, intimate and satisfying.

  5. Marriage is a companionship, but men are head of household.

  6. Women are responsible for domesticity and childcare.

  7. Childhood is different from adulthood and children require special care and consideration.

Clearly, ideology is socially constructedand subject to continual evolution, rather than being 'natural' and this is also reflected in the changes below:

  1. Women are increasingly seen as 'interested' in heterosexual sex.
  2. Men are now encouraged to participate in domestic life.

  3. Working women are now seen as quite normal.

  4. Cohabitation is now generally acceptable.

Far many traditionalists, the family is often viewed as an institution that is naturally given, and thus is automatically viewed as socially and morally desirable, and something that you mess with at your peril. The realms of the natural and the social are fused. The family, and the gender roles within it, is seen as a biological unit rather than as a social arrangement.

For example:.

The areas of gender, sexuality and marriage and the family are those most often appealed to on grounds of the 'natural'. Hence motherhood is endowed with connotations of self-sacrifice, propagation of the species and maternal instinct. We all 'know' what makes a 'good' mother.

Traditional family ideology gains support from the fact that family life does indeed have attractions:

  • Investment in a family is, in our society, a rational choice given its stature. There is first the offer of emotional security and satisfaction not experienced elsewhere given our present social relations.

  • The family permits the opportunity for the expression of emotional needs not legitimately expressed elsewhere.
  • Relations between kin retain elements of rights and obligations not present elsewhere.
  • There is a general attitude of taking for granted the security generated within a family. This concentration of such needs within a marriage/partnership can lead to overload due to high expectations, and it has lessened the importance of emotional relationships outside of the family.
  • Another appeal of the family is children. The family is claimed by some to be the most supportive and rewarding means of bringing up children.

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  • At the material level a couple can provide a quality of life for their children far higher than that available to most single parents.

And it is an often openly expressed view that children need two parents. The strength of this sentiment can be gauged by the attempt made to remedy situations where this lack is apparent. For example, the organization of many institutions such as schools and children's homes, mirror a 'family' atmosphere.

Although far less than 50% of British households are based on nuclear households of parents and children and even fewer have the traditional male 'breadwinner' and female 'housewife', we continue to live in a society where the 'average' family is continually evoked.


With the institution of the family, the link to nature is invoked because the family is so closely allied to the undeniably natural process of biological reproduction. Yet eating is natural, but we would not consider restaurants or groceries as natural. Appeals to nature are often made in resistance to social change.

It is transparent that the political 'right' seeks to maintain what are argued to be both traditional and 'right' values as regards the family. Indeed, there has been a harking back to earlier apparent 'golden ages' of family life.

The Victorian family, for example, is held up as a paragon of virtue with stricter morals, less likelihood of divorce and more caring in its attitude to children and the old.

Family ideology has been a vital means of holding together and legitimating the existing social, economic, political and gender systems. Challenging the ideology thus means challenging the whole social system. So fears about a crisis in the family are really fears about challenges to the system.

The main crisis points in traditional family ideology are:


Domestic violence

Child abuse

The elderly

These are the points at which ideology most obviously conflicts with many people's lived reality of family life.

S-Cool Revision Summary

This Revision Summary applies to all of the Family topics...

Can You?

Describe the main ideas people have concerning what families 'ought' to be like.

Explain why it is that people have these ideas.

Explain the main sources of support for these ideas

Describe 'conventional' and 'de-regulated' families.

Can You?

Outline the way in which Action Theory and Post-modernism explain diversity.

List and describe the main types of diversity identified.

Explain the causes of diversity.

Explain the argument for continuity.

Can You?

Give a basic outline of the functionalist perspective on 'the' family.

List and demonstrate understanding of the assumptions made by functionalism concerning the family.

Explain why the assumptions are open to criticism.

Can You?

Explain the contributions made to research into the history of contemporary western families by:

  • Laslett.

  • Anderson.

  • Harris.

Give an account of the main findings and arguments concerning alleged changes in family structures brought about by the Industrial Revolution.

Give an account of why functionalist accounts appear flawed.

Can You?

Identify the central issues concerning the nature/nurture debate as it applies to gender roles.

Identify the traditional approach to gender roles as outlined by Parsons, and give an account of the evidence provided by Parsons.

Understand the basis and background to the symmetrical family debate.

Understand the criticisms made of the symmetry argument.

Evaluate the implications of empirical studies of male and female domestic roles.

Can You?

Identify recent trends in divorce statistics.

Identify and give an account of the possible causes of the increase in divorce.

Explain what divorce statistics cannot tell us about contemporary marriages.

Patriarchy A system legitimates male domination.
Nature (naturalism) Naturally occurring, a part of the natural world.
Domestic Ideology The ideology that legitimates female domesticity.
Life cycle Viewing the family in terms of fairly predictable features from formation to dissolution.
Life course Looking at relationships formed by an individual in the course of their life.
Reconstituted family Families where at least one of the adults has a child from a previous relationship.
Single parent family Families headed by only one parent.
Same sex families Families headed by adults of the same sex.
Nuclear family A family consisting of two generations (parents and children).
Extended family A family consisting of either three generations (vertical extended) or two generations plus other kin such as uncles or cousins (horizontal extended).
Essential/non-essential functions Those tasks which need to be performed by families and those tasks formerly performed by families but now undertaken by other institutions.
Isolated nuclear family A nuclear family that has no ties of dependence and reciprocation beyond itself other than by choice.
'Fit' The idea that there is some sort of special fit between nuclear families and an industrialized society.
Geographic mobility Movement by people from one physical location to another.
Social mobility Movement by people from one level of the class hierarchy to another.
Achieved status A status that is 'earned' by the person occupying it.
Ascribed status A status that is 'given' for example, daughter.
Instrumental role Concerned with the material needs of the family - associated with the male role.
Affective role Concerned with the emotional and social needs of family members - associated with the female role.
Segregated roles The man and woman have separate and distinct family roles and social lives.
Joint roles The man and woman share the tasks required by family life.
Symmetrical Each side mirrors the other; applied to male and female roles in some families.
Dual career family A family where both the male and female have careers.
Legal Aid and Advice Act (1949)  
Divorce Reform Act (1969) Irretrievable breakdown.
Domestic Violence and Matrimonial Proceedings Act (1976) Applied in the County Courts and permitted courts to issue non-molestation and exclusion injunctions.
Domestic Proceedings and Magistrates Act (1978) Extends above powers to magistrates courts. However provisions only applies to married women.
Housing Act (1977) Made it the responsibility of local authorities to re-house certain categories of people-mainly families - providing they had not intentionally made themselves homeless. Act explicitly stated that women who had left a violent man should not be seen as having intentionally made themselves homeless and should be re-housed.
Stigma Spoiled identity.
R. and R.N. Rapoport Dual Career Families (1971).
R. Chester The rise of the neo-conventional family (1985).
P. Willmott Urban kinship past and present (1988).
Parsons The essential functions of the family.
Bales Experimental work with Parsons on instrumental and Affective roles.
Zelditch Cross-cultural data used by Parsons.
Kessler and Mackenna (1978) Family types ignored by Parson's idealized family.
Bowlby (1965) Theory of maternal deprivation.
Rutter (1972) Chief caretaker need not be mother, need not be female.
Laslett Statistical work on family size since the 16th century.
Anderson Study of Preston based on 1851 census figures.
Harris The idea that inheritance systems could be implicated in early development of industrialisation.
Willmott and Young Extended families in East London in the 1950's.
Bott 'The Family and Social Networks' (1957). Coined terms segregated and joint.
Willmott and Young 'The Symmetrical Family' (1973).
Rosser and Harris (1965) Growth of more companionate marriage.
Goldthorpe and Lockwood 'The Affluent Worker' (1967).
Rapoport et al 'Dual Career Families Re-examined' (1976).
J. Bernard 'The Wife's Marriage' (1972).
M. Maynard 'Contemporary Housework and The Houseworker Role' (1985).
Edgell 'Middle Class Couples' (1980).
J. Pahl 'Money and Marriage' (1989).
F. Divine (1992) Re-visiting the affluent worker town of Luton.
A. Oakley 'The Sociology of Housework' (1974).
Fletcher (1966) Increase in divorce a consequence of higher expectations of marriage.
Wilson (1966) Increased in divorce because of Secularisation.
Gibson (1994) Financial state of marriage is a good predictor of divorce.
Dobash and Dobash (1980) 'Violence Against Wives'.
Hanmer (1983) A study of community violence to women.
Abbott and Wallace (1990) 'Note the main trigger for violence is the male perception that a partner is failing in her duties.
Faulk (1974) Argued men convicted of abuse were mentally ill.
Schlegel (1972) Looked at 45 societies and showed that 75% of them permitted husbands to be aggressive towards their wives.
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