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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
- Material factors. Greater affluence, greater geographical and social mobility. The greater economic independence of women, increased lifespan.
- Values. People are increasingly likely to view their circumstances in terms of what's best for them - their rights.
- 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.
Robert Chester, "The Rise of the Neo-Conventional family, New Society "9/5/85 argues that:
- Most adults still marry and have children.
- Most children are reared by their natural parents.
- Most people live in a household headed by a married couple.
- 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.
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.