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Within any society there are more or less common ways of ”doing” family relationships which are broadly accepted as appropriate in that society. This does not mean that all family relationships follow the same societal ”rules.” There are always variations and alternative practices. Moreover the more complex and diverse a society, the more variation there will be in the family practices given legitimacy by different social groupings within it. Indeed, the degree of social tolerance given to divergent patterns of family relationships is itself one element of family structure. More commonly, family structure is concerned with such issues as the boundaries of family membership; the distribution of power and authority within families; the patterns of solidarity and obligation that arise between different family members; and the differential access to resources different family members have. Much mid-twentieth-century family theorizing addressed these issues, focusing particularly on a shift from an extended family structure to a nuclear family one under the impact of industrialization, with Parsons (1943) providing the classic analysis.
Although heavily criticized, aspects of Parsons’ arguments about the structural priority of what he terms the ”conjugal” family continue to have strong salience. In particular, the increased emphasis placed on ”the couple” reflects the centrality of nuclear families over wider kinship ties. This points to the continuing shift from marriage as an institution to marriage as a relationship. Similarly, the emphasis placed on the rights and needs of children, the increased responsibilities of care, and the growth of child- and adolescent-centered markets highlights the level of priority given to dependent children within contemporary family systems.
However family structure has also been altering in ways which are less compatible with the ”nuclear family” model. Two issues are particularly significant. First, while the division of labor and responsibilities between spouses remains gendered, there is now less rigidity about this than there was for much of the twentieth century. Second, there is now far greater acceptance of diversity in family practices than there used to be. Patterns that were previously understood to be problematic, if not pathological, are now accepted as legitimate alternative family forms. Obvious examples include lone-parent families, step-families, cohabitation, and gay partnerships. Life course trajectories are now also more diverse than they were. With new forms of partnership, increasing levels of separation and divorce, and what can be termed ”serial commitment” (i.e. an individual being involved in a series of committed relationships), the patterning of people’s family lives over time has become increasingly variable.
This greater diversity within the family relationships people construct makes the specification of family structure within contemporary developed societies more problematic than previously. No single form of family organization or pattern of constructing family relationships holds normatively or experientially in the way Parsons’ nuclear family model did in the mid-twentieth century. Nonetheless certain structuring principles remain important. Three warrant highlighting. First, gender remains a primary organizational principal within most families. Second, people normally prioritize their commitment to their partner and dependent children above those to other family members. And third, albeit with some ethnic diversity, love as a personal and emotional commitment is generally understood as the prime basis for contemporary partnership, whether or not this involves marriage.
- Parsons, T. (1943) The kinship system of the contemporary United States. American Anthropologist 43: 22—38.
- Cherlin, (2004) The deinstitutionalization of American marriage. Journal of Marriage and Family 66: 848-61.
- Gillis, J. (1997) A World of Their Own Making. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
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