Sunday, November 2, 2008

How has the concept of family changed over the past 100 years?

When we use the term 'family', there are two broad interpretations of what we mean. First, there is the sense of family as our universal kinship, everyone we are related to by blood or marriage. Second, the term family is virtually synonymous with household. The kinship link remains important, but additionally there is implicit reference to a shared housekeeping and a common domestic economy.

O'Donnell (1993) asserts that over the past 100 years the Extended family is gradually disappearing as it is being replaced by the Nuclear family as the main operating family unit. The Extended family is a group that consists of parents, children, and other close relatives, living in close proximity. While the Nuclear family is just parents and their children.
In that time there have been dramatic improvements in transport, making it more simple and accessible, allowing families to move further away from their traditional areas without the fear of feeling isolated. Additionally, Improved educational opportunities have increased job prospects that may require relocation.
The women's role within the family was greatly affected by World War II. They picked up the slack as the men went off to fight and the taste of independence and self-reliance they felt from earning their own money would stay with them after the War ended with many of them continuing to work. However, this was only really made possible with the invention and mass-production of the time saving mod-cons that todays families take for granted like the vacuum cleaner, washing machines, refrigerators etc. which greatly reduced the burden of the household chores.
Since WWII, this more affluent population demanded larger and more widely spaced houses accommodating the increased car usage for which terraced streets were unsuitable. Resulting in the ubiquity of housing estates now seen across the country, serving to further tempt young families away from areas where they grew up.
Innovations in contraception resulted in smaller, more manageable families. Coupled with the improvements in state welfare for young families resulting in less need to depend on the extended family for support.
Finally O'Donnell claims that improved standards of health which has dramatically cut infant mortality rates has shifted families perspective away from having many children in order that a few may survive.

However, In the latter part of the 20th century, family life has become increasingly more complex than the Extended and Nuclear family types that it had been earlier. With most western societies experiencing significant shifts in demography of family life. A. Kuper & J. Kuper (1996) argue that a major reason for this increasing complexity is the rising rates of divorce, cohabitation, births to unmarried mothers and reconstituted families. It is because of this that there are more diverse family pathways than in the recent past.
“In particular, the increased incidence of divorce and remarriage has meant that many more people have ex-spouses, absent parents, step-parents, half-sibling, step-siblings and the like.” (A. Kuper & J. Kuper 1996)
These changes have resulted in complicated networks of family relationships which affect the form and content of relationships with the extended family to the point where there can be confusion within a family over who is part of it. Edward Shorter suggests that one of the main reasons for these breakdowns in the modern marriage is the high expectation of the romanticism surrounding it.

Finally, there is the social institution which according to Baudrillard(1983) has affected society above all else; the mass media. He claims that the mass media has become the most important part of our lives in the latter half of the 20th century, especially the television. The media no longer report and reflect reality. Instead, they now shape it. How we think about the world and what we understand as important and relevant is fed to us by the media creating what Baudrillard calls 'hyper-reality'. The Simpsons Family for instance is now the most famous example of a family in the western world, despite being a cartoon. One consequence of this is that people look to hyper-real images as role models, when the images don’t even represent real people. This can cause people to strive for an unattainable ideal, or lead to a lack of healthy role models. The domination of television has taken us to the point where traditional family rituals like sitting round a table at meal-times talking about each others day has been replaced with eating in front of the television watching imaginary families interact. Superbly illustrated in any episode of the BBC sitcom 'The Royle Family'.

In conclusion, we can see that there have been radical changes in the concept of family over the past 100 years. We have gone from a time when the family had clearly defined gender roles; men as the head of the household and bread-winner, women stayed at home as the home-maker and child-carer. Inaccessibility of transport meant that many generations of families lived nearby often under the same roof. The women shared in the household tasks which were labourious, time-consuming and done by hand. Furthermore, children dying of ill-health was a relatively common occurrence. Over the years technology made household tasks less time consuming and travel less daunting. Education shifted perspectives and increased opportunities in employment. Improved contraception has lowered the number of children being born into families although health-care advances has meant that the vast majority of these children live to see adulthood. Legislative changes recognised women as equal to men. While at the same time, the mass media permeated and now dominates all aspects of family life to the point where our concept of family is no longer based on reality but on hyper-real imitations.


O'Donnell, G. (1993) Sociology Today. Cambridge

Kuper, A. & Kuper, J. (1996) The Social Science Encyclopedia. 2nd Edition. Routledge: London & New York.

Shorter, E. (1977) The Making of the Modern Family. Fontana.

O'Donnell, M. (1992) A New Introduction to Sociology 3rd Edition. Nelson Thornes Ltd

Baudrillard, J. (1983) Simulations Trans. Foss, P. Patton, P. Beitchman, P. Semiotext(e) Foreign Agents Series

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