Family Diversity

After studying this section, you should be able to understand:

  • the diversity of family and household structures in Britain
  • New Right views on family diversity and the criticisms of these views

The diversity of family life

Sociologists, such as the Rapoports, argue that Britain is no longer dominated by one family type. They argue that we should be celebrating family diversity – there now exists a greater choice and variety than ever before in terms of family lifestyles.

  • The Rapoports note diversity in family structure. Family life in Britain is made up of the conventional nuclear family, cohabiting couples with children, the single-parent family and the reconstituted family. Bear in mind that the reconstituted family is also referred to as a ‘blended family’ or as a ‘step family’.The reconstituted family is often made up of divorced or widowed people who have re-married and their children from the previous marriage. Such families are on the increase because of divorce, e.g. one in 15 families are step-families; one in 12 children were living in them in 1991. Reconstituted families, and especially children within them, are likely to have close ties with the families of previous partners. Children may be pulled in two directions and have tense relationships with their step-parents. These families may be further complicated if the parents decide to have children of their own. Family life, therefore, may be experienced quite differently from that experienced in a conventional nuclear family unit.
  • Moreover, the study Villains by Foster (1991), of an East End London community, indicated that the lives of working class people, and its younger generation in the 1980s, were still dominated by the values and traditions of extended kin such as parents and grandparents who tended to live nearby. Brannen suggests the beanpole family is increasing in importance.
  • The Rapoports note that families are households, but households are not necessarily families (though some will evolve into families or may have evolved out of them), e.g. ‘married couple only’ households. There is also evidence that single-person households are increasing and accounted for about 30% of all households in 2010. Surveys suggest that an increasing number of young, professional women are electing to live alone.
  • There are distinct differences in the lifestyles of families with different ethnic origins and religious beliefs. Britain is now a multicultural society in that about 11% of the population is from an ethnic minority background. Asian family life is diverse and depends on a wide range of factors such as religion, presence of extended kin and cultural beliefs. We have seen a great deal of inter-marriage between Whites, African-Caribbeans and Chinese, which has resulted in a dramatic increase in mixed-race children.
  • Diversity also exists in patterns of kinship. Some modern nuclear families are ‘privatised’ and ‘relatively isolated’ from kin. However, most are part of a ‘modified extended family’ set-up where nuclear family members still feel obliged to kin and offer emotional and material support in times of crisis. Studies also suggest that extended ties are important to the upper class in their attempt to maintain wealth and privilege.
  • The number of same-sex couples who are cohabiting is increasing and it has become a trend for such couples to have families through adoption, artificial insemination and surrogacy. In 1999, the law lords ruled that homosexual couples can be legally defined as a family and the government has now introduced same-sex civil partnerships (a type of marriage) which means that same-sex partners have similar rights to heterosexual married couples, with regard to inheritance (e.g. of property and pensions) and next of kin status.
  • Eversley and Bonnerjea note geographical variations in family life, e.g. that seaside areas have large concentrations of elderly couples and single-person households, whilst inner-city areas see large numbers of single-parent families, reconstituted families and ethnic minority families. Traditional working class areas see more extended families, whilst the affluent southeast sees a greater proportion of nuclear families.
  • Diversity can be seen in the internal division of labour within families. The Rapoports argue that most nuclear families in Britain are now dual-careerfamilies. Some women will have responsibility for the bulk of child-care and housework. Others may have negotiated a greater, perhaps even equal, input from men in the domestic sphere. The media are fond of announcing the appearance of the so-called New Man. Others may have found husbands who are happy to reverse traditional roles and become house-husbands.

The Rapoports conclude that a fundamental change is taking place in British family life. However, Chester suggests that the Rapoports have exaggerated the degree of diversity in British society and argues that the basic features of family life have remained largely unchanged for the majority of the population since the 1950s.

The New Right perspective on family diversity

New Right sociologists argue that nuclear family life is under threat. The nuclear family is said to be under attack and in decline because of the following trends which have been linked to state social policies rooted in the 1960s and 1970s.

  • The impact of feminism on the home. It is argued that this has led to the introduction of equal opportunities and equal pay legislation which have distracted women from their ‘natural’ careers as mothers. The New Right claims that there have been few tax or benefit policies aimed at encouraging mothers to stay at home with their children. The New Right argue that feminism has led to gender confusion about family roles and a corresponding rise in divorce and the number of single-parent families.
  • It is also suggested that working mothers are responsible for social problems, such as juvenile delinquency and anti-social behaviour, because children no longer experience long-term nurturing and socialisation from their mothers who are out at work. The New Right therefore claim that generations of children have been psychologically ‘damaged’ by maternal deprivation.
  • The New Right claims that sexual permissiveness and promiscuity is on the increase and the cause of a moral decay in society. New Right writers argue that government social policy has actually encouraged this decline in morality by decriminalising homosexuality and abortion, making the contraceptive pill freely available on the National Health Service (NHS), making divorce easier through the Divorce Reform Act (1969) and by not doing enough to promote marriage over cohabitation.

New Right sociologists have suggested that social policy in Britain has resulted in the decline of the nuclear family and that this has created a range of social problems, such as unemployment, educational underachievement, rising crime rates and anti-social behaviour.

Criticism of the New Right perspective on family diversity



The Rapoports are very critical of the New Right’s insistence that there only exists one ideal family type. They note that in 1994 only 20% of nuclear families contained a division of labour, in which the father was the sole breadwinner and the mother was exclusively the home-maker/childcarer. The Rapoports argue that family life in Britain is characterised by a range of family types which reflect the plurality of British society.


Critics of the New Right suggest that the ideology of the traditional nuclear family has had some very significant influences on government thinking.

  • Tax and welfare policies have generally favoured and encouraged the heterosexual married couple rather than cohabiting couples, single parents and same-sex couples. Allan (1985) goes so far as to suggest that these policies have actively discouraged cohabitation and single-parent families.
  • Social policies such as the payment of child benefit to the mother, and the lack of free universal nursery care, has reinforced the idea that women should take prime responsibility for children.
  • Expectant mothers receive paid maternity leave for six months and unpaid leave for twelve months. In contrast, fathers only receive two weeks paid paternity leave. Bear in mind that social policies change over time as incoming governments introduce new policies or modify existing ones. It is important to keep up-todate with key policy change by reading the quality press.
  • The Community Care Act (1990) encourages families and voluntary agencies to have a greater involvement in the care of the elderly and sick. This has placed an increased burden on women who are often the ones who take on responsibility for the sick, the elderly and disabled relatives who would once have been given free residential care. Less state assistance is given to elderly people who live with their relatives.
  • School hours and school holidays may make it difficult for women to find compatible employment outside the home.
  • The best and most desirable council and private housing is designed for twoparent families.

The Labour government of 1997–2010 recognised that there are few families in the twenty-first century which have exclusively a male breadwinner. Most families rely on two incomes and most women work (albeit often part-time). Lewis notes that Labour:

  • invested in subsidies for nursery child-care
  • lengthened maternity care from 14 weeks to nine months
  • almost doubled maternity pay
  • introduced the right for parents of young children to ask for flexible working patterns from their employers.

However, this explicit family policy has attracted New Right criticism that Labour had constructed a nanny state which over-interferes in personal living arrangements. Feminists too were critical of Labour social policy which they felt emphasised motherhood, rather than fatherhood or parenting in general.

Many prominent feminists, such as de Beauvoir (1953) and Greer (1971), have claimed that nuclear family ideology is merely patriarchal ideology – a set of ideas deliberately encouraged by men because it ensures their dominance in the fields of work, economics and politics. Family ideology is used to tie women to men, marriage and children and consequently females do not enjoy the same opportunities as men.

Barrett and McIntosh (1982) argue that familial ideology is anti-social because it dismisses alternative family types as irrelevant, inferior and deviant, e.g. as a result of the emphasis on the nuclear family ideal and the view that families need fathers, single-parent families are seen as the cause of social problems, such as rising crime rates and disrespect for authority.

Single-parent families

The fastest growing type of ‘new’ family is the one-parent or single-parent family.

The number of single-parent families with dependent children has tripled from 2% of British households in 1961 to 7% in 2005. There are now approximately 1.75 million single-parent families in Britain, making up about 23% of all families. A third of all British Black families are headed by a never married woman. Recent projections estimate that one in three families (36%) may be single-parent by the year 2016. The great majority of single-parent families are headed by women (91%). There are a variety of reasons why single-parent families come about.

  • Divorce and/or separation – 53% of lone mothers are divorced.
  • Death of a husband, wife or partner – 6% of lone mothers are widowed.
  • Unplanned pregnancy that may be the result of a casual relationship. The media tends to focus on the number of teenage pregnancies, although only 5% of lone parents are teenagers. However, one-third of lone mothers have never been married; 80% are under thirty years of age. Note that the New Right’s focus on teenage pregnancies is exaggerated although Britain has a worse problem than most other Western societies.


New Right thinkers such as Murray (1990) have suggested that single parents are at the heart of a so-called underclass or ‘new rabble’ that has appeared in the inner-cities. This group is allegedly socialising its children into a dependency culture based around voluntary unemployment, claiming benefits and crime. The New Right are also concerned about the high economic costs of single-parent families in regard to welfare payments and alleged social security fraud. This led to the setting up of the Child Support Agency (CSA) and the pursuit of absent fathers for maintenance.

However, New Right attitudes towards single-parent families have been heavily criticised by feminist and critical thinkers.

  • Chester argues that the ideology of familism, which stresses the nuclear family ideal, has led to the negative labelling of single-parent families by social agencies such as teachers, social workers, housing departments, the police and the courts.
  • Labelling may result in a self-fulfilling prophecy, e.g. housing officers may allocate single-parent families to problem housing estates because of negative stereotypes. Consequently, their children may come into contact with deviant behaviour and are more likely to be stopped by the police.
  • Marxists suggest that single parents, especially teenage mothers, have been scapegoated by regular moral panics about social problems which are caused by structural factors such as unemployment, poverty, racism and the decline of the inner-city.
  • Critical sociologists point out that there is little material incentive to become a single parent. The social and economic situation of many single-parent families is extremely disadvantageous, e.g. 17% of those officially classed as poor are single parents.
  • Single parenthood may be a realistic strategy in areas characterised by poverty and high unemployment. Fathers may be deemed unnecessary by some young women because they cannot provide financial support. Moreover, single parenthood may be an escape from domestic violence.
  • Cashmore (1985) and Phoenix (1993) argue that it is often preferable for a child to live with one caring parent than with parents who are in conflict with each other and who may scapegoat the child.
  • Most single mothers eventually marry or re-marry. Single-parent families are likely to evolve into reconstituted families.



  1. What is meant by the term ‘patriarchal ideology’?
  2. Identify two ways in which single-parent families might come about.
  3. Which aspects of diversity do Eversley and Bonnerjea focus on?
  4. On what grounds does Chester criticise the Rapoports?


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