Assess Sociological Explanations of the Nature and Extent of Family Diversity Today

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Assess sociological explanations of the nature and extent of family diversity today (24 marks)

Rhona and Robert Rapoport (1982) argue that diversity is of central importance in understanding family life today. They believe that we have moved away from the traditional nuclear family as the dominant family type, to a range of different diverse types. Families in Britain have adapted to a pluralistic society; a society in which cultures and lifestyles are more diverse. In their view, family diversification represents greater freedom of choice and the widespread acceptance of different cultures and ways of life. Unlike the New Right, the Rapoports see diversity as a response to people different needs and wishes, not as abnormal or deviation from the assumed norm of the nuclear family. The Rapoports identify five different types of family diversity. Organisational diversity refers to the differences in the ways family roles are organised. For example, some couples have joint conjugal roles and others have segregated conjugal roles. Cultural diversity is the belief that different cultural, religious and ethnic groups have different family structures. Social class diversity is the differences in family structure that are partly the result of income differences between households of different classes. Life stage diversity states that family structures differ according to the stage reached in the life cycle- for example, newly-weds, couples with children, retired couples whose children have left home and widows or widowers who are living alone. The last type of family diversity is generational diversity; older and younger generations have different attitudes and experiences that reflect the historical periods in which they have lived. For example, they may have different views about the morality of divorce or cohabitation.

Modernist approaches to the family such as functionalism and the New Right emphasise the dominance of the nuclear family type in modern society. These approaches take a structural or top down view; they see the family as a structure that shapes the behaviour of its members so that they perform the functions society requires. However, other sociologists rejects the modernist idea that there is one best family type or that the family's structure shapes its members behaviour. Sociologists influenced by social actions and postmodernist views argue that structural or modernist approaches ignore two key facts. The first fact is that as individual social factors, we make choices about our family life and relationships. Structural approaches wrongly assume that our actions are shaped and dictated by the 'needs of society'. The second fact is that we now have so much greater choice about our personal relationships, and this has increased family diversity so much that we can no longer talk about a single best or dominant type, or even a set of types as the Rapoports put forward.

In this view therefore, if we want to understand family life, we need to focus of individual family members and how they make their choices. To do this, sociologists such as Tamara Hareven (1978) use the approach know as life course analysis. This starts from the idea that there is flexibility and variation in peoples family lives- in choices and decisions they make, and in the timing and sequence of the events and turning points in their lives. Similarly Holdsworth and Morgan (2005) examined how young people experience leaving home, for example, in relation to what it means to be independent or adult and in terms of how others such as parents and friends influence their decisions. Life course analysis therefore focuses on the meaning people give these life events and choices.

Similarly to life course analysis, David Morgan (1996) uses the concept of family practices to describe the routine actions through which we create our sense of being a family member such as feeding the children or doing DIY. Our family practices are influenced...
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