Nuclear Family

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In Hist. Perspective
Traditional Family
Modern Family
New Family Models

The Modern Nuclear Family

THE MODERN NUCLEAR FAMILY

The "nuclear", "isolated", or "restricted" family is not a recent phenomenon, but has existed in many cultures throughout human history. Indeed, the extended family of several generations is found mostly in relatively advanced, stable, and affluent, but not yet industrialized societies. Very primitive and very sophisticated societies seem to prefer the nuclear family model.

However, nuclear families can vary in the degree of their isolation and restrictedness. For example, before the Industrial Revolution the Western nuclear family was often embedded in a larger social unit, such as a farm or estate, an aristocratic court, or a village populated by relatives. Many older city neighborhoods also kept kinship ties strong, and thus even very small families remained open to the community. Family visits might be frequent and extended; children might freely circulate and feel at home in several households.

On the other hand, we have seen that, beginning in the late 17th century, a trend toward "closeness" reduced the size of many larger households and changed the relationships between the remaining family members. They became more concerned about each other. They needed each other more. The idyllic home of the "bourgeois" became an island of serenity in the gathering storm of modernization, a haven secure from the world "out there", from aggressiveness, competition, and class warfare. We have also seen how this home sheltered women and protected the children from sexual and other temptations. Other nasty social realities were also kept safely at bay. The family income was no longer earned inside, but rather outside the house. The division of labor between the sexes became more pronounced as men spent more and more time away from their families as wage earners in factories, shops, and offices. Their wives became almost the only companions of their small children whose care and education was now their main responsibility. (Formerly, these tasks had been divided between mothers, grandmothers, nurses, and servants.) Virtually the only middle-class men who still worked at home were doctors and lawyers in private practice. As a rule, however, the bourgeois family saw its "head" and "breadwinner" only when he returned from his work at night. This work itself remained an abstraction to both his wife and his children.

The removal of productive work from the home into the factories had, of course, important consequences for all family members. It was no longer necessary for any of them to develop strong roots in any particular community or to become attached to a particular house. Instead, they became free to move about, to follow industrial development into new settlements, to "go after the jobs" wherever they might be. Moreover, family connections became less important, as factory work became ever more rationalized and efficient. Nepotism gave way to hiring and promotion on merit alone. By the same token, the new worker, business man, or bureaucrat no longer had to take care of distant relatives. He now worked exclusively for his own small family and this made him more industrious. He could advance faster, since his income had to support only very few people. Thus, the individual husband and father was no longer weighed down by traditions or extensive social obligations. In addition, the education of his children and the care of his aged or sick parents began to be taken over by the state.

In view of these developments, many observers have noted a "fit" between the nuclear family and industrialism. In other words, small, intimate, and mobile families seem best suited to advance the cause of industrialization and, conversely, industrialization seems to encourage the formation of small families. After all, in modern industrial societies there is a general...
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