New Internationalist

Model Families

Issue 118

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THE FAMILY [image, unknown] Sociologists' theories

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Model families

The sociologists' names may not be familiar,
but their theories will probably ring a few bells.

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Set to explode
‘Western civilisation is doomed. The evolutionary process that spelled the downfall of Greeks and Romans is being re-lived in western society today. The pendulum is swinging, the family disintegrating, chaos awaits.’

In 1947, Carle Zimmerman called on society to halt the pendulum of destruction by safeguarding traditional nuclear family life. His survey of 4,000 years of human history led him to discern a triple pattern being repeated. Out of primordial darkness emerges the trustee family — so called because the values and wellbeing of the clan are paramount and safeguarded by its members. Individuality in the clan-family is crushed and its power grows. But friction between clan-families causes instability. State and Church develop to ease and contain disputes, bringing about a reduction in the power of the trustee family and dispersion of its members into domestic families, policed and buttressed by a caring, controlling State. But State control means families no longer have the means to control their members. The atomistic family emerges. Hedonistic individualism is rampant divorce and illegitimacy are commonplace, sexual perversions abound — followed by total breakdown of society and a return to primordial darkness.

Between the lines
Because sociologists concern themselves with events close to our hearts their thinking easily slips into the realm of’common sense’. And common sense is seldom questioned.

This is what has tended to happen with theories of the family. Versions of the theories briefly outlined on this page influence much of our thinking families. But they are based on two assumptions that are not borne out by the available evidence. All assume:

Because a society needs to have children cared for it has developed an institution and a place that provides for the material and emotional needs of children. That institution is the family. And the place is the home.

• Because every human society has children, all societies have the family as a basic social unit.

These assumptions led people to look for a particular family form in every society they studied. Not surprisingly, because that was what they were looking for, that was what they found. What was essentially produced within Western industrial society was ‘discovered’ to be the foundation of every society. Relationships and domestic patterns that could not be defined in terms of that family model were, and still are, treated as rare and exceptional anthropological exotica.

But the family is not a passive object It is not a ‘thing’ to be acted upon by forces outside our control. Families are ways in which people organise themselves for many complex reasons. When the Family is looked at as a process rather than an object, then some of the fatalistic pessimism of these accounts begins to melt away.

Wrenched into shape
‘The family is an adaptable creature. Change the way people earn their living and family structures also change. Economics is all. The nuclear family was a necessary adaptation to industrialisation. This is neither good nor bad. It just is.’

Strangely, Talcott Parsons takes as his starting point many of the principles identified by Marx and Engels as underlying the structure of society and ends up with a family that trains its members to fit perfectly into a harmonious and organised whole. Engels puts changes in ‘mode of production’ first: hunter-gatherers live in roving bands, agriculturalists live in extended families, blue and white-collar workers jive in nuclear families. Parsons concentrated on the nuclear family. Industry needs flexible workers. A man cuts his ties with his parents, gets himself a wife to keep his house so he can concentrate on his job. Children are taught to do the same. Society’s needs are met.


Mother Country
‘The family was once everything to its members. It fed, clothed and employed them; it taught them all they knew. Now Many of the rural extended family’s functions have been usurped by the State. The family has been reduced to little more than an emotional crutch for its members.’

According to William Ogburn, society has two main components — material and non-material culture. Advances in one sphere create ‘cultural lag’ in the other— with attendant disruption and chaos. Technology (the material) has advanced rapidly in recent years and drags an increasingly weakened family (non-material) in its wake. Before the industrial revolution centuries of agricultural life had spawned a family in which every member contributed to the wellbeing of the whole. But in just a few decades factories and jobs, hospitals, schools and restaurants changed all that Suddenly men earned wages, women became housewives, children became liabilities The family, failing to adjust to these drastic changes in its functions, is’breaking down’.


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