The Nuclear Family in Sociology

By CharlotteĀ Nickerson, published November 01, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD


Beautiful smiling lovely family on outdoor background

The nuclear family is a family unit consisting of an adult male and female and dependent children. It is regarded by some sociologists (in particular functionalists) as the basic universal form of family structure.

The (white) nuclear family is sometimes referred to as the cereal packet family, because of its frequent portrayal by advertisers as the norm.

The concept of the nuclear family is thought to have arisen in the Western world during the Industrial Revolution, when families left farms and moved to small towns and cities for work. During this time, young people began to delay marriage and childbearing, living instead with their parents until they had established a career.

Functionalists such as Parsons suggest that the nuclear family replaced the extended family as the dominant form in industrial societies because it provided a better 'fit', and more closely matched the needs of society.

Despite the fact that by 2000 only 21% of all house holds consisted of a married or cohabiting couple with dependent children, the notion of the nuclear family remains central to family ideology.

Sociologists and politicians of the New Right frequently suggest that many social problems in Britain stem from the fact that not enough children are being brought up in stable, two-parent families.

Key Takeaways

  • A nuclear family is a family consisting of of 2 generations, husband and wife and immature children who constitute a unit from the rest of the community.
  • The term "nuclear family" is commonly used in the United States, where it was first coined by the sociologist Talcott Parsons in 1955. It has been suggested that the nuclear family is a universal human social grouping.
  • Nuclear family is not universal, the structure of the family changes as the needs of the society changes. Pre industrial families were extended families with multiple generations living together, where as post industrial families needed to be
  • However, some scholars argue that the nuclear family is not a natural or inevitable human institution but rather a product of specific historical and cultural circumstances.
  • In sociology, the nuclear family has been historically treated as the basic unit of social organization, but this has come into question over the past several decades, as the structure of families has become more and more diverse.

Functions of the Nuclear Family

Economic

Marxists believe that the family is a tool of capitalism and its main function is to maintain capitalism and reinforce social inequalities.

According to Marxism, the monogamous nuclear family emerged with capitalism. Before capitalism, traditional and tribal societies were classless and did not have private property.

Instead, property was collectively owned, and this was reflected in family structures. An isolated nuclear family means that men can confirm whether a child belongs to them and ensure that wealth remains in the family through private inheritance.

Ultimately, however, this arrangement served to reproduce inequality. As the children of the rich grew into wealth, the children of the poor remained . Thus, the nuclear family served to benefit the bourgeois more than the proletariat. 

A nuclear family system, one in which nuclear families live by themselves independent from the families they grew up in, is thought to be particularly well adopted to the needs of the American, and many other western economies, for a fluid and mobile labor market (Sussman, 1958).

Patriarchal Ideology

Feminists are critical of the family as a social institutions. They believe that the family is a tool of female oppression and in particular the nuclear family serves the needs of men rather than women. This is through issues such as unequal division of domestic labour and domestic violence.

Some feminists view the function of the nuclear family as a place where patriarchal values are learned by individuals, which in turn add to the patriarchal society. Young girls may be socialized to believe that inequality and oppression is a normal part of being a woman and boys are socialized to believe that they are superior and have authority over women.

Feminists often believe that the nuclear family teaches children gender roles which translate to gender roles in wider society. For instance, girls may learn to accept that being a housewife is the only possible or acceptable role for women. Some feminists also believe that the division of labor is unequal in nuclear families, with women and girls accepting subservient roles in the household. 

Murdock: Four Universal Residual Functions

Murdock (1949) claimed that the nuclear family performs four functions that benefit society because they reduce the potential for chaos and conflict and consequently bring about relatively well ordered, structured and predictable societies

Socialization: The family is the primary socializing agent for children. Parents teach their children the norms and values of society.

Economic stability: The family provides economic stability for its members. In many families, both parents work to earn an income.

Reproductive/Procreative: The nuclear family provides new members of society, without which society would cease to exist.

Sexual relationships: The family as an institution also regulates sexual behavior. Many societies, for example, have historically forbade sex outside the family-creating bond of marriage.

Primary Socialization

According to Parsons (1951), although the nuclear family performs functions that are reduced in comparison to what it did in the past, it is still the only institution that can perform the core functions of primary socialization and the stabilization of adult personalities.

Primary socialization refers to the early period in a person's life where they learn and develop themselves through interactions and experiences around them. This results in a child learning the attitudes, values, and actions appropriate to individuals as members of a particular culture.

The Stabilization of Adult Personalities

The stabilization of adult personalities, otherwise known as "warm bath theory," emphasizes the emotional security found within marital relationships.

This stabilization serves to balance out the stresses and strains of life faced by most adults.

In addition, the stabilization of adult personalities within marriage allows adults to act on the child-like dimension of their personality by playing with their children, using their toys, and so forth (Parsons, 1951).

Another factor that aids the stabilization of adult personalities is the sexual division of labor within nuclear families. Within isolated nuclear families, people are allocated particular roles in order to allow the unit to function correctly. There are the aforementioned expressive and instrumental roles (Parsons, 1951).

Instrumental and Expressive Roles

Murdock argued that nuclear families consist of instrumental and expressive roles. Instrumental roles provide financial support and establish family status, while expressive roles involve providing emotional support and physical care.

In a 20th-century view of the nuclear family, the father is typically the head of the household and is responsible for providing for the family financially. The mother is typically responsible for taking care of the home and raising the children.

Parsons suggested that children needed to grow up in a family in which the instrumental and expressive roles are performed by the respective parents if the children were to develop 'stable adult personalities'.

Parsons’ understanding of expressive and instrumental roles was derived from, and constituted a reflection of, middle-class American society in the 1950s.

Disadvantages of the Nuclear Family

Postmodernists have called the nuclear family an inherently fragile structure, prosporous only in a time marked by especially easy to come by home ownership and economic progress during the post-war boom.

Proponents of this view argue that the nuclear family is beset by a number of serious problems. They point to high rates of divorce and single parenthood, as well as to the difficulty many families have in maintaining close relationships (Bengtson, 2001).

Even dynamics as common as sibling rivalry and parent-child differences can place tension on a small family with little contact with other members of an extended family. The lack of a support network can make it difficult for nuclear families to deal with problems, leading to further isolation and feelings of loneliness or helplessness (Bengtson, 2001).

For children in particular, growing up in a nuclear family can be quite difficult. With both parents working full-time, many kids feel neglected or abandoned. In some cases, this can lead to serious behavioral problems.

However, not all families are functional. Some families may be considered dysfunctional due to a variety of factors such as alcoholism, drug addiction, mental illness, physical abuse, or simply a lack of love and communication.

When a family is dysfunctional, it can have a negative impact on the individuals involved as well as on society as a whole. Children from dysfunctional families are more likely to experience problems in school, mental health issues, and substance abuse problems. They may also be more likely to engage in criminal activity (Bertrand, 1962).

Additionally, children in nuclear families often don not have the benefit of learning from extended family members such as grandparents or cousins. They also miss out on the opportunity to develop close relationships with those relatives.

Researchers have denied the functionality of the nuclear family - in the sense of being isolated and socially mobile - since the 1960s (Cervantes, 1965).

Indeed, the family is not an isolated unit but one that is linked to other families through marriage, blood ties, and friendship networks. The family functions within a community of kin and neighbors where information, cultural values, and material resources are exchanged (Friedlander, 1963).

Even though the nuclear family has its own private domain - the home - its members cannot avoid interacting with people outside the immediate family. In reality, then, the nuclear family is embedded in a web of social relations.

The structure of the nuclear family has also been critiqued on economic grounds. Critics argue that the nuclear family is an inefficient way to organize society because it requires duplicating services that could be provided more efficiently by the government or businesses.

For example, instead of each family having its own washing machine, all the families in a neighborhood could share a laundromat. Similarly, daycare, eldercare, and schooling could be provided more efficiently on a community-wide basis rather than by individual families.

The nuclear family is also criticized for being too small to meet all an individual's needs. In particular, it is argued that the nuclear family cannot provide the same level of emotional support as a larger extended family.

Additionally, because the nuclear family is so small, it is often unable to provide adequate financial support to its members during times of need. This can lead to feelings of insecurity and anxiety, particularly among children and older adults (Bengtson, 2001).

The nuclear family has been declining in prevalence since the late 20th century as a result of factors such as increased divorce rates, cohabitation, single-parent households, and same-sex marriage. 

Economic stressors  such as the Great Recession, stagnating wages, and the inflation of housing prices have also contributed to the decline of the nuclear family through reducing access to isolated housing.

Multigenerational, non-nuclear households are on the rise as a way to reduce costs and the burden of childcare distributed to one person in the household.

The rise of women in the workforce has also lessened a need for defined nuclear family roles, as there is less need for a husband to be the sole breadwinner. Another explanation is that people are delaying marriage and childbearing until later  in life, allowing them to develop deeper ties within their birth families and communities. The median age of first marriage in the United States has risen from 20 for women and 23 for men in 1950 to 27 for women and 29 for men in 2018 (Hemez, 2020).

Alternative Family Structures

Non-nuclear families can take on many different forms, including single-parent households, same-sex parents, adoptive parents, childless couples, blended families, and more.

There are a variety of reasons why a family may not be considered nuclear. In some cases, one or both parents may be absent due to death, divorce, or other circumstances. In other instances, the family may simply choose not to live together in a traditional nuclear arrangement.

There are many advantages to non-nuclear families. For example, single-parent households often provide a more nurturing and supportive environment for children than two-parent homes, especially in cases where the family would have otherwise been affected by abuse.

Same-sex parents can provide role models of healthy relationships for their children, and adoptive parents often create tightly-knit bonds with their children that are just as strong as any biological connection.

One historical example of a non-nuclear family is the extensive nuclear family, which is common in many cultures around the world. In an extended family, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins all live together in one household.

This arrangement provides support and stability for all members of the family, and offers a built-in network of caretakers for children. Increasingly over the past few decades, a new family structure is taking shape: grandparents raising their grandchildren.

This may be necessary when parents are not available to care for their children, such as by mental or medical or substance abuse issues.

About the Author

Charlotte Nickerson is a member of the Class of 2024 at Harvard University. Coming from a research background in biology and archaeology, Charlotte currently studies how digital and physical space shapes human beliefs, norms, and behaviors and how this can be used to create businesses with greater social impact.

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

This article has been fact checked by Saul Mcleod, a qualified psychology teacher with over 17 years' experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in psychology journals including Clinical Psychology, Social and Personal Relationships, and Social Psychology.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Nickerson, C. (2022, November 01). Nuclear Family in Sociology. Simply Sociology. https://simplysociology.com/nuclear-family.html

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