Issues in Interdisciplinarity 2019-20/History of the Nuclear Family in Britain

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The common nuclear family: parents with their two children

This chapter will tackle the debate around the emergence of the nuclear family in Britain, within and between disciplines. The nuclear family is the basic type of family, composed of a conjugal pair and their children[1]. To understand the current debates surrounding the changing nature of the family and the reasons for the apparent decline of the nuclear family, studying its emergence is crucial.

Historical Context[edit]

The History of the Family only formed after 1958[2]. Initial research assigned the emergence of the nuclear family to the "structural modernisation of western societies since the 19th century"[2]. The pre-nuclear family was seen as more complex in structure, changing due to nuclearization, individualism, and emotionalism[2]. From the 1970s, research became more defined, accounting the shift in family structures to a point earlier in History[2].

Stone's 1977 research locates the late Medieval family, already concentrated around the nuclear family, within a complex system of kinship relations[3]. The family structure began forming more defined boundaries between 1500-1700, resulting in the isolated nuclear family between 1600-1700. The transformation was due to the diminishing importance of kinship and clientage, the increasing state power, and the missionary success of Protestantism[3].

Macfarlarne (1987) provides a contradicting view[2] , arguing against a change in the structure of the English family in the early modern period, and that the family's key features were not caused by urbanisation, but actually "made such a development possible"[2].

While it is important to recognise that both change and continuity were present in the history of family[2], this debate within history adds further complexity to taking an interdisciplinary approach.

Anthropological Approach[edit]

The term "nuclear family" first emerged within Anthropology during the 1940s[1]. Anthropology, however, distinguishes that the common focus on the nuclear family as a modern institution is not justified. In the late Roman Empire, the nuclear family already existed as the smallest unit of society[4]. There have even been discoveries of the graves of nuclear families dating back to 2600 BCE, such as the one by Haak et al found in 2006 in a late Neolithic community in Germany[5][6].

Malinowski and other functionalists viewed the nuclear family as a "universal human institution"[7][8] and ascribed nurturing as its prime function. Later Anthropologists disagreed, identifying 'The Family' as a construct linked to the state's ideology and arguing that it is the mother-child relation that serves the function of child nurturing[7]. However, a conjugal pair has always been the centre of kin relations and served as "the basis of a nuclear family"[4].

Goody points out how the language around kinship highlights the crucial role of the nuclear family in England: While Anglo-Saxon words for nuclear family members and kin members were closely related, this changed after the conquest of England in 1066. The Norman-French terms for kin members were adapted, while Germanic roots of the closest kind remained. This merge of languages isolated the nuclear family within society.[4]

Anthropologists consider an earlier time period than other disciplines, often ignoring the possibility of later origins.

Sociology approach[edit]

Research on the nuclear family developed significantly from the early 1900s, with major shifts during the 20th century.[9] Sociologists have always fixated on a linear progression from extended families pre-industrialisation to the nuclear family post-industrialisation. Thus, focusing on Contemporary History in their analysis of the nuclear family has meant that they failed to consider factors pre-industrialisation.

Industrialisation of Britain, started in the 18th century and spread to other parts of the world later on. [10]

Earlier sociologists, such as Parson[11] championed this theory. They believed industrialisation of Britain caused a complete transformation in family structure; a reduction in size, prioritising of conjugal bonds rather than extended family.[9] Furthermore, it was thought that urbanisation, loosened kinship ties. The nuclear family was perceived as more suited to the higher demands of an industrial society due to their increased social and geographical mobility.[12] The popular theories of functionalism and modernism during the 1950s, formed a hierarchy of societies based on the progression towards nuclear families, which were seen as superior[13]

Revisionist Theory (1960s-1970s)[edit]

Revisionists[14] challenged importance of industrialisation in the formation of the nuclear family. Anderson explains how huge changes in production were only possible after or simultaneous to changing family order.[9] The use of more historical sources and a new emphasis on class in Sociology, helped create a more complex theory of the origins of the nuclear family[9]. Gordon[11] highlighted how working class families extended to deal with the hardships of industrialisation, showing that earlier theories were oversimplified. Ultimately both revisionists and traditional sociologists were limited by their fixation on the industrialisation and didn't appreciate the influence of other events before and after it.

Economic Approach[edit]

Pre-Industrial Revolution Beliefs[edit]

Adam Smith is renowned as the father of modern Economics[15]

Within Economics, there is little research into the origination of the nuclear family before the Industrial Revolution. Economists such as Alfred Marshall and Adam Smith, however, outlined the presence of neolocal residences[16], which form the foundations of a nuclear family.

19th Century Origins[edit]

As outlined in the Sociological Approach, Parsons' theory draws upon the economic impact of the Industrial Revolution on families. Parsons' lack of empirical evidence[17], however, makes this theory weak from an economic perspective. Anderson's research also opposes this as he found 23% of households contained extended family[18] in an 1851 census, at the peak of industrialisation.

21st Century Research[edit]

Recent research into the History of the Nuclear Family focuses more on the shift in family structure, especially the transition into the 'typical' Nuclear Family seen in the 21st Century of a couple with two children. This shift is most apparent between 1881 and 1928 when the mean number of children within a family fell from 5.27 to 2.08[19].

The main catalysts of the shift to a smaller family structure originated during World War I. With 40-60% of recruits failing health checks during the Boer War[20], it became clear that social reform was necessary to have a strong labour force. The Liberal Government placed the pressure of financing these reforms on the wealthy through tax policies. Many families saw a break down of their wealth and a deterioration of the man's position within the home, paired with the increase in a women's independence during and after WWI, the typical roles within a family changed. Many landowners sold parts of their estates to compensate their loss of income, and these properties were largely partitioned into smaller units to help defeat the housing crisis. The combination of these factors led to a fall in the size of the family as a focus on children and wellbeing also began to dominate families' thinking.

Overall Economic research mostly investigates the shifts in family structures and their significance within society as opposed to its origins, thus it is less significant to the debate.


Anthropology differs in its temporal approach to the other disciplines. Economy, History, and especially Sociology tend to use historical dichotomies of before and after[9], regarding the transformation from extended to nuclear families, disregarding periods of history that could be evaluated into analysis.

These disciplines have all evolved their arguments about the emergence of the nuclear family, especially over the last century. Whilst there are conflicts within disciplines, and more importantly between the disciplines about the emergence, an interdisciplinary approach allows a broader analysis of the topic, and a multi-faceted understanding of the implications of family structure in the ever-changing world around us.


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