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

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This Article will be looking at the debate around the emergence of the nuclear family, across the disciplines. We will be focusing on Britain, as it was here that the term "nuclear family" was first coined in 1925. The History of the family and more specifically nuclear family is important subject to look at as the family is one of the main structures and organisation within British society.

Moreover looking at the history can help to understand the changing nature of the family today and the nucleur families widely suggested decline. -- should we put that in conclusion maybe??


-combine- sociology and anthropological depending on similarity of research

-add history as category


Anthropological Approach[edit]

Anthropology understands the nuclear family as "a family unit"[1] consisting of "parents and their dependent children"[1].

Murdock, who was the first to use this term in his book “Social Structure” in 1949, identifies the “nuclear family” as “the first and most basic” type of family, most often composed of a conjugal pair and their children.[2] Apart from this commonsense definition of the term, he also adds that sometimes more people can be added to the described standard model. The discipline points out that the common focus on the nuclear family as a modern institution is not justified. In the third century in the late Roman Empire, the nuclear family already existed as the smallest unit of society[3]. There have even be discoveries of 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[4].

Malinowski and other functionalists ascribed nurturing as the prime function to the nuclear family, which they viewed as an "universal human institution" (REFERENCE will be added). Later Anthropologists disagreed, identifying 'The Family' as a construct linked to the state and its ideology and arguing that it is actually the mother-child relation that serves the function of child nurturing(rf: is there a family?) However, a conjugal pair has always been the centre of kin relations and served as "the basis of a nuclear family"[3].

Taking an approach usually associated with Levi-Strauss, Goody points out how the language around kinship can highlight 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.[3]

Economic Approach[edit]

Capitalisation as a reason for the nuclear families development?

Look at Alfred Marshall, Adam Smith (economist)- the curious history of theorizing about the history of the western family

Sociology approach[edit]

Draft writing

Nuclear family is is a relatively new term, first being used in by American anthropologist G.p Murdock in his book 'Social structure', in 1949[2]. - can I put this in Anth, as he was functionalist?? (Elli)

The history of the study of the orgins of family within sociology has developed significantly from the early 1900s, and there have been major shifts in the last 10 years.[5]The discipline has taken a renewed interest in the family and demographic history, spending the significantly more on it then other topics of social history.[5]Sociology history of the study of the nuclear family as previously been based on oversimplified assumptions, something that the discipline is only recently challenging.

Earlier sociologists, in the 20th century believed that there was a stark difference between the structure of the family pre and post industrialisation. The believed industrialisation of Britain caused a complete transformation in family structure; a reduction in size, prioritising of conjugal bonds rather than extended family. It was thought that urbanisation, loosened kinship ties and transformed extended family units to nuclear families.[6]. The nuclear family was perceived as more suited to the higher demands of an industrial society, therefore was a requirement of civilisation from earlier stages of 'savagy', an idea that was influenced by anthropology's evolutionary theories. However this theory was an oversimplification of the history and ignored historical sources that pointed to the existence of nuclear family along time before industrialisation.

Sociology's that was taken on by others disciplines as well

However there was later research that challenged this assumption and the development of the nuclear family was thought to be pre-industrialisation and in fact helped fuel industrialisation.[7]- Use of more empirical, historical sources helps to change interpretations of history- need to use historically approach- before too much of a structuralist approach, need interdisciplinary resource with history- to form less generalised assumption (Sociology and the Historical Perspective journal)

Industrialisation developed the family from a collective unit, to a more individualist state, due to the movement of women from the home to the workforce and the power of the father was replaced by the authority of the state over individuals. It also decrease the size of the family, towards what e consider a 'traditional' nuclear family, due to increasing desire for higher standards of living, and the financial costs of children.[8] ' Scotland until around 1700, to provide the security not afforded by the state. The family, however, complements the state and not vice versa; once the latter provides such security, kin disperse depending on their personal proclivities'

Historical Approach[edit]

The History of the Family is still a rather recent topic of research, only forming after 1958[9]. The discipline has not found one common view yet, thus publications on the history of the family in early modern England are full of contradictions[10]. The common image of the family was the one of a "nuclear" one and it was thought to have emerged during “structural modernisation of western societies since the 19th century”[9]. Prior to this emerge it was assumed that family structures had been more complex and transformed due to three conceptual processes: nuclearization, individualism and emotionalism[9]. From the 1970s onward historians, even though still holding on to the three processes of change, located that change earlier in history[9]. The first to "seriously"[9] address English family history was Lawrence Stone in 1977 with his book "The Family, Sex and Marriage in England, 1500-1800"[11]. He portrays the development of the English Family in three different stages: the late medieval family as very open to "external influences"[11] , but already with the nuclear family as the centre of a complex system of kinship relations. Between 1500 and 1700 the nuclear family's boundaries became more clearer its psychological importance was heightened.[11] Causes for those changes included the diminishing importance of kinship and clientage, an increasing power of the state and the missionary success of Protestantism[11]. Furthermore, the patriarchal power within the family increased[11], a transition that has only been addressed as an issue by feminist historians at the end of the last century[9]. (other reference?) Stone's last stage of development portrays how "authoritarian relationships"[11] are substituted by more liberated conjugal relations in the 17th and 18th century, resulting in an even bigger independence of the nuclear family from both "the interference or support from the kin"[11] and from society. Although allocating them to different times, Stone is still holding onto the three processes of change described earlier[9]. A much more radical change to the history of the English family is provided by Alan Macfarlarne's "Marriage and Love in England, 1300-1800", in which he completely contradicts the old narrative in the discipline.[9] He argues that there was no change in the basis of the English family in the early modern period, but that the key features already existed and instead of being caused by capitalism, industry, urbanization, individualization they were “preconditions which made such development possible”[9](add macfarlarne as refernce). It is important to recognise that both change and continuity were present in the history of family in England and that while nuclearization, individualism and emotionalism were factors, they have been focused on too much and need to be seen in the context of their own history and in relation to each other. [9]

Theological Approach[edit]

The removal of the catholic rules within the Anglican church in 16th century England caused a confusion within society about marriage and family norms. This is not surprising as the influence of the catholic church on marriage and family was noticeable in all of Europe. However, the Anglican-church quickly established its own rules, settling the prior confusion and highlighting the responsibility of the family[3]. (whats meant by this? explain!!)

Chruch of england (anglican)

bible-Have you not read the He who made them at the beginning, made them male and female, and said ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’”

it should be as a value set by god

-look at Henry 8th

Purtians emphasied the

Religion and Family Links: Neofunctionalist Reflections

By Donald Swenson- is this theology (he is both trained as a theologist and sociologist) should we show him as an example of interdisciplenary study??? conclusion

Donald Swenson, argues that the nuclear family can first been seen to emerge in the period of elisabeth rule, and this challenges the focus of the traditional family as a value set set at genesis by many christian sects.

Interdisciplinary Conclusion[edit]


Although debates exist within and between disciplines (explain further), there already exists some interdisciplinarity on this topic.

Maybe look at how the different findings of the discipline affects their opinion of nuclear family today and look at how an interdisciplinary approach to the history is beneficial to understanding the changing nature of the family/ 'decline' of the nuclear family today.

e.g theology- sees the decline of the nuclear family as a threat to the structure of society, yet other disciplines see it as something that is progressing with the changing values of society

While Theology widely ignores the history of the extended family, Sociology focuses on the history of the nuclear family post-industrial revolution, not taking into account the earlier history of it.

Even term of "nuclear family" is defined differently in different disciplines.[1]


  1. a b c Fortunato, L. (2017) "Insights from Evolutionary Anthropology on the Prehistory of the Nuclear Family"
  2. a b Murdock G. Social structure. George Peter Murdock, .. New York: Macmillan C°; 1949.
  3. a b c d Goody J. The European Family. An Historico-Anthropological Essay. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd; 2000
  4. Fortunato, L. Reconstructing the History of Marriage Strategies in Indio-European Speaking Societies: Monogamy and Polygamy. 2011
  5. a b 5. Anderson M. Sociology of the family. New York: Penguin; 1982.
  6. 1. Household and family during urbanization and industrialization: efforts to shed new light on an old debate [Internet]. Taylor & Francis. 2019 [cited 3 December 2019]. Available from:
  7. 2. Smith D. The Curious History of Theorizing about the History of the Western Nuclear Family. 2019.
  8. 4. W.Coulter C. Sage Publications, Inc in association with the American Academy of Political and Social Science. 1938;196:20-24.
  9. a b c d e f g h i j Wrightson K. The family in early modern England: continuity and change. In: Hanoverian Britain and Empire, Woodbridge: The Boydell Press; 1998
  10. Collinson P. The birthpangs of protestant England. New York: St. Martin's Press; 1988.
  11. a b c d e f g Stone L. The family, sex and marriage in England 1500-1800. London: Penguin; 1990.