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Nuclear Families

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaFamily Theory & Types of Families

The term nuclear family can be defined simply as a wife/mother, a husband/father, and their children. However, this straightforward structural definition is surrounded by a cloud of ambiguity and controversy. Most of the debates have centered around three questions. First, is the nuclear family universal—found in every known human society? Second, is the nuclear group the essential form of family—the only one that can carry out the vital functions of the family (especially, rearing the next generation) or can other family patterns (e.g., single mothers, single fathers, two women, or two men) be considered workable units for fulfilling these functions? The third issue concerns the link between the nuclear family household and industrial society. In the old days, before work moved outside the home to factories and offices, did parents and children live together under one roof with grandparents and other relatives? Did the nuclear family break away from this extended family system as a result of industrialization?

The debate over the universality and necessity of the nuclear family began in the early twentieth century. Pioneer anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski (1913) stated that the nuclear family had to be universal because it filled a basic biological need—caring for and protecting infants and young children. No culture could survive, he asserted, unless the birth of children was linked to both mother and father in legally based parenthood. Anthropologist George P. Murdock (1949) elaborated on the idea that the nuclear family is both universal and essential: "Whether as the sole prevailing form of the family . . . or as the basic unit from which more complex families form, [the nuclear family] exists as a distinct and strongly functional group in every known society" (p. 2).

The debate about the nuclear family and industrialism centered around the writings of one of the leading sociologists of the post-World War II era, Talcott Parsons (1955). The nuclear unit, he argued, fits the needs of industrial society. Independent of the kin network, the "isolated" nuclear family is free to move as the economy demands. Further, the intimate nuclear family can specialize in serving the emotional needs of adults and children in a competitive and impersonal world.

In later years, the assumptions about the family held by Malinowski, Murdock, and Parsons have been challenged by family sociologists as well as by anthropologists, historians, feminist scholars, and others. Research in these fields has emphasized the diversity of family not only across cultures and eras but also within any culture or historical period.

Anthropologists have pointed out that many languages lack a word for the parent-child domestic units known as families in English. For example, the Zinacantecos of southern Mexico identify the basic social unit as a house, which may include one to twenty people (Vogt 1969). In contrast, historical studies of Western family life have shown that nuclear family households were extremely common as far back as historical evidence can reach, particularly in northwestern Europe—England, Holland, Belgium, and northern France (Gottlieb 1993). These countries have long held the norm that a newly married couple moves out of their parents' homes and sets up their own household. Despite the continuity of form, however, different social classes, ethnic groups, religious persuasions, and geographical regions have had different practices and beliefs with regard to parent-child relations, sexuality, family gender roles, and other aspects of family life.

Family life also has changed in response to social, economic, and political change. Many scholars believe that in the eighteenth century and the early nineteenth century, the modernizing countries of Western Europe witnessed a transformation of family feeling that resulted in "the closed domesticated nuclear family." The new family ideal, Lawrence Stone (1977) argued, prescribed domestic privacy and strong emotional attachments between spouses and between parents and children. On the other hand, some scholars have argued that strong emotional bonds between family members have existed for centuries, and others have argued that the "closed domesticated nuclear family" was a middle-class ideal that came to be applied slowly and incompletely outside that class. In Eastern Europe, however, the nuclear norm did not prevail. Households were expected to contain other relatives besides the nuclear unit (i.e., a third generation or a parent's sibling and possibly that person's spouse and children). It is true that in those parts of Europe about half of the households at any particular time were nuclear, but this unit served as just a stage the family might pass through.

As these examples show, it is important to distinguish between the nuclear family as a cultural symbol and as an observable domestic group (Schneider 1968). The nuclear family is a symbol deeply rooted in Western culture; it is represented in art, family photographs, advertising, and television. However, the family ideal of any particular culture does not necessarily describe the social realities of family life. For example, the nuclear family remains the preferred cultural pattern in the United States despite the fact that the proportion of nuclear family households is smaller than in the past (Skolnick 1991). The persistence of this ideal is reflected in the fact that most divorced people remarry. Further, there is no evidence that most single mothers prefer to raise their children by themselves. In most Western nations, particularly the United States, the wish to become a parent at some time in one's life is virtually universal. Today's longevity means that the parent-child relationship can last fifty years or more. It remains a central attachment in most people's lives.

In any particular time and place, families have always been more varied than the prevailing image of what the ideal family should be. However, although family types are even more diverse than in the past, most contemporary families are still variations on the traditional nuclear family pattern (e.g., the two-job family, the empty nest couple with grown children, or the blended family). An unsettled period of family transition has resulted from major shifts in economic, demographic, political, and cultural trends in the industrialized world and beyond. These changes have altered people's lives dramatically, but other institutions of society—government, business, religion—have not yet caught up with the new realities.

The traditional Western concept of the nuclear family as the only normal, natural family has had a profound influence on research, therapy, and public policy. It has encouraged the tendency to define any departure from that arrangement as unhealthy or immoral. This concentration on a single, universally accepted pattern has blinded students of behavior to historical precedents for multiple legitimate family arrangements.


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Gottlieb, B. (1993). The Family in the Western World. New York: Oxford.

Malinowski, B. (1913). The Family Among the Australian Aborigines. London: University of London Press.

Murdock, G. P. (1949). Social Structure. New York: Macmillan.

Parsons, T. (1955). "The American Family: Its Relations to Personality and the Social Structure." In Family Socialization and Interaction Process, ed. T. Parsons and R. F. Bales. New York: Free Press.

Schneider, D. M. (1968). American Kinship: A Cultural Account. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall. Schneider, D. M., and Smith, R. T. (1973). Class Differences and Sex Roles in American Kinship and Family Structure. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Skolnick, A. (1991). Embattled Paradise: The American Family in an Age of Uncertainty. New York: Basic Books.

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Stone, L. (1977). The Family, Sex, and Marriage in England, 1500–1800. New York: Harper & Row.

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Vogt, E. Z. (1969). Zinacantan: A Maya Community in the Highlands of Chiapas. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


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