There has been an on going argument among sociologists surrounding the debate for whether or not the nuclear family is a universal institution. Many different sociologists have presented many different theories regarding the question. The term “universal” refers to the whole world as one, therefore the question is asking for the opinion concerning the nuclear family and whether or not it is social accepted and seen as the norm throughout the world or whether there are other forms of family units and the nuclear family described at the start, is only recognised in certain parts of the world. However this question proposed has no exact answer, as there are so many different cultures to experience where they have their own style of nuclear families and interpret it completely differently to many others in other countries and social backgrounds.
Many famous sociologists cast their personal views and theories on the matter. One main sociologist named Murdock claimed in 1949 that there are four main functions of the family. He concluded this theory after closely studying 250 different societies. Murdock felt for a society of people to become a family they had to perform all four functions that a normal family would do. The functions are:
Reproduction – Essential for the survival of human society
Sexual – Family provides environment for regulating sexual desires
Education – Learning the norms and values of society. They only focus on primary socialisation
Economic – Shelter and division of labour
Murdock claimed without these four essential functions, the family society would cease to function and therefore would breakdown. Murdock also believes that the family is beneficial for the individual and to society. Murdock argued that the nuclear family is the most efficient arrangement for performing these functions. It is clear that the family is a social group characterised by common residence, economic co-operation and reproduction. It also includes adults of both sexes, at least two of whom maintain a socially acceptable sexual relationship and also have one or more children, own or adopted of the sexually cohabiting adults. Murdock also felt that the nuclear family is a universal human social grouping Either as the sole prevailing form of the family or as the basic unit from which more complex forms compounded, it exists as a strong and distinct functional group in every society.
After studying Murdock’s claims and theories it is evident that the issues and points raised by Murdock are not all completely truthful. Firstly we can exceptions that suggest the nuclear family is not universal (Nayar, Matrifocal, Kibbutz and Gay). Also the functions of the nuclear family can be equally performed in different family structures. However despite claiming this, on the whole Murdock’s theory is very reliable and correct in most circumstances and the numbers of people against Murdock’s theory are so few in number and are not significantly significant. People also argue that in societies where families do not perform the four essential functions that these families are nuclear families gone wrong.
Someone who disagrees with Murdock’s view on nuclear families and its universal institution is a woman known as Nancy Gonzalez. Gonzalez performed a series of studies surrounding the family in 1985. She discovered the Matrifocal families. This is where the families are centred on the mother. She is the head of the family unit and she lives with her relatives. Gonzalez also claimed these families are called New World Black Families. In this set up, Gonzalez comments on how the mother would support the woman economically as the father was usually absent. Gonzalez therefore argues that Murdock should re-define the family.
Different Sociologists such as Smith, Liebow and Lewis all have altered views on the causes of Matrifocal families.
Smith comments on how he feels the plantation slavery being the main factor accounting for Matrifocal families. The father figurehead image was eroded after he was subject to the authority of plantation owner.
Liebow focuses his opinion towards how the father believes he is unable to support his wife and children due to unemployment and poverty. This all stems from the father failing to provide daily for the family to survive sufficiently.
There is also a sociologist named Lewis. Lewis feels that poverty is that main trigger behind Matrifocal families. It is now a common sight, a lone parent. It is now treated as a norm. Herskovits also took great interest in the Matrifocal families. He believed that the NWBF influenced the family structure. In West Africa a system of polygamy operated. This therefore concluded in female independence. The husband only played a small marginal part in the family set-up.
Kathleen Gough carried out a series of research on families in different societies and what their norms, beliefs and values are. Gough travelled out to India to stay with the Nayer Tribe. Gough reported back with her findings. She commented on how all Nayer girls are to be married to Nayer men before puberty. After this, the couple don’t actually live together as a husband and wife would do in England. After puberty, the woman is then allowed to have up to 12 ‘visiting husbands’. These are known as sand banham. These husbands then are welcome to visit as many women who have undergone the tali-rite (woman have undergone the tali-rite by going through puberty). Kathleen Gough concluded from her experiences that the basic family unit is a woman and her children.
In comparing this situation to Murdock’s theory, Murdock would happily claim that there is no sign of a definite family present in this society. Many would argue that comment however claiming that there is a family present only they own different norms, beliefs and values and therefore are not conscience of any other or better way of living in a society.
There are many other societies that do not correspond with Murdock’s definition of a nuclear family. Many foreign tribes are the main candidates that perform and survive without referring to Murdock’s four essential functions.
Lakker – Don’t see the children as blood relatives to mothers
Ashanti – Father and wife don’t live together
Kibbutz – Allowed to live with one or more partners
It seems that the norms, beliefs and values of any society determines who is considered a part of the family society. However as shown, these NBV’s can vary from community to community.
The answer to the essay title is not one that is straightforward. There can be no definite right or wrong answer providing that there is sufficient evidence to back up a claim. The nuclear family is a universal institution to an extent. However, it is hard to justify that statement due to the small African societies who operate in a completely alien fashion to English families. Whether the nuclear family is universal depends on how it is defined. Relationships are universal, as is some form of co-residence, of intimacy, sexuality and emotional bonds. But the forms they can take are infinitely variable and can be changed and challenged as well as embraced.
Murdock’s evidence and views given at the start of the essay was the core from which to work from as he gave the first ground statement regarding the nuclear family. It was through this that other sociologists carried out research based around his theory. Murdock believes in the four essential functions for a family. However Gough and Gonzalez both argue that statement claiming that the families and societies they focused on managed and survived with few problems, and there were also many signs of family bonds and togetherness despite not performing the four essential functions. Educational, Economic, Sexual, Reproduction.
It seems that many different people and sociologists all have their own ideas on what is exactly meant by the nuclear family. Through they’re not being a definite description of a nuclear family there will never be precise recordings as to whether or not the nuclear family is a universal institution or not.