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The concept of the nuclear family defines a couple and their dependent children, regarded as a basic social unit (Bittman & Pixley 1997: 1-3). The nuclear family is largely linked to industrialism, with the belief it was a product of this evolutionary change. This notion will be explored through Talcott Parsons, who argues that it was the nuclear family that encouraged the development of the industrial revolution (1955: 17-45).
The pre-industrial society illustrates families satisfying the numerous requirements of their relatives. Parsons believes the creation of the nuclear family is aligned with his social evolution theory (1955: 17). The evolution of society involves social institutions evolving which operate in fewer practices. Therefore, families no longer perform a wide range of requirements. Instead, specialist institutions take over many of the functions of the pre-industrialised family (Parsons 1955: 17-19). Parsons argued that the nuclear family is an adaptable form aligns with institutionalised, political and economic values that strive for achievement compared to ascription (1955: 20-22). The relative smallness of the nuclear family in comparison to other family ties is an adaption that allows for family members to become mobile and spatial in the new modern industrial system. (Parsons 1955: 22)
Parsons argues ‘status is achieved rather than ascribed’ in an industrial society (1955: 34). Judgements are shaped by values that are communally applicable to everyone and the family status is ascribed to values that are applicable to specific persons only. These two kinds of values, however, may become a conflict within a family. For example, if the son is a lawyer and the father is a labourer, the collective values would allocate the son to a sophisticated social status which, in comparison to the father, may undermine the father’s authority. However, the particularistic values of family life would give the father more status and authority within the family. Either way, the values may create conflict. The nuclear family, however, deters these conflicts as the nuclear family is an adaptable force to the requirements of an industrial society (Parsons 1955: 34-36).
Parson’s argument that the nuclear family was an adaptable force that encouraged the development of the industrial revolution is weakened by Peter Laslett (Parsons 1955: 17-22; Laslett 1972). Laslett identified that between the 16th and 19th century, approximately 10% of households contained kin beyond the nuclear family (Laslett 1972). This suggests that the pre-industrial family system did not live in single residences but instead seems to have been the normal kind of residence group. However, Laslett found no evidence that extended family was extensive that gave means to the minor nuclear household of modern industrial society.
Through Talcott Parson’s argument, it is evident that the nuclear family is not related to industrial society because it is a product of it, but rather because it may have been one of the encouraging factors of its development. Although Parson’s argument may be discredited due to Haslett’s findings, it is still important to recognise that the nuclear family is an adaptable force that aligns with the economic, political and institutionalised values that stress achievement rather than ascription.
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