It used to be thought that the extended family was typical in pre-industrial England and that the nuclear family became predominant as a result of industrialisation. Historical and sociological research has shown this to be too simple a view – discuss (June 1986, paper one).
The general view that the extended family, which had grandparents, parents, children and often aunts and uncles all living under the same roof or in close contact with each other, was typical in pre-industrial England has been shown to be too simple a view.
The same applies with the nuclear family. The idea that the domestic unit of a man and a woman in a stable marital relationship with their dependent children simply arose once industrialization had begun is easy to believe, but in truth is far more complicated. Studies have shown that industrialization did not convert the extended family into a nuclear family. Not only were there extended families in post-industrial times, but also the number of extended families with extended kin in pre-industrial times was considerably lower than once thought. Plus we must also consider the fact that Britain is a multicultural nation and many of these cultures do not live as nuclear families.
Industrialisation supposedly change the extended family into the nuclear family. This is seen as a theory of functional fit, as the nuclear family is supposed to fit the functional requirements of modern society. Industrialisation brought the loss of many functions which the extended family once performed, for example education, health care, economic support, and justice.
The classic extended family, i.e. a patriarchal father-based unit with father, wife, children, ageing parents and any unmarried brothers and sisters working together in a production unit, as proposed by C.M. Arensburg and S.T. Kimball in their study “Family and Kinship in Ireland” (1940) was not the main family group in England in pre-industrial times. Peter Laslett, a Cambridge historian who studied parish records from 1564 to 1821 (a period covering pre-industrial times) showed that the classic extended family represented only 10% of the population of Great Britain. He found no evidence that the extended family was the dominant family structure that was replaced by the nuclear family as a result of industrialisation.
Michael Young and Peter Willmott show the pre-industrial family as a unit of production with husband, wife and children. They often worked in textiles, and the process of industrialization put many of them out of work as it offered cheaper, larger and often better quality textiles. However a few families did survive.
Once the Industrial Revolution had begun the pre industrial family decreased in numbers. Often the father had to go out of his area to find work, and consequently the extended family network was built up by mothers who were left at home to look after the house and children. Michael Anderson’s study of Preston in 1851 (a period of early industrialization) showed that 23% of households contained extended kin. This is clearly an increase and shows Anderson’s theory that the extended family acted as a welfare support system.
Preston was a cotton town and severe hardship and large families gave birth to a “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” attitude within communities, with children often going to stay with relatives in times of economic depression. Each individual in a household could often help reduce rent. Plus the industries of an applied for work through the extended family network, and asking for a job for a niece or nephew was Commonplace
This also supports Laslett’s view that it was a nuclear family which allowed industrialization to take place, rather than the Industrial Revolution being the reason for the emergence of the nuclear family.
Although this type of family mainly began to decline in the early 20th century it survived in many lower class areas of large cities, for example Hull in the fishing areas documented by Jeremy Tunstall in “The Fishermen”, and also in Bethnal Green covered by Young and Willmott in “Family and Kinship in East London”. In Bethnal Green many families lived close by and they helped each other with baby-sitting and washing. They also had very close mother-daughter relationships once the daughter has got married
However by the 1950s this type of family had largely disappeared. A newer, home-based family, characterized by the separation of the nuclear family from the extended family had arisen. The Bonds in the family are stronger and they are more “companionate”.
Young and Willmott say that an increase in the real wages of the male breadwinner, a decrease in unemployment, increased employment opportunities for women, the family allowance, sickness and unemployment benefits, along with old age pensions have all contributed towards the move from the extended family to the nuclear family.
Increasing geographical mobility has severed kinship ties and the reduction of the number of children from 5 to 6 down to an average of 2 has given a greater opportunity for wives to work. Less children means a higher standard of living, especially if the wife works as well. Goldthorpe and Lockwood’s study, “The Affluent Worker in Class Structure” showed the main concern was to raise the living standards of the immediate family, a concern which shaped family structure and domestic life.
However this does not mean that the extended family has ceased to exist. Many still people still communicate with their extended kin, whether it be by mail, telephone or visiting, and at important family functions, for example weddings, funerals and religious festivals, the extended family usually get together. Even job opportunities can be offered. Plus many different cultures have different ways of life; Turkish, Greek, Asian, Afro-Caribbean and Chinese communities all exist, and they usually have some kind of extended kin relationships.