Essay-style Questions: Conjugal Relationships

  1. Item

    The term 'the family' seeks to refer us to a norm. This norm pictures the family in terms of a typical life cycle. It progresses from unattached young heterosexual people, to couples to marriage, the birth of children, raising children, the return to 'coupledom' then 'singledom' with the death of a partner.

    Clearly, this norm hides the considerable diversity that exists in family life. People might be homosexual, they might not get married, they might not have children, children might remain in the family home... Many of us will have more than one family through divorce and remarriage. Alternatives to the traditional nuclear family are increasingly socially acceptable and people are able to exercise choice over the sort of family they want to live in.

    Using material from the Item and elsewhere, assess sociological explanations for the diversity in family forms found in Britain today.

    (Marks available: 20)


    Answer outline and marking scheme for question: 1

    • Make sure you use material from the item and from elsewhere.
    • You need to explain.
    • You need to assess the explanations.
    • You are not being asked to simply list different types of family.

    What's in the item?

    Nature (types):

    Heterosexual/homosexual; married/unmarried; children/childless.


    Social acceptance - (this is a bit vague, but you should be able to support this from your own knowledge). The idea of a norm - has this norm changed?

    Overall, the item is of limited use here. All you get is the idea of social acceptance and the possibility of developing the idea of a norm.


    Explanations with examples:

    More Choice - our behaviour is not determined by society.

    Giddens, The Transformation of Intimacy (1992). We form families because we want to.

    For example: organizational diversity concerning the domestic division of labour. Contraception means we can choose to not have children, or when to have them and how many to have.


    Beck (1995) - we live in a risk society. Things just happen to us. Divorce, death, remarriage, unwanted childlessness, etc.


    We live longer so we are more likely to divorce, remarry etc.

    For example: Regional variations Eversley & Bonnerjea (1982) 'sun belt' families of the affluent south east, elderly retired live, in 'geriatric wards'. Inner city areas tend to have more lone parents, and ethnic minority households.


    Our own biographies will have an effect on the families we form. We are affected by our own pasts.

    Life course rather than life cycle

    The traditional approach considers the family as the unit of analysis. The life course approach takes the individual as the unit of analysis. It is clear than many individuals have differing family arrangements because of the circumstances of their personal lives.


    Macionis & Plummer (1997). Reproductive technology enables new family relationships. Communications technology enables families to live in different parts of the world.


    Mass immigration into the UK in the 1950's - mainly West Indians, 1960's mainly South Asians.

    For example: South Asians least likely to form single parent families. Black people most likely. Modood et al (1997).

    R. Oakley (1982) in a study of Cypriot families in Britain, found strong extended family ties.

    Material factors

    Increased economic independence of women. Consequences; more single women, more dual career households, more divorce, etc.

    Social Policy

    The existence of the Welfare State provides economic support for those in need. This makes possible the existence of many single parent households.

    For example: Class inequalities have widened since 1979 as a direct result of governmental taxation policy.

    Mark scheme:

    This is only a rough guide. Clearly, if you included everything mentioned in the QuickLearn you would score over 20 marks!

    Give yourself 2 marks for each explanation that is supported by an example.

    The assessment needs to consider which explanations are most important. For example:

    A statement or claim:

    Silva & Smart (1999) argue that there was drift towards more varied forms of family organization, based they argue on more freedom of 'personal choice'.


    Certainly the decline of religion, and the increasing emphasis on individuality suggests that many more people feel free to choose the family lifestyle they would prefer.

    Give yourself 1 mark every time you use an evaluative phrase such as, it would seem that/on the other hand/as against this however/overall/provided you have linked it to a sociological claim regarding diversity.

    (Marks available: 20)