Essay-style Questions: Divorce

  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)

  2. Item

    The passing of the 1969 Divorce Law Reform Act in 1971 made the only grounds for divorce 'the irretrievable breakdown of marriage' thus guilt or innocence were no longer necessary considerations in divorce proceedings. Almost immediately there was a significant increase in the divorce rate.

    The rate increased again during 1984 following after an Act was passed that allowed couples to divorce after the first anniversary of marriage. In 1991, nearly 10% of all UK divorces granted occurred within the first two years of marriage. At 171,000 divorces, the 1991 figure was the highest recorded up to that date. A notable feature of recent divorce petitions is the number that is sought by women. Increasingly it is women who make the first move towards the divorce court.

    Using information from the Item and elsewhere, evaluate the assumption that there is a causal relationship between the increase in the divorce rate since the Second World War and changes in the law concerning divorce.

    (Marks available: 20)


    Answer outline and marking scheme for question: 2


    • Make sure you use information from the item and elsewhere.
    • You must be clear about what a causal relationship is.
    • You must consider other explanations for the rise in divorce.
    • You must have an evaluation.

    What's in the item?

    • The 1969 Divorce Reform Act.
    • Irretrievable breakdown.
    • 1984 increased again - following an Act.
    • 1991 10% of divorces occur within 2 years of marriage.
    • Increase in divorces sought by women.

    There seem to be two examples of a change in law being followed by an increase in divorce. This seems to support the assumption of a causal connection.

    However, why are women seeking more divorces? And can you provide examples of an increase in divorce preceding changes in divorce law?


    You can provide further examples of how the law might or might not be related to changes in the divorce rate:

    1. The increases in divorce have not occurred at a steady rate. For example there was a marked peak around1945. This was an effect of the ending of world war two.
    2. The 1950s were relatively stable. In the 60s divorce began to increase although there were no changes in the law. Since 1980 the number of divorces has only increased slowly.
    3. Removal of legal and financial barriers. Prior to 1857, divorce could only be obtained by Act of Parliament.
    4. In 1949, the Legal Aid and Advice Act provided financial help to those unable to meet the cost of divorce.
    5. The 1985, Matrimonial and Family Proceedings Act reduced the time limit on divorce from a minimum of three years of marriage to one.
    6. Legislation cannot be seen as a cause of higher divorce rates, it has simply made divorce easier to obtain if couples want it. Clearly some couples are simply taking advantage of more liberal divorce laws.
    7. Changes in the law often reflect prior changes in public opinion. For example, steadily rising levels of divorce in the 1960s, prior to the Divorce Reform Act.

    You can provide other explanations for the rise in divorce.

    Changing expectations:

    Some researchers place the cause of increased divorce on higher expectations (Fletcher, 1966).

    Changes in women's social position:

    Better rights under divorce law, increased job opportunities and the provision of state financial support can all be seen as contributing to enhancing the bargaining position of women in conjugal relationships.

    Changing social values:

    There is now considerably less social stigma and blame attached to divorce. Wilson (1966) argues that this reduction in stigma is a result of secularization - Demographic change.

    Anderson (l983) has pointed out that lifelong marriage in the past often lasted a relatively short time. Marriage was often late and life expectancy was short. The growing number of divorces after 10 years of marriage tends to support this view.

    The highest risk groups for divorce are; teenage brides, couples who had children early, couples with 4 or more children, local authority tenants and couples with relatively low income. The underlying focus is clearly the Financial condition of the marriage (Gibson, 1994).

    Mark scheme:

    Give yourself 1 mark For each one of the 5 points from the item that you mention, provided that you have made it clear that the information came from the item.
    Give yourself 1 mark For any other evidence of a change in law that might increase the rate of divorce.
    Give yourself 2 mark For any examples of a change in the divorce rate preceding an increase in the divorce rate.
    Give yourself 2 mark For each alternative explanation you offer for an increase in the divorce rate.

    Give yourself 4 points for an evaluation that:

    Concedes that clearly easier divorce can enable more people to divorce - thus the divorce rate increases.

    Argues that however easy divorce law becomes people will only divorce if they want to, not just because they are able to.

    Suggests that marriage is much less stable now because of changes in society rather than changes in the law.

    (Marks available: 20)