Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Family Structure and Relationships: The Dyadic Approach

Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Family Structure and Relationships: The Dyadic Approach

Article excerpt

One of the most important conceptualisations is the one by Murdock ( 1949), where he uses the term family with the prefix nuclear. As far as I can see he did not add the prefix in order to distinguish the nuclear family from other family forms. His intention was to show that the nuclear family as a concept could be combined in social reality into more complex forms; a number of nuclear families would be significant for polygamous families and for extended families, to mention two examples. The prefix nuclear was added as a metaphoric clarification.

Murdock as a social anthropologist was interested in analysing and classifying societies as based upon the nuclear family as a preferred and typical form or based upon more complex family forms consisting of a number of nuclear families. (However, I will not discuss his hypothesis of the nuclear family as universal.) As far as I can see he never used the term to denote any actual family, only to denote societies. He said that ". . . nuclear family, consists typically of a married man and woman and their offspring" (Murdock, 1949: 1). In the discussion he adds that they live together, that the spouses have sex together and that they take care of their children.

During the last decades his term of nuclear family has gained a new meaning alongside the original one. Among scholars as well as among lay persons the term often denotes the social phenomenon of a man and a woman and their children all living together in the same household. Thus the term is now used on the small group level and not only on the societal level. It is also used in contrast to other family types where the nuclear family is lacking. Examples are one-parent family and step-family.

With this usage the nuclear family has become what Smith (1993) calls an ideological code or what . (1973) calls a model monopoly. The expression ideological code is connected to the perception that the value system lying behind our usage of the term family is to the effect that the nuclear family with its gender differentiation is ideologically correct and what should be. The idea with the term code is connected to the idea of a genetical code; in a similar way as genetics are reproduced the same code acts for the reproduction of the ideology of the "right" family. Even if we try not to reproduce the ideology, we still do reproduce it without knowing or seeing it. For example, we might ask girls how many children they would like to have when they are married. We don't ask boys the same questions. We all know that in today's society the question is not only sort of sexist but the question is also unrealistic in a society where two thirds of all newborn children are born to non-married mothers, most of whom are cohabiting with the father of the child.

.'s term model monopoly is similar in that one here assumes or takes for granted that the model, the nuclear family with its gender differentiation, is the right one and thus has a monopoly, where forms that do not fit the frame of the nuclear family are deviations, not varieties. The term nuclear family as a model, thus with a monopoly, clearly indicates to be the best one and thus by itself normative. As Bernardes (1993) rightly says, in scholarly work as elsewhere, use of a definite article, the family, indicates that there is one family only or one sort of family only. Gubrium and Holstein (1990) also stress the importance of not defining the family, since it simply does not exist. Families exist. When people define the family, a consequence is that all other pieces of social realities are not families but may be sub-classes or deviants, indicated by prefixes or otherwise. We can even see the lack of concern about social reality in the fact that the United Nations when declaring 1994 as the International Year of the Family, uses not family but the family. (It is true that in some translations, for example, into Portuguese or Swedish the definite article does not have to be present as in the official and formal English. …

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