The nuclear family is disintegrating


The nuclear family has been described as an artificial construct of the nuclear age by some people. These people give more credit to the more traditional extended family. (Uzoka, 1979) However, in the present age, all the talks about family disintegration are directed to the nuclear family. The term nuclear family was instituted in the western world for the purposes of distinguishing the various family groups that are in existence. (Gottlieb, 1993)  There is a family group which consists of children and their parents that is, father, mother and children. This is what is referred to as the nuclear family. Then there is a different family structure composed of father, mother, children and relatives. This kind of a family structure is referred to as the extended family. (Bernardes, 1999)

Nuclear family structures are not so new. They have been present since time immemorial even though the structures did not have a definite name. The term Nuclear family was coined in 1947 according to Merriam-Webster. Webster suggested that the term must have come up due to the ever changing nature of the industrial age. He thought that the evolution of the name was coincidental and that it did not come as a result of the nuclear age. Is the Nuclear family an artificial construct which has no benefit to an individual?  Originally, the nuclear family was referred to as the immediate family. (Uzoka, 1979)

According to research carried out, the term nuclear was coined from ‘nucleus’ which has been known to serve as theoretical root word meaning a centre of a large structure. It has also been said that historically, the nuclear family did not have the dominance that it has been accorded in the nuclear age. Post WWII environment has been implicated for enhancing the dominance of the nuclear family by shifting the family structure. It is important to carry out a study of how sociological factors have played a role in the disintegration of the nuclear family. (Chester, 1986)

Disintegration of the Nuclear family

A lot of people have been affected by the breakdown of the nuclear family structure. This issue has made many people upset as it has been a source of problems and destructions to majority of people in the nuclear age. The nuclear family is the smallest possible unit that is considered before any breakdown in a family structured is considered. (Uzoka, 1979).  The nuclear family is not something artificial and it should be considered as anyone’s most vital and first social group. The nuclear family is a natural structure found in any social group whether big or small. (Gottlieb, 1993)

An American anthropologist G.P. Murdock was the first sociologist to attest the Nuclear family as a social structure in 1949. (Murdock, 1949). According to many sociologists, the family nucleus found in the new transitory nature of American Society in the 1940s was described as a grounding unit that could easily be picked up and transplanted. Nuclear family disintegration has not only affected the American society, this issue has had a huge blow on most countries in the world.

Sociological pressures have been implicated to play a major role in the disintegration. A lot of people try to diminish the anguish that comes as a result of disintegration in the nuclear family by instigating that this structure replaced the disintegrated extended family. The only cause of concern is whether the structure which will replace the nuclear family will be better or worse than it. (Taylor, 1997). Therefore, the contemporary society should be prepared of the sociological effects that the new family unit will bring with it. (Chester, 1986)

Sociological Theories on Nuclear family disintegration

The nuclear family has deeply been analyzed since the early nineteenth century with respect to various disciplines which include: Psychiatry, Cultural, Anthropology, Psychology and Sociology. Family Sociology can be attributed to have played a huge role in carrying out studies on family change since the twentieth Century. Parsons’ theory had the most influential power on the family structure at the time. (Parsons, 1955). There are various theories that have been put forward to explain disintegration in the nuclear family and emphasize on the adaptive elements that the family structure has to undergo. Many Western sociologist interchange the term ‘family’ with ‘nuclear family’. (Gottlieb, 1993)

The disintegration of the nuclear family has led to the emergence of one-parent families which include: widowed, adoptive, divorced, unmarried people and also same sex families. Because these groups sought to be recognized as a family unit, a sociologist known as Popenoe in 1988 revised the definition of a family to incorporate the groups. He played a part in influencing a debate on the definition of a family. He suggested that a family should also describe:

Any group consisting of one adult and one dependent person
People married who are of the same sex.
A couple which is not married. (Solly, 2006)

The definition of a nuclear family has to include its functions as a social institution. (Taylor, 1997).  According to Murdock, the functions of this social institution include: economic, reproductive, sexual and educational. With the new science of sociology, analysis of the disintegration of the nuclear family became possible. Auguste Comte who was thought by many to be the father of sociology thought disintegration of the nuclear family came as result of French revolution. (Murdock, 1949).

Auguste attributes the rejection of aristocratic and hierarchical relations between the common people and the aristocracy as the main cause of family dysfunctions. His theory of attributing social changes to nuclear family disintegration and crisis has become a major subject in family sociology. Frederic Le Play who was the founder of empirical family sociology perceived the breakdown of the nuclear family as a result of industrial revolution. His sociological theory describes the stem family as being stronger than the Nuclear family which was separated from stem family and suffer red both physically and financially. He concluded by saying that the nuclear family is very unstable and that its disintegration was inevitable. (Taylor, 1997).

According to Popenoe, the breakdown of the nuclear family could have been caused by Promiscuity in the society which made paternity issues difficult to establish. However, other sociologists like Howard and Westermarck found no clear evidence of promiscuity in early families. Marx and Engels influenced a major family theory in the nineteenth century. Marxist theory uses the economic determinism concept to explain how social power is determined by the available economic resources which influences the different kinds of struggle present in the various classes of people. (Parsons, 1955).

The patriarchal family which had the father as having the right to private property and authority overshadowed the matriarchal system. The dissolution of capitalistic system led to the liberation of women which saw to it that they also had the ability to acquire and possess wealth. The result was the formation of strong feminist theories regarding gender differences in power that has contributed to the many divorces in the society. Women now have the ability to take care of their own children without the presence of a male figure in the house. This has largely contributed to disintegration of the nuclear family. Sociological factors are thought to have been the cause of nuclear family disintegrations in Western countries like Canada, Northern Europe and United States. (Solly, 2006)

The interactionist theory developed by Ralph Linton focuses on the interactions that occur between family members. Any nuclear family can be studied as a unit of interacting personalities. In the course of carrying out research on the interaction theory, the power in family roles was also studied. This theory explains that the disintegration of the nuclear family could have resulted from bad interactions within the family. For instance, a husband could exercise too much power in the family likely to send his wife away. (Taylor, 1997).

A lot of controversy has resulted due to industrialization with women fighting for change of roles within a family setting. Although this move on the part of the women seems to be right, it has been established that single-parent families are not the best. Juvenile delinquency has risen due to the disintegrations in the nuclear family. The absence of the father figure and the ability to spend less time at home, transform children into delinquents. Industrialization has also led to many people dying due to accidents on roads, and places of work. This has increased the number of widowed people hence the nuclear family disintegration. (Patrick, 1995)

The Social Darwin’s evolutionary theory has been applied to the family setting. The theory talks about the adaptation of organisms into their natural environments. The family has been compared to an organism which has to adapt to its natural environment if it is to survive from breaking up. Using this theory, Henry Morgan tried to explain the evolutionary development of family through six stages. The first one being the matriarchal stage characterized by promiscuity while the last being the monogamous family.

The nuclear family has not been able to adapt to the increased industrialization, civilization and urbanization. There are many challenges that the nuclear family is frequently exposed to. For instance, industrialization and civilization have influenced the roles played by parents in the nuclear family. As a result, disputes have occurred leading to the disintegration of the nuclear family. (Eby, 1995)

Morgan in trying to fathom this theory decided that since evolution results in higher development of species, then environmental and social evolution could result in higher development of the family. Extended family evolved to form nuclear family and it is hoped that evolution will lead to the disintegration and evolution of the nuclear family to come up with a unit that will be able to adapt to the current environment. Civilized nations such as North America and Europe have recorded the highest nuclear family disintegrations due to the extensive industrialization present in the nations.

Studies reveal that nations considered to be ‘primitive’ such as Africa, have most of their nuclear families still intact. Spencer, who is Pro- Social Darwinism, has attempted to explain the evolution of the family from simple to complex forms. However his explanations were not in line with Engels, Marx and Le Play family sociologists who described the family to be evolving from more complex forms such as the extended family to simpler forms like the nuclear family. If the theory holds, then it is expected that the nuclear family will further disintegrate and evolve into a simpler form. (Betty, 1973) Structural-functionalism concept was put across by Spencer in trying to explain family theory of change. This theory or concept was further supported by Durkheim and it was seen to form a basis of Parsons’ theory of family change.

This theory attributed the changes in the family structure to be as a result of changes in the society. The family was seen as a part of a greater whole which established equilibrium when it was properly combined to other relevant units. When a change occurred in one of the units, then it was transferred to the other parts. It was then decided that changes in the society could have a greater impact on the family as compared to the biological and economic factors in the Social Darwinism and Marxist theory.

Durkheim found out that the change in the family structure influenced the relationships between parents and their children. In that the relationship ceases to be based on economic or material needs but on personal motives. In the changing society, women are very liberated that they do not need financial assistance from their partners. The nuclear family is disintegrating and this is shown by the great number of reported divorces and separations in the society. (Betty, 1973)

The evolutionary theory was not accepted by many cultural anthropologists as it did not incorporate variations present in many family types due to different cultural contexts in the society. Instead they came up with cultural relativism concept which they thought should be employed in the study of the family evolution. They did not think that it was right to consider other cultures to be more superior or civilized than others. Thy made it clear that each society has unique values and culture which should not be compared with another. This theory was dismissed all together by the end of the nineteenth century.

However, the theory popped up again in 1930 in a different form as Ecological Anthropology. This theory emphasized on the relationship that exists between the environment and traits of a particular culture. The nuclear family is rapidly disintegrating due to the changes in the environment in terms of industrialization and urbanization. (Eby, 1995)


The nuclear family is the first social group that one has to belong to. Due to the changes and developments that are taking place in the society, the stability of this family structure has been questioned. (Bernardes, 1999) Industrialization and urbanization have been the reasons behind the emergence of other family structures caused by the breakdown of the nuclear family. There have been many cases of familial dysfunction and disintegration reported in more industrialized nations than in ‘primitive’ nations which prove the social Darwinism theory. (Eby, 1995)  According to Marx, family structures are bound to change from being complex to simple forms. Therefore, it is expected that the nuclear family will further disintegrate to form simple family structures such as single-parent families, divorces, widowers, and single people unmarried people. (Betty, 1973)


Bernardes, J. (1999): We must now define The Family. Marriage and Family Review 28(3/4):21–41.

Chester, R. (1986): The Myth of the Disappearing Nuclear Family. In Family Portraits, ed. D., Short Run Press, Ltd.UK

Gottlieb, B. (1993): The Family in the Western World. New York: Oxford.

Murdock, G. P. (1949): Social Structure. New York. Macmillan.

Parsons, T. (1955): The American Family. Its Relations to Personality and the Social Structure. In and Interaction Process, ed. Free Press. New York

Uzoka, A. (1979): The Myth of the Nuclear Family. Historical Background and Clinical Implications. American Psychologist 34. Pp1095–1106.

Peplau & Taylor, (1997): Sociocultural perspectives in social psychology. Guide to sociocultural resources in social psychology. Melbourne press. New York

Betty Y. (1973): Extinction. Revised ed. of The Changing Family. Columbia University press. New York

 Solly D. (2006): The family on the threshold of the 21st century. Trends and Implications. Congress Cataloguing-in-Publication Data

Eby, L. (1995): Where’s Daddy: Nearly Half the Nation’s Children Are Growing Up In Homes Without Fathers. Prentice press. New York.

Fagan & Patrick F. (1995): The Real Root Causes of Violent Crimes. The Breakdown of Marriage, Family and Community Cultural Studies Project. The Heritage Foundation. Washington, D.C. No. 1026.

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