The nuclear family is one type of conjugal, or marriage-based, family, consisting of a husband, wife, and their children who reside together. Characteristics of the nuclear family that set it apart from some other family types is that it contains only two generations and that it contains a married couple. A single-parent family is considered a nonconjugal family.
In large-scale, Western, industrial societies, nuclear and single-parent families are the predominant type of family form, but in other, smaller-scale, less Westernized cultures, the nuclear family may be relatively rare and unimportant, or even nonexistent. In larger-scale societies, individuals can function more independently of their families, and the functions that larger, extended families used to supply to their members have been increasingly taken over by other social institutions, such as schools, churches, hospitals, police, and paid leisure and entertainment industries.
Some historians and demographers have suggested that the rise of the nuclear family in northwest Europe, traced back to 1300 in some regions, developed in response to a unique set of ecological conditions, laying the foundations for industrialization hundreds of years before the first factories were built. Northwestern European families followed a neolocal residence pattern, whereby a couple did not marry until they were able to establish their own household.
In general, nuclear families are characterized by normatively stronger marital bonds between husbands and wives than are expected in extended-family or other societies. Societies where nuclear families are common are more likely to allow young people to select their own spouse, with less involvement on the part of their parents. Relations with in-laws are likewise attenuated, although kin-based work groups and socializing may still be extensive. Divorce is also more likely to be tolerated, with one spouse perhaps simply putting the other spouse’s belongings outside their home to indicate the end of the marriage.
Nuclear families are less likely to be found in agricultural societies where most families work the land cooperatively. A nuclear-family structure facilitates mobility, whether it is migratory labor or movement to urban areas or across borders. The smallest societies, hunter-gatherers, are frequently organized into small groups of nuclear families who work cooperatively and are characterized by significant gender egalitarianism. Members of society are “produced” by families by the process of providing food, shelter, clothing, health care, and emotional intimacy. Individuals are also provided with social status
through membership in their families of origin, although in societies with many nuclear families, social mobility is typically possible, which allows individuals to have more of an influence over their own social class.
Nuclear families share with all families the function of producing new adult members of society through conception, birth, nurturing, and socialization. Families regulate the sexual activities of their members, allowing regular sexual relations between spouses and prohibiting sexual relations among all other members. When children in nuclear families reach adulthood, their legal responsibilities to their families of origin and their parents’ obligations to them are generally reduced, replaced with voluntary companionship. This creates the possibility of extreme isolation for nuclear families, which have fewer resources for child care, elder care, and assistance throughout the life course.
- Goode, W. J. (1963). World revolution and family patterns. New York: Free Press of Glencoe.
- Goode, W. J. (1964). The family. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
- Laslett, P. (Ed.). (1972). Household and family in past time. New York: Cambridge University Press.
- Shorter, E. (1975). The making of the modern family. New York: Basic Books.